Psychology & TV: How Reality Programming Impacts Our Brains

Is reality television to blame for Donald Trump's campaign success?

By Miguel Pires da Rosa from Braga, Portugal - Couple looking at tv screen, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has ridden as much on his celebrity as any coherent political philosophy, and has been fueled by an unprecedented amount of free media exposure. Its constant human drama and news cycle dominance has also shined a harsh light on reality television, how we consume it and what it’s doing to our brains, behavior and capacity for social interaction.

Trump’s reality TV show, The Apprentice premiered in 2004 and pitted contestants against one another in a competition in which the prize was becoming an apprentice to the billionaire himself. The show was wildly successful, prompting a spin-off in the form of Celebrity Apprentice.

But how does one go from reality TV star to presidential candidate, and why is Trump’s campaign more successful than anyone could’ve guessed it might be when he first announced his candidacy? Are we the problem? Is reality TV to blame? Are all of the voyeuristic and prize-based reality shows making us dumber, or is Trump’s rise attributable to something else entirely?

Donald J. Trump

Reasons For Watching Reality TV

There are a number of reasons why reality programming appeals to viewers. For some, it has to do with analyzing personal relationships between “real people” rather than fictional characters. Some of it is pure escapism and diversion. But several studies have shown that much of the appeal of reality television lies in social comparison and a preoccupation with status.

In a study called “Why People Watch Reality TV” by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz, the authors sought to examine the human motivation behind reality television. In the study, Reiss and Wiltz had 239 adults rate themselves on 16 basic motivations as well as how much they watched and enjoyed reality programming. “The results showed that status is the main motivational force that drives interest in reality television,” Reiss and Wiltz concluded in the paper. “The more status-oriented people are, the more likely they are to view reality television and report pleasure and enjoyment.”

Another study called “Reality-Based Television Programming and the Psychology of Its Appeal” by Robin L. Nabi, Erica N. Biely, Sara J. Morgan and Carmen R. Stitt set out to understand why people gravitate towards reality TV and what they get out of it. Though the idea that reality TV’s appeal is based on watching others, the study found that the correlation between reality TV and voyeurism was questionable. Instead, Nabi, Biely, Morgan and Stitt found that the reasons and gratifications associated with TV were varied and differed between regular and casual viewers.

Though there were findings that downward social comparison was a motivation (that is, the idea that watching people on TV who very clearly do not have their lives together makes you feel superior), the reasons for the appeal of reality TV were varied. Furthermore, Nabi and her co-authors found that while there was certainly an opportunity for a dark side of reality TV, there might also be some opportunity for positive outcomes in programming. In the paper, Nabi and her co-authors wrote: “We believe it is important to distinguish viewership based on salacious interest derived from the exploitation of others from that based on a certain interest or curiosity in other people that might, in turn, promote self-reflection and perhaps even empathy.”

Effects of Reality Programing

As one might expect, the effects of watching reality television are somewhat unpredictable and varied across different genres and subgenres, and as set forth by the Nabi and Reiss studies, the motivations behind watching can have a profound impact on how we consume reality television and what it is we “get” out of it. That said, there’s some compelling evidence surround behavior assimilation in the context of narrative.

In 2011, a paper authored by Markus Appel called “A Story about a Stupid Person Can Make You Act Stupid (or Smart): Behavioral Assimilation (and Contrast) as Narrative Impact”” examined the effects of “media priming” — the idea that consuming something can have an effect on cognitive performance. Basically, in this study, participants were given a story to read, then a test to take after they completed the story. One group were given a story about a “stupidly acting soccer hooligan” while another read a story that didn’t mention the intelligence of the character.

Appel says in the paper, “As expected, participants who read a narrative about a stupidly acting soccer hooligan performed worse in the knowledge test than participants who read a narrative about a character with no reference to his intellectual abilities.”

The results weren’t totally cut-and-dry, though — some instances of the story-then-test produced reverse effects, with participants who read about Albert Einstein performing more poorly on the test than those who read about Claudia Schiffer.

This isn’t to say that watching reality TV programming about people behaving stupidly is definitely making us stupid, but there is evidence backing the idea of media priming and the theory that what we watch does impact our cognitive performance, at least in the short term.

Mere-Exposure Effect

Part of Trump’s meteoric rise in the election might also be explained by a relatively simple idea known as the “Mere-Exposure Effect.”

In a 1965 paper titled “The Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure” Robert B. Zajonc sought to understand how familiarity impacts our preference. Much of Zajonc’s research centered around the words, the frequency of their appearances and the psychological impact therein, but the findings extend far beyond words.

What Zajonc found is that, quite simply, we prefer things that are familiar to us, and frequent mention of those things can often improve our attitude toward them. In the paper, Zajonc says: “The balance of the experimental results reviewed and reported in this paper is in favor of the hypothesis that mere repeated exposure of an individual to a stimulus object enhances his attitude toward It .”

It’s hardly a point of contention that as a society, we watch more reality television than we do C-SPAN, so with the notable exception of the very high-profile Hillary Clinton, it’s no surprise that Trump was the most well-known candidate. Even those who don’t follow political news known who Trump is, and that alone may have something to do with his seeming popularity.

Donald J. Trump

What’s more, while Trump certainly a familiar figure before, there’s been nary an hour — let alone an entire day — since he announced his candidacy that his name hasn’t come across most of our feeds in some form or another. The frequency with which we’re bombarded by all things Trump is likely no small factor in his campaign’s success.

To say that reality TV alone is responsible for Trump’s campaign would be irresponsible. Though The Apprentice is a popular show and concepts like media priming and the Mere-Exposure Effect can explain some of what’s happening in the brains of the American people, it must be said that much of Trump’s success with certain groups of voters comes down to rhetoric and persona.

Trump has found success with voters who aren’t willing to look too deeply into his policy strategies, mostly because there aren’t any. The bombastic message “Make America Great Again” is enough, it seems, and has people either buying into or looking past the blatantly misogynistic and xenophobic aspects of his campaign. Beyond that, Trump’s put many years and many, many dollars into developing a very public persona as a tough and successful businessman, which was only amplified by The Apprentice.

In the end, reality TV is a contributing factor to what we’re seeing with Trump’s campaign, certainly. But it’s not TV’s fault — it’s ours.

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