With the latest series of Love Island ending, and the nation looking forward to another round of The Great British Bake Off, Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Counselling at the University of Derby Online Learning (and himself a former reality TV star), discusses why we’re all so interested in watching other people’s lives.
Twelve years ago, I was at a Starbucks in Japan, reading a book. When I was about to go home, I got a call from an unidentifiable number. I answered, and heard some familiar yet un-understandable language. The person on the phone sensed my puzzlement, and asked, “Do you speak English?”
When I said yes, they told me they were a Dutch TV station who make a show called ‘All You Need Is Love, which is broadcast every Christmas. They reunite couples who are in long-distance relationships. My girlfriend and her colleague had written to them about our relationship, which they found very romantic and heart-warming, so they wanted us on the show!
As a result, I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia – “the most beautiful place in the world” as the TV producer said – to surprise my wife (back then, my girlfriend), who would be flown there from the Netherlands. The next day, she was woken by the presenter and taken to an airplane, not knowing where it was flying to or what was happening (though this presenter is well-known for this show, so she thought she might be able to see me somewhere). They landed in St. Petersburg, had a little tour in a carriage, then found me. By this time we had not seen each other for 13 months!
What makes us so interested in reality shows?
The show we were in was called ‘All You Need is Love’, broadcast at Christmas every year in the Netherlands and focusing on getting long-distance couples and families together. It is a happy reality show, which is just one type (and actually in the minority) of the many reality shows broadcast today.
In general, viewers of reality shows enjoy knowing the participants’ interpersonal relationships and intimate feelings, such as their vulnerabilities. Studies report that some viewers watch reality shows to feel empathy (watching the dramas the participants are involved in), while others do so for voyeuristic desire, often expecting embarrassing situations, which gives them a guilty pleasure.
This may be why there are so many reality shows that portray drama and aggression in their participants’ relationships. According to some studies, humiliation may be one factor that attracts viewers, so reality shows often push the participants to reveal themselves to an extreme degree.
Unsurprisingly, many people (54%) agree that reality shows exploit the participants, according to the Australian Communication and Media Authority. However cross-culturally, this is not consistent. An Israeli study reported a positive correlation between people’s own willingness to take part in a reality show and how positive they would be if their close relative was taking part.
I found this very interesting from a cross-cultural psychological perspective. For example, one of my thoughts is on the culture’s masculinity and femininity, as described in Hofstede’s cultural dimension index. According to this, ‘masculine’ cultures thrive for success, and respect climbing up the ladder of an organisation, while ‘feminine’ cultures value quality, and respect doing what they love.
The countries that reported a relatively positive experience of reality shows tend to have a ‘feminine’ culture, such as the Netherlands or Israel, while those that reported a negative one tend to have a more ‘masculine’ culture, such as the UK, US and Australia.
This may be because, to some extent, the competitiveness in a masculine culture makes people drawn to enjoy others’ failures thus humiliation, while people in a feminine culture tend to enjoy discovering varieties of different experience that other people just like them have. Such cultural comparisons about reality shows may make an interesting study to be conducted in the future.