The psychology behind reality television

4 Mins read

More than 2.5 million people tuned in to watch the opening episode of Big Brother‘s ;latest season, smashing its viewing figures after a long hiatus. 10 years ago, life was very different, but one thing has not changed — humans love reality TV.

It seems the nation’s love for unfiltered and outrageous TV is not slowing down any time soon. Why do we love it so much, and what can we learn from these faces on our screens?

When Candid Camera aired in 1948, it was America’s first introduction to combining surveillance and ordinary people to create entertainment.

Originally created and produced by Allen Funt, the show featured a hidden camera and caught the reactions to unusual and challenging situations that those on the show were confronted with.

The concept was new, fresh and full of possibility.

CCTV cameras with blue sky in the background
Reality TV viewers love surveying human behaviour [Flickr: Rafael Parr]

It welcomed more shows, such as Kayvan Novak’s Fonejacker, which recorded prank calls on unsuspecting people in public, or Trigger Happy TV, which laid the practical joke production framework.

This formula of TV and entertainment was in essence early reality TV, but focused on ‘pranking’ and recording ‘normal’ people unbeknownst to them.

Fast forward to now, Candid Camara is a relic of the reality TV readily available on UK screens. From Big Brother toThe Apprentice, participants’ quest for love, fame, business contracts and even marriage continues to steal our attention.

We have transitioned away from prank style shows as producers are now capturing every part of life through reality TV.

With participants being celebrated, such as the late Pete Burns, who was open about his androgynous identity and influential self expression, to Nikki Grahame, who’s authentic and sometimes unhinged moments captured the hearts of the nation and subsequently raised awareness for anorexia as she tragically passed from the disease in 2021.

As of 2022, half of the most-watched Netflix shows fall into the ‘Reality TV’ genre. When celebrities are thrown into the mix, the viewing numbers are unstoppable. ITV’s I’m A Celebrity is the fourth most-watched show and pulled in an average of 12.5 million viewers last year, just behind the Queen’s Jubilee.

The truth is, reality TV and its references are everywhere, whether it’s your friend’s take on the hottest new Love Islander, or your Instagram algorithm showing an ad for the latest Married At First Sight episode. If you are somewhat active online, you will struggle to avoid reality TV, or what Jon Dovey describes as “the crucial component to the fabric of online culture.”

Pete Burns in the Big Brother House 2006
Pete Burns in the Big Brother house 2006 [Flickr: Mot]

But can we give all the credit to heavy advertisement and easy watching? TV clinical psychologist Dr Marianne Trent offers up a scientific take on the attractiveness on reality TV.

“I think that it allows us to get all of our hormones flowing, it might well be that we have some feel good hormones. When good stuff happens, when people fall in love we will mirror what we are watching on screen and oxytocin will start flooding in.”

Oxytocin is a hormone released by the body’s endocrine system and is commonly known as the ‘Love Hormone.’ It is released through touch, pleasure and romantic attachment. Similarly, our bodies can release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol at times of stress.

“When we are feeling aggrieved and we don’t like what’s being said on screen, the stress hormones start to flood in,” Dr Trent continued.

‘It can be a way of venting your frustrations, perhaps by shouting at the TV or discussing complicated things with the person you’re watching TV with. It can help you to process and realise things you may have been through or are going through, overall helping to make sense of your life.”

A source close to Love Island previously told The Sun: “Love Island holds a mirror up to relationships and the different dynamics that go with them.” The 2023 series of the show sparked large debate over gaslighting and manipulation, which pushed men’s domestic abuse charity Mankind Initiative to speak out.

“Love Island has once again showed that when it comes to abusive behaviours against partners such as manipulation and gaslighting, it affects men as well as women as the victims.” This is in light of the 2021 series, which recorded over 20,000 Ofcom complaints over Faye Winter’s treatment of her party Teddy Soares. 

Screenshot showing opinionated tweet regarding Faye and Teddy
Comments on social media are part of the reality TV world [X: @prettyxhustle]

As well as creating a space to tackle complex relationship and societal issues, another reason for such high viewing figures is actually a lot more primal.

Dr Marianne Trent continues, “to add to that, I would say lots of reality TV is also freely available and not hidden behind paywalls. There is that collective element that humans like to be part of something. It that ‘water cooler’ chat that it gives potential for, either in person or on social media. It can give you an energising feeling and that you’re part of a tribe.”

The Oxford dictionary defined reality TV as “Television programmes where ordinary people are continuously filmed, designed to be entertaining rather than informative.”

Whilst entertainment is at the forefront of production, the unfiltered continuation of footage available on our screens is shown to create spaces for discussion of topics that arise which can serve an informative role within households and friendships where a positive outcome is likely.

On the topic of finding love shows, Dr Marianne Trent states: “It can pave the way for for things to look out for in a partner, or clarify things we see as ‘good traits.’ However, overconsumption of such content can lead to emotional burnout and anxieties.”

The Guardian reported that: “reality TV is fuelling body image anxiety in young people,” in response to a poll carried out ahead of the 2019 series of Love Island. Whilst feeling connected and “part of a tribe” can bring positive outcomes, it also creates unhealthy expectations for society when we do not look like or act like the people we see on screens. The article reveals that one-in-four young people, aged 18-24, say reality TV makes them worry about their body image.

As the issues that can arise due to consumption of these shows are platformed more regularly now, there is growing pressure on producers to dismantle the unrealistic expectations as a result.

Downtime and trash TV is a regular occurrence for many, and whilst we can enjoy these things and even possibly learn from them, it’s important to separate the screens from reality.

Dr Marianne Trent concludes, “I think it’s about pacing ourselves, trying to make sure we have a mixture of different activities happening in our lives some based on Reality and some based within the home.”

Dr Marianne Trent is a clinical psychologist and host of The Aspiring Psychologist Podcast, you can listen here.

Featured image by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

Related posts

The journey to MaXXXine: Revisiting Ti West's X and Pearl

9 Mins read
In the ever-evolving realm of contemporary film, few endeavours have masterfully intertwined the intricacies of aspiration, sexuality, individuality, notoriety, generation gaps, and emotional distress within the immersive fabric of terror quite like this.

Revolutionising 3eib: From shame to strength in Arab culture

4 Mins read
Amid cultural evolution, Arab millennials and Gen Z are flipping the script on ‘3eib’ through art, fashion, and collective action.

How can you make creative friends in London?

2 Mins read
Building a community is made easier with a middleman and a great location at the heart of Brick Lane.