COPS premiered in 1989. The reality show allowed us a voyeuristic view into police patrols. (It also introduced us to one of the greatest theme songs of all time.) Then the Real World presented us with the (allegedly) true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and do all sorts of unmentionable things. Now we’re obsessed. Turns out the psychology of reality-TV-watching is more complex than keeping up with the Kardashians.

Time For a Reality Check — Why It Matters

A clear-cut definition of reality television is hard to come by. Reality TV, often just as “real” as the faces of its stars, encourages us to believe we’re watching scriptless film. The new millennium ushered in a huge wave of reality TV shows. One source estimates the number of reality programs went from four in 2000 to about 320 a year today. The fourth season of Jersey Shore pulled in about 8.45 million viewers for its 2011 season premiere, more than half of which were between ages 18 and 34.

There are lots of potential reasons for America’s obsession with reality shows, even beyond watching bachelors and bachelorettes win over suitors by way of roses. With reality TV comes a more interactive viewing experience. We can call in to vote for our favorite contestants on American Idol or follow treasured bravolebrities on Twitter. Reality TV is “much more seductive (than other types of programming) because it seems much more real, much less orchestrated,” says S. Shyam Sundar, a professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University Park. We can tweet at pretty much any celeb, Sundar says, but reality TV viewers eat up the idea of interacting with a presumably “real” person not bound by a script.

So while it may be hard to find someone who doesn’t enjoy at least some reality programming, what do our reality TV habits reveal about our personalities?

The Tribe has Spoken — The Answer/Debate

Fans of reality TV tend to be attention-seekers, and reality TV allows them to fantasize about achieving status through instant fame. (I could totally be the next Flavor Flav!). One study found that the more reality TV shows a person likes, the more concerned he or she is with their social status (though it’s unclear whether watching reality TV actually makes someone more interested in social hierarchies). Plus the same research suggests reality TV fans place a higher value on vengeance than those who don’t watch them.

There may also be a link between reality media consumption and body imageCosmetic surgery reality TV viewership: relations with cosmetic surgery attitudes, body image, and disordered eating. Sperry, S., Thompson, J.K., Sarwer, D.B., et al. Department of Psychology, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL. Annals of Plastic Surgery, 2009 Jan;62(1):7-11.. Tween girls who watch reality TV say they spend more time on their appearance than girls who aren’t fans of Snooki and Pauly D. Another study found participants were more biased against overweight people after they saw an episode of The Biggest LoserThe effects of reality television on weight bias: an examination of The Biggest Loser. Dornoff, S.E., Hinman, N.G., Koball, A.M., et al. Department of Psychology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. Journal of Obesity, 2012 May;20(5):993-8.. Watching reality TV may even influence people’s attitudes about going under the knifeA correlational and experimental examination of reality television viewing and interest in cosmetic surgery. Markey, C.N., Markey, P.M. Rutgers University, Camden, NJ. The Journal of Body Image, 2010 Mar;7(2):165-71..

According to one survey, most first-time plastic surgery patients were regular viewers of cosmetic surgery reality TV programs and said the shows had influenced their decision to undergo surgeryThe influence of plastic surgery “reality TV” on cosmetic surgery patient expectations and decision making. Crockett, R.J., Pruzinsky, T., Persing, J.A. Section of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT. Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 2007 Jul;120(1):316-24.. And what if we’re obsessed? Too much reality TV may lead viewers to idealize real world situations, like romanticizing dating after watching all 16 seasons of the Bachelor, says Mina Tsay, a communications professor at Boston University. But according to Tsay (who applied to be on Survivor seven times, unsuccessfully), viewers who watch a variety of reality TV shows will be less likely to confuse what’s on the tube with real life. Plus, Tsay added, shows like Extreme Makeover Home Edition and the Biggest Loser can actually inspire viewers to help their community or lead a healthier lifestyle.

We’re not saying that watching reality TV means you’ll head a social movement, or that you’re a wildly vengeful human being. A little drama never hurt anyone, but if reality TV habits become an obsession, consider taking a break. No guarantees coworkers won’t judge you for missing the latest pregnancy tips from Rosie.

The Takeaway

  • Some reality TV shows are especially popular among viewers ages 18 to 34.
  • The interactive viewing experience may be a big part of reality TV’s appeal.
  • Reality TV watchers tend to be more obsessed with social status than others.
  • It’s possible that reality TV encourages viewers to be biased against overweight people.
  • The good news is some reality TV shows can motivate readers to work toward good health or social change.