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Study: Reality TV Is Making Us Meaner and Meaner as a Culture

Shows like the "Real Housewives" and "Basketball Wives" are doing us no good at all, researchers say by Daryl Nelson of ConsumerAffairs | September 9, 2012 at 4:25 a.m. | Updated September 9, 2012 at 4:25 a.m.

I remember a time when you could plop down on your couch after a day's work and grab the remote with some level of anticipation.

Before networks decided to cut back on production budgets, and they went all-out to hire the top actors, writers and directors, one could be extremely selective with their programming since they had many options of quality TV shows to choose from.

Don't get me wrong, there's still a decent amount of high-level programming on - especially on cable - but today when you see shows like "Breaking Bad" or HBO's "Newsroom," they stand out due to their traditional approach of making scripted shows, rich with realistic dialogue, superb acting and multi-layered storylines.

The reason for the dismal shift in most of today's programming has a lot to do with reality television, as a new unscripted show seems to be popping up by the second, with a strong portion of these programs being steeped in gossip, fighting, boyfriend-stealing, and all-out meanness.

And the viewers seem to be all the more enthralled upon each hair-pulling confrontation, shouting match, or drink thrown in someone's face.

Spill out

Do these mean actions on reality television spill out into the general culture? Is it possible that our minds are sponging up some of the callousness we see on shows like "Basketball Wives," "The Bachelor," or just about anything the Bravo network airs?

Well, some researchers from Iowa State University think so, and they say spitefulness, unkindness, and gossip on TV have the same mental effects as viewing violent content.

The researchers gathered 250 women and showed them one of three types of programing.

One show had physical aggression, which contained a violent image of a person getting killed; another clip had relational aggression that showed episodes of gossip, including a group of women ostracizing a former friend, and the third showing was a horror scene that would typically frighten a viewer and raise their adrenalin level a bit.

After studying the mental reaction times of each participant when the clips were finished, the researchers found that although each type of program caused mental arousal, the highest level of mental responses were for the shows that had relational aggression, like talking behind someone's back, or bullying them.

Frenemies, Fraitors ...

The report is called "Frenemies, Fraitors, and Mean-em-aitors': Priming effects of viewing physical and relational agression in the media on women" and it was published by the journal of Aggressive Behavior earlier this year. The authors believe that we as a culture have truly underestimated the impact that these kinds of shows are having on all of us.

"Past research has shown that viewing physical violence on TV activates aggressive scripts in the brain, but our findings suggest that watching both onscreen physical or relational aggression activates those cognitive scripts," said Jennifer Ruh Linder, a psychology professor at Linfield College in Oregon, and one of the study authors.

"Viewers don't simply choose to imitate TV characters or make a conscious decision to engage in aggressive behavior. Aggressive reactions are more automatic and less conscious than most people assume," she said.

Co-author of the study Douglas Gentile agrees: "What this study shows is that relational aggression actually can cause a change in the way you think, and that matters because of course how you think can change your behavior."  

It's certainly not difficult to see his point, but is he right about viewers actually carrying out some of these petty behaviors in everyday life?

Many would say yes, as reports of bullying both in the physical and the cyber world have been running rampant in recent years, including stories of young people committing suicide because they couldn't take the perpetual unkindness of their peers.

Even the news media has added a mean factor to a lot of its programing by booking guest that are sure to bicker and insult each other.

Constantly outraged

If you've also noticed, today is the era where everyone is constantly outraged. Week upon week a different corner of our society is extremely offended and develops a strong desire to dish out payback to the person or group that offended them.

Could these things also be the result of people watching more and more programming where payback, vindictiveness and verbal thrashings are the norm? On the surface it sounds like a stretch that reality programs and scripted shows containing similar content have that much impact on the culture.

But think about it, we've all heard of stories when violent movies and TV shows had a direct impact on a viewer to the point they've carried out that same violent act, so relational aggression can also impact a person's thought process in the same way a television murder can, say the researchers. Sometimes even more so.

"This matters because relational aggression tends to be considered more socially acceptable," said Gentile. It's often portrayed on television as funny and how friends treat each other. Yet, several studies are starting to show that relational aggression can cause long-term harm."


He also says that cyberbullying is arguably the biggest example of how relational aggression is impacting the culture for the worse.

"We're treating cyberbullying as if it's something totally different and totally new. It's actually relational aggression and it does all the things that relational aggression does, says Gentile. "You can spread rumors, you can ignore people, I can unlike you on Facebook, I can tell your secrets, and I can lie and make up stuff. So this study relates to cyberbullying," he said.

And cyberbullying certainly doesn't stop in the teenage realm, as a growing number of reports have showed that adults are being bullied on the Internet, at work and within their social circles in increasing numbers as well. Some may say our culture has even grown more accepting of such behaviors, even though we say otherwise.

For example, it's safe to assume that most of us wouldn't stick around to watch a violent confrontation between two  people, for fear of getting hurt ourselves- but admit it, if two folks are trading casual insults in a store let's stay, we are more prone to watch and even get a bit of enjoyment out of it. I mean, there's really no violence happening so it's not that bad, we may think.

Now is reality television really the primary cause for the culture's seeming fascination with meanness and confrontation? Probably not, but when your mind is in a peaceful place and you turn on a program where the characters are being anything but peaceful, it certainly can't help us.

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