Contributed by Amanda Anastasio, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.
The other night during a phone discussion with my sister about mutual friends having children, I mentioned Bethenny Frankel, star of Bethenny Ever After, and her great experiences (or so I watched) with childbirth. My sister asked, “who is Bethenny, your friend from college?” I sheepishly replied that no, in fact, Bethenny Frankel is a reality television star, who I actually don’t know personally. It was at this point I decided to take a hiatus from reality television for a while. And this little break with reality TV taught me so much about reality as seen in real life.
I started to self-reflect on what it is I get from watching Bethenny go through her day-to-day struggles with dating, marriage, and then childbirth. I wondered: What is satiated inside me when I see the The Real Housewives of New Jersey clucking about endless money and man drama, or flipping tables while cursing each other’s families in restaurants?
For me, it allowed for mindless unwinding at the end of the day. It can also be fun as a social get-together, watching your favorite reality show in your friend’s dorm room – or just being able to chat about the latest drama between classes or while eating with friends. But there are some important things to consider before the next time you sit down with popcorn to watch Real World: Las Vegas. For many of us, reality TV can affect our self-perception and sense of self-worth. Ask yourself if you feel better about your life after watching your favorite show, or worse? If your answer is worse, you might want to think about changing up your programmed channels. Reality TV should not have a profound impact on your self-esteem, and if it does, you may be conducting some social comparisons internally while you watch.
According to social perception theory — which was developed in 1954, by social psychologist Leon Festinger — people are inherently driven to evaluate their own abilities, ideas, skills, and overall self-worth. In order to do this, we look toward people we can identify with and make comparisons between them and ourselves. If we feel that the people we compare ourselves to are somehow superior, we gain inspiration and ideas for improvement. If we feel that we are superior to them, then we may experience feelings of increased self-worth. Beware, however, because there’s also research that shows comparing yourself to others whom you feel superior to may lead to decreased motivation to improve or change. You might start to feel you are pretty well off where you are, compared to these reality TV chums! Why try harder or set steeper goals?
Evidence shows that increased television viewing results in an actual decrease of overall happiness and life satisfaction. Might this have something to do with all the comparisons we are doing between ourselves and these “real” people living their lives draped in bling and driving Bentleys? It’s hard to say, but there is a study that shows Americans are increasingly concerned with emulating the lives of the rich and famous, causing people to live beyond their means and be less concerned with their actual social lives. From the years 1995 to 2004 there was an increase in social isolation reported by Americans, but more time allotted by individuals to television viewing … does this make you go hmmm?
All in all, the reality television that has taken over our cable channels is not going to ruin your life, but at the very least, it can mutate our social lives, our savings, and most importantly, our minds into mush!
Taking a hiatus from all this is not a bad idea, and I would suggest it to everyone who wants more perspective on their unique thoughts, opinions, and abilities. We may be innate comparers, but it doesn’t cause us to stress about our status, or lack thereof, when you have a concrete distinction between your life and the world of television. When you compare yourself to real people in your same situation there is more room for understanding and healthy contrasting. Why compare yourself to seemingly real people who “have it all” – all except peaceful existences and happy relationships?
When you turn off the reality blare and spend more time out in the real world (no pun intended there) contributing your own unique abilities and skills to society, you might find you are your own pretty cool star of the show called your life – and you will surprise yourself with all that you are capable of accomplishing.
How do you view reality TV and what does it satiate in you? Do you use it for mindless entertainment, relaxation, or maybe envious comparisons? I want to know! Share your thoughts in the comments section or click here for more Social Intelligence posts.
Festinger, L (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7(2) 117-140.
Schor, J. B. (1999). The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. New York: Harper Perennial.