June 6, 2015

Reality TV and the 16 Basic Desires

Are you front-row center? Want to know why?

Are you front-row center? Want to know why?

After a week that had all forms of media referencing the Kardashian and Duggar families with greater urgency than any discussion of ISIS could ever engender, I found myself thinking about reality TV shows and the people who watch them. Though I’ve never seen one single episode of any reality television program (not counting that one shameful weekend years ago where, at a friend’s urging I watched about 12 straight hours of “America’s Next Top Model” — with the lights out and the drapes closed), even I knew that Bruce Jenner is more famous for his role in “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” than he was for winning an Olympic medal. And even I knew that the Duggar family is famous for a show called “19 and Counting” which seemed to be about how many children a couple could have and still stay true to their Christian principles by never taking God’s name in vain. And now, of course, both of these families have been cannon-shot out of their reality TV roles onto media headlines everywhere — Bruce for becoming Caitlyn, and the Duggars for becoming reprehensible (at least the excuse-making, blame-laying parents and their perpetrator son — I can’t speak to the rest of the family).

Driving to an appointment yesterday morning I was listening to a local radio talk show, and almost every single person who called to talk about the Duggars prefaced the call with, “I don’t watch reality TV but….” And so I got to wondering, who does watch those shows? And more important, why? I suspected that the reasons were more complicated than the usual “to feel superior.” I did a little Googling and stumbled across a fascinating study and journal article, “Why People Watch Reality TV,” by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz of Ohio State University. As it turns out, feeling superior seems to be part of the answer.

You can read the article yourself but, essentially, the authors used “sensitivity theory” to reveal that humans have 16 basic desires, with associated motives, underlying animal behavior, and a particular resulting joy. The motives, followed in parentheses by the joy that results from achieving each of these desires, are: power (efficacy), curiosity (wonderment), independence (freedom), status (self-importance), social contact (fun), vengeance (vindication), honor (loyalty), idealism (compassion), physical exercise (vitality), romance (lust), family (love), order (stability), eating (satiation), acceptance (self-confidence), tranquility (safety, relaxation) and saving (ownership).

As you can imagine, people differ in how they prioritize these desires. For example, if your roommate has a low need for order he won’t notice a sink full of dirty dishes (leaving you — with your high need for order — mightily miffed). We also have the potential to experience the 16 joys through direct or vicarious experiences. For example, we can watch a romance movie and feel the joy of lust, or we can watch a war film and experience the joy of vindication. However, in stark contrast to the joyful feelings we get from direct experience, the vicariously-achieved joys tend to be shorter-lived, of lower quality and intensity, and overall less pleasing. And one of the reasons, apparently, that Americans are so glued to their sets, is that we experience television viewing as a very easy and convenient way to vicariously experience the 16 joys repeatedly (and some of them simultaneously).

As we humans go through life seeking to experience these 16 basic goals and the joy that accompanies them, we focus on those that are most highly valued to us (depending on upbringing, culture, opportunity, personal skills and history and, I’d imagine, character and personality). But right after a basic desire is achieved, it reasserts itself and has to be satisfied again. The study authors give the example of a vengeful person who has gone through several days of “minimal conflict” and who may therefore feel motivated to pick a fight. Because our basic desires quickly reassert themselves, according to the theory, and therefore can be satisfied only temporarily, we seeks out ways to repeatedly satisfy our most important ones.

So what do you think are the two basic desires that drive watchers of reality TV? The study findings showed overwhelmingly that the more reality TV shows a person liked, the more status-oriented a person was. The motive for status is “the desire for prestige, including the desire for attention.” The animal behavior associated with status is that “attention in the nest leads to better feedings.” And, as previously stated, the particular joy associated with status is “self-importance.” That’s the primary carrot. People motivated by status need, more than others on average, to feel self-important. And reality TV can accomplish this psychological need in two ways. First, viewers feel they’re more important (have higher status) than the regular people they see on reality TV, and, second, the underlying message of reality TV is that millions of people are fascinated by watching the real life experiences of ordinary people, which implies that ordinary people are important.

The second largest significant finding was that people who watch and enjoy reality TV place a higher value on vengeance than did people who don’t watch those shows. The motive for vengeance is “a desire to get even, including the desire to win;” the animal behavior associated with vengeance is that “the animal fights when threatened,” and, of course, the joy resulting from vengeance is “vindication.” In short, the primary feelings (joys) being sought by those who watch reality TV are self-importance and vindication.

If you are a partaker of reality TV shows and that doesn’t sound right to you, well, remember it’s just one study and one theory. If you have other reasons for watching, I’d love to hear them.

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