Viewer Beware: Watching Reality TV Can Impact Real-Life Behavior

Aug 24, 2014
Originally published on August 24, 2014 5:13 pm

In the pilot episode of Jersey Shore, we're introduced in the first minute to the "new family": Snooki, JWoww, Vinny and the rest of the gang.

A few minutes later, Snooki has already questioned JWoww's sexual morals. Vinny is calling Snooki stupid. The new family is already getting gossipy and aggressive.

That unfriendly behavior is good for TV ratings, but it might be bad news for you, the viewer. A new study led by Bryan Gibson, a psychologist at Central Michigan University, finds watching reality shows with lots of what's called relational aggression — bullying, exclusion and manipulation — can make people more aggressive in their real lives.

"We knew from past research that people who see relational aggression in media tend to become more aggressive," he explains to Tess Vigeland, guest host of NPR's weekends on All Things Considered. "Gossiping and nastiness is prevalent on these shows, so we wanted to find out whether it affected how aggressive people were after they watched."

Each participant in the study watched one of three varieties of television: an aggressive surveillance show like Jersey Shore or Real Housewives, an uplifting surveillance show like Little People, Big World, or a fictional crime drama like CSI.

After they watched one episode, people were asked to do a separate task that measured aggression. The goal was to hit a keyboard button as quickly as possible. Participants believed they were racing against someone in another room and whoever won would get to blast the other person with a loud, shrill sound.

Gibson and his team took notes on how long participants wanted to blast the sound and how loud they turned the volume up. "It turns out those who had watched Jersey Shore or Real Housewives actually gave louder, longer blasts after watching those shows than those who watched the more violent crime dramas," he says.

Gibson is quick to point out that these findings are not a reason to censor what television content makes it on air. But, he says, it's probably worth taking note if you're a parent. "This is one form of media that may appear harmless, but I think our research provides a little bit of evidence that there can be some negative outcomes as well," he says.

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Now, It's unlikely that watching one of those shows would prompt you to give up electricity and maybe exchange your car for a horse and buggy. But a new study shows another form of reality show can actually affect your behavior after you watch it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERSEY SHORE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You just brought home Alex. Did you hook up with him tonight, probably. Do I care, no.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is why nobody likes you, because you keep talking [bleep].

VIGELAND: Well, guess what? All that yelling can make you more aggressive. Bryan Gibson studies psychology at Central Michigan University. Bryan, welcome to the program.

BRYAN GIBSON: Thank you.

VIGELAND: What did you set out to test in this study?

GIBSON: Well, we knew from past research that people who see relational aggression in media tend to become more angry. And of course relational aggression, gossiping and nastiness is prevalent on these shows. So we wanted to find out if it really would affect how aggressive people were after they watched.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERSEY SHORE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're dancing with another girl. No, no, no, no, no.

VIGELAND: How did you choose which shows you were going to use in the study?

GIBSON: Well, it wasn't very scientific to be honest with you. We just knew of "Jersey Shore," and of course it was one of the most popular reality shows. "Real Housewives" is another popular franchise that has similar kinds of behaviors.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERSEY SHORE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Move away, you already had your drama tonight. Move away.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, don't touch her.

GIBSON: And then for control episodes we picked shows that were surveillance reality shows but that had more positive messages, things like "Little People Big World."

VIGELAND: All right, so you asked people to watch an episode of either a reality show like "Jersey Shore" with lots of verbal aggression. And then I know you also had some watch, like, a violent drama like "CSI" with lots of murder. Then what?

GIBSON: Well, then under the guise of a separate study, they had a chance to play a reaction time game. They believed that they were trying to hit a keyboard key as fast as they could to beat another who was in another room. And they got to blast those people with noise if they won that reaction time game. So we monitored how long they wanted to blast them and how loud they wanted to make a noise when they blasted their opponent. It turns out that those who had watched "Jersey Shore" or "Real Housewives" actually gave a louder longer blasts after watching those shows being the people who watched the more violent crime dramas.

VIGELAND: Oh, my goodness. Why do you think you saw this result?

GIBSON: Well, watching these kinds of shows and seeing people engage in this nasty behavior, people are more likely to think aggressive thoughts after seeing those things. And so then when they have an opportunity to apply those, they do.

VIGELAND: Bryan, what use is a finding like this then? You know, should parents be taking notes? Spouses?

GIBSON: I think that's exactly the message. Obviously, we're not advocating for some kind of censorship or pulling these things off the air but I think parents, in particular, should pay attention to the kind of media that their children are consuming and this is one form of media that may appear harmless, but I think our research provides a little bit of evidence that there can be some negative outcomes as well.

VIGELAND: Bryan Gibson studies Psychology at Central Michigan University. His most recent study found that reality TV shows like "Jersey Shore" and "Real Housewives" make the people who watch them much more aggressive. I'm glad I didn't watch those so I can very politely say thank you, Bryan .

GIBSON: Thank you, Tess. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.