From Good Housekeeping
Outsized personalities, two-on-one-dates, bungee jumping followed by a sunset picnic on a cliff in Costa Rica. We know reality dating shows in no way reflect real life — and we aren’t ignorant about their generally low success rates. Yet, we still remain glued to the screen while they air, read social media commentary about each episode, and seek out spoilers to learn who ends up with whom. With “reality” dating shows being so clearly fiction, why are these TV shows so addictive?
We’re fascinated by love.
“The topic of romance always interests people,” says Amber L. Ferris, Ph.D, associate professor, School of Communication, University of Akron. It doesn’t matter if the formula is repeated over and over — we find the topic of love endlessly fascinating, and always have.
“For millions of years, humans have been observing others to get tips on how to live,” notes Dr. Helen Fisher, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and author or Anatomy of Love. “We’re so driven to understand love, we will even overlook the artificial when we read a novel or watch a movie or play.”
For better or worse, we learn how to behave from reality dating shows.
According to social cognitive theory, Dr. Ferris explains, we learn by watching behaviors and mimicking those that result in successful outcomes. That includes scrutinizing the villains, the good guys, and the happy and unhappy couples on these datings shows.
“We see many different personality characteristics and relationship archetypes displayed on these shows, viewers often find people they can relate to,” says relationship researcher and coach Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D., CPLC. “For example, a character experiencing unrequited love may resonate with you if you’re going through the same experience.” Many also look to these characters for inspiration, as with the Bachelor in Paradise contestant Ashley Ianotti, who “spent seasons in an on-again off-again relationship with Jared, before finally landing and marrying him, the man of her dreams,” she adds. Ianotti’s story may have provided hope out there for others on the dating roller coster.
These shows turn us on.
We tend to get invested in these shows’ characters and affected by what happens on-screen. “It’s not unlike watching a football game and feeling better when your favorite team wins,” Dr. Fisher says. She guesses that these shows might also activate the brain systems relating to sex drive, romantic love, and attachment. For instance, when we watch a suitor finally tell someone he’s dating that he loves her, we might experience a surge in dopamine (the neurotransmitter linked to romantic love and elation). When we see a couple make out passionately, our bodies might release testosterone (the hormone connected with sex drive). And, when a couple cuddles on the screen, our bodies likely release oxytocin (the neurotransmitter associated with attachment). They may not be true relationships, but the feelings they give us are real.
We relish the drama.
Since these shows generally feature exaggerated versions of real relationships, says Dr. Cohen, the drama factor is high and we get wrapped up in the tumultuous story lines — especially since it’s likely the producers have selected people who will create or add to the suspense, she continues. In that way, these shows aren’t different from any other TV series or movies we watch for entertainment value.
They bring us closer to a community.
Reality dating shows are part of American culture, watched by millions. “These shows fulfill our need to engage with others about a common subject and are our new water cooler topics,” says Dr. Cohen. Isn’t dissecting the pros and cons of each couple more fun than actually watching the episodes on some days?
“When Love is Blind came out, there were forums and articles dedicated to analyzing every couple on the show,” she adds. “So, it basically created a community for avid fans. Research has also shown that people tend to bond over negative attitudes towards others. This helps explain why so many people come together over disliking a common person who may be depicted as the villain on these shows.”
They give us a chance to escape.
Now more than ever, people are seeking out relaxing diversions. On these shows, “We follow couples to exotic locations, watch them on fantasy dates, and see them navigate through a series of dramatic events,” Dr. Cohen says. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the fairytale trappings.
“The programs take you off to a fantasy suite with roses and Champagne,” says media psychologist June Wilson, Ph.D., RN. “People want to be swept off their feet.” Adding to the feel-good cocktail is the fact that viewing attractive people tends to trigger the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, Dr. Fisher adds.
Indulge without guilt.
Now you can feel validated for watching Married at First Sight, 90 Day Fiancé, The Bachelor franchise, or [insert the poison of your choice]. After all, these shows are successful for a reason — they appeal to the basic drives and mechanisms that make us human. And there’s nothing shameful about that reality.
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