OK, reality TV rules the ratings for the last few years and it is hard to avoid but for some, addictively enthralling. There are the more obvious variants which include shows which “follow” celebrities in their natural environment such as the likes of “The Osbourne’s” – an everyday story of heavy metal folk – and the “Keeping up with the Kardashians” following the trials and tribulations of image politics.
More subtle, are those programmes which follow celebs and others in a manner which they have less control of – variants of: “Celebrity Big Brother”, “I’m a celebrity Get Me Out of Here” and “fly on the wall” documentaries of the kind developed by Louis Theroux. Each type has one thing in common and that it gives celebrities an opportunity to present themselves in a way that attempts to showcase them as regular folks who just happen to be famous.
A third type which is becoming more pervasive, probably because it is cheaper, is the reality tv which focusses on ordinary people, often what sociologists might term “the underclass”. These programmes include Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle both of whom instigate trial by media and focus on bad parenting, promiscuous and illegal acts.
We regularly see arguments, histrionic behaviour, emoting on a giant scale, self-centred behaviour where family members complain and whine about their lot or just confront each other. Consuming a diet of such TV, and many do, is the intellectual equivalence of eating a diet exclusively of fast food – it lacks the essential nutrients to keep you healthy, makes you sluggish and probably constipates you to boot. A recent study however (1), suggests that it may be even more damaging than we think. The research was based on an in-depth investigation of 550+ US undergraduates, where a strong correlation with the TV diet consumed and sub-clinical narcissism was found.
Research Evidence Linking Reality TV with Narcissism
The researchers asked students to keep a diary of what programmes they watched on TV divided into genre types. The same students were also subjected to the narcissistic personality Inventory. They found that those who watched reality TV programmes such as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians’” had scores which registered in the “sub clinical narcissistic range” in other words they were borderline narcissistic. Preference for news items was negatively correlated with narcissism.
Because this is a correlational study it is unclear whether TV diet causes narcissism or whether people with sub- clinical narcissism are drawn to such TV. Whatever the relationship, it isn’t healthy since such sub clinical narcissism seems to be on the increase and is bad for the individual and for society as a whole.
Cultivation Theory and the rise of Narcissism
So why is this happening to society? Cultivation theory suggests that the more we spend in a media environment, particularly TV, the more we absorb its norms, values and believe in the reality of it. The environment takes on a life of its own within our consciousness and it becomes part of our culture.
The theory suggests that mass media, has replaced the role of religion in the lives of some people, particularly those who are heavy consumer of it. Whilst he jury is out on the extent of the effects, it seems that what some people consider normal shifts, because they surround themselves with altered values. This is compounded by the decline of the role of family in some sectors of the population, “chosen families” where instead of living our lives in a family, we associate daily only with people who share the same habits and interests as ourselves. There is no challenge as there would be in a real family because we can easily exclude those who disagree with us from our chosen family, where it is more difficult to do this from a conventional family grouping. What they consider “normal behaviour” then gradually changes based on what they see on TV and this then spirals and is re-enforced by the chosen people/ family. You only have to visit “Comic Con” to realise the extent to which TV can take over someone’s life. Ironically it seems, those of us who keep up with the Kardashians may be less likely to be keeping up with our own family.
Do you have anything to worry about?
Well yes and no. Yes, because the more you choose to live in a world where you only seek out and value the views of people like yourself you are in danger of becoming more narcissistic. It is also too easy to binge on “cornflake TV” when other offerings such as the news or current affairs, may be harder to watch and understand. Overly developed self-regard rather than taking onboard the challenges of a difficult world is definitely easier in the short term but isn’t good for the intellect or mental health and definitely fosters characteristics of narcissism.
No, because the research is talking about “sub clinical” narcissism. There is yet no evidence that full blown personality disorders can be caused by something as peripheral as TV. Healthy narcissistic regard too is an essential component of good mental health. Perhaps if a person “strays” into sub clinical narcissism, they can, by changing habits move back into the healthy zone.
What can you do: Be mindful of the TV you watch, making a special effort to watch some news items once a day. Talk to people who have different opinions to yourself and whatever you do, don’t unfriend people on social media because they hold a different view. But most of all give boxed sets of reality TV programmes a wide birth and try not to binge watch anything as comfort.
- Lull, R & Dickinson, E (2016) Does Television Cultivate Narcissism? Relationships Between Television Exposure, Preferences for Specific Genres, and Subclinical Narcissism. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Feb 15 , 2016, No Pagination Specified