I’m partial to watching Kim and Khloe eat massive salads, watching the political commentaries of Love Island contestants, and even trying to understand what the young and affluent residents of Chelsea are jabbering on about. However, apparently this is not good for my humanity. On a rather bleak note for the start of a new academic year I have some disturbing news to bring you from the minds at LSE.
A recent study has found that exposure to reality TV and other materialist media reduces our levels of compassion. The study showed participants adverts for luxury products, magazine covers, tabloid photos and reality TV shows. The control group was shown neutral stimuli such as London tube adverts and images of nature and newspaper headlines about dinosaurs. They were then asked to answer questions that measured their attitudes towards wealth, success, government benefits, and the poor. Secondly, they were asked whether they support certain public policies that had been modelled from the harshest UK austerity measures. Those who had been shown the reel of materialist media were significantly more likely to have anti-welfare attitudes and support anti-welfare policies.
The research delved further into the impacts of materialist media, specifically reality TV. They asked participants the frequency of their viewing of nine TV shows including The Apprentice, X-Factor, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Made in Chelsea. Those who regularly watch these shows were far more likely to display “stronger materialistic and anti-welfare attitudes than lighter consumers of these shows”. Further to this, studies of US media habits show that a higher consumption of materialist media messages increases body dissatisfaction in woman, decreases childhood well-being, and is linked to higher levels of stress and anxiety.
If you are anything like me these findings won’t sound particularly surprising. There is something about reality TV that feels a bit toxic, yet it is hard to identify what it is. If the face of Reality TV is a shiny, pristine, steel box, then I suspect its innards are full of nuclear waste, and sometimes you can see dribbles of it leaking out the sides. There are moments on reality TV that we can pinpoint as exploitative or disturbing, recent cases in Big Brother and Love Island have broadcast worrying and abusive behaviour to millions at home. Yet, this study suggests something more pervasive, something about the very nature of reality TV that is manipulating the way we think. I think this lies with its classification as a materialistic media. Our TV screens are saturated with expressions of glamour, fame and fortune. This is nothing new. We can look back to the 1980s and see shows like Dallas that indulged us in the life of the rich and wealthy. However, these were a fictional elite and they weren’t happy. We may have liked their yachts, clothes and champagne but there was still an awareness that they were ‘the bad guys”. Today, we see similar displays of wealth in shows such as Made in Chelsea but these are real people and their excessive behaviour is glorified. Laden with materialist media messages these shows absorb us into the glittering world of riches and fame. Seeing these young, good-looking, happy people living luxurious lives we feel like we should belong with them and distance ourselves from and delegitimise the real struggles and injustices that large swathes of society are stuck with.
The study explains that humans are inherently materialistic but also very communal. Our culture effects the way these tendencies are expressed. These programs have been shown to have the potential to cultivate in us strong materialistic attitudes. Our culture emphasises the urge to consume because it serves the aim of contemporary capitalist economies. Materialist media images work so well as consumption stimuli that they have become an important part in ensuring gross domestic product growth. It is clear we are pushed towards our materialist nature as the way to be happy, to be successful, and to live a good life according to our economic model. However, consuming is solitary and selfish and as the collective part of our minds lays neglected we are beginning to forget how to feel for others and to have a sense of social responsibility. Further to this, the path to happiness that has been laid out to us is not even real. We know reality TV is manipulated and thus when we aspire to luxury displayed in them we are trying to grasp something that is not operating by the same rules that we do in normal life. This has become clearer as materialist media messages are pushed further. Whilst we may be able to ignore the improbability that we could ever have the mansion of that rapper on MTV Cribs, it is literally physically impossible to aspire to the lifestyle of kids on MTV Teen Cribs. We cannot aspire to be someone else’s child and so the cracks in the consumerist façade begin to show. There are of course problems with singularly and relentlessly following the collective part of our brains too. Yet, our TVs could help us regain a balance in our dual nature by maybe easing back on those Kardashian reruns.
So, to bring this article to a close. I should probably take LSE’s advice. I should probably rid Reality TV from my televisual diet. Alas, I probably won’t. But I will make sure I cast a wry eye on what I am watching, remind myself there are more fulfilling ways to live than on a yacht in Mykonos, and try not to lose my humanity in the process.