Culture

Why We Love Trashy Reality Shows, According To Science

By Meghan Dillon··  7 min read
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real housewives

It’s no secret that our culture is obsessed with reality tv shows, particularly trashy ones.

From The Bachelor franchise to the many cities of Real Housewives, I’ll never get tired of watching trashy shows. They’re entertaining and an escape from reality, which is one of the scientific reasons why they’re so popular.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m dividing trashy reality shows into three categories: party shows, dating shows, and extravagant shows. Though competitive shows like Big Brother and Project Runway are a popular category, I’m excluding them because they don’t center around petty drama driven only by terrible people. After all, that is the best part of trashy reality shows!

Why We Love Watching People Party Hard

There’s a category of reality shows that are dedicated to showing people in their twenties and thirties partying and acting crazy. Shows in this category include Jersey Shore, Vanderpump Rules, Summer House, and Siesta Key. From petty fights over pasta on Vanderpump Rules to Snooki’s drunken antics on Jersey Shore, these shows are the epitome of escapist entertainment, and that’s why we love them.

it-s not about the pasta

Renee Mill, a clinical psychologist from Australia, is a firm believer that escapism is why reality shows are popular because they’re a healthy way to release stress. She writes, “It is just switch-off time. Away from reality in a world of ridiculousness which allows the brain to switch off and relax. No thinking needed, and knowing it is dramatic and over the top allows for a certain amount of non-engagement that is a stress release. In comparison, serious movies can be more draining.”

Think about it. After a long day, would you rather watch a reality show or something serious? Don’t get me wrong, I love shows like The Crown, but I’m more likely to put on a reality show when I’m stressed because I don’t want to think or expend more emotional energy.

snooki obvi

Unfortunately, there’s a stigma around people who watch these shows. It’s easy to assume that reality show addicts are shallow and vapid because the shows themselves are shallow and vapid, but that’s like saying watching The Sopranos turns you into a mobster. At the end of the day, shows are just entertainment, and there’s no shame in indulging in a reality show to have a quick break from the stress from your everyday life.

Why We Love Watching People Fall in Love

Dating shows have a simple objective, and it’s for the contestants on the show to find love. Though shows like Love Is Blind are popular, nothing beats the popularity of The Bachelor franchise.

Like most reality shows, The Bachelor (and its spinoffs like The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise) has a reputation for being dramatic, which is one of the many reasons why we love it so much. The drama is a great form of escapism from our everyday lives, as therapist Erin Asquith writes, “We have a morbid curiosity for drama as it allows one to escape from their own drama, their own life...This enables one to see that their drama is not too bad, helping one feel more at ease.” 

Jen Kim of Psychology Today adds, “During the Rose Ceremony – the dramatic crux of each episode – is a spotlight on the losers sent home and their unhinged, ugly-cry reactions. Their goodbyes are mini car crashes we simply can’t look away from. While watching these exits, it’s impossible to think anything other than, ‘Thank God, that’s not me.’”

jojo fletcher ugly cry bachelor

Another reason we love watching The Bachelor is that we can live vicariously through the contestants, without having to pay the cost of the disappointment or drama. Our lives and reputations aren't on the line, but we get to feel like they are. Talk about the ultimate vicarious experience.

Though we all know that the show has a low success rate when it comes to marriages, who doesn’t dream of falling in love in an extravagant way (which is also why we love historical love stories)? It’s fun to watch contestants go on extravagant dates and fall in love, even if it only lasts for a little while. Would I ever go on the show? No way, but I love to live vicariously through the contestants.

I-m in love the bachelor

We also get to enjoy the drama without actually having to deal with real, crazy, dramatic people. Maybe it's a way of letting off steam for the real toxic interactions we have in everyday life, and even maybe some moments where we get to watch the contestants say out loud (for the sake of tv drama) exactly what we always wished we could say.

Why We Love Watching Rich People Act Crazy

There’s nothing as entertaining as watching extravagantly wealthy people act unhinged. Shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the Real Housewives franchises are popular because of this, and it’s hard not to look away when the drama starts. 

Rich people’s problems are funny because they’re often ridiculous and unrelatable. None of us can relate to Kim Kardashian losing her $75,000 earring in the ocean, but watching her sister, Kourtney, call her out about how ridiculous she is acting was hilarious. 

kim theres people that are dying

And let's not forget the over-the-top catfights. One of the craziest fights came from the first season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey when Teresa Giudice flipped a table on Danielle Staub in the middle of an argument.

I’ve watched this scene literally hundreds of times and still laugh as hard as I did when I first watched it in 2009. A grown woman losing her cool and flipping a table at a fancy restaurant is genuinely hilarious and entertaining. Like party and dating shows, one element behind our fascination with these shows is the escapist element, but there are other reasons why we enjoy watching rich people get messy.

Sometimes it’s just satisfying to watch people subvert our expectations. We often expect wealthy people to hold themselves to a classier standard, but these shows show us that’s not true. Dr. Nancy Mramor, who studies the psychological effects of media, writes, “People get to shake their head and judge them in a way that makes them feel better about themselves.”

that-s very declasse real housewives

Dr. Mramor continues, “[We] like to watch people who are of a certain status behave beneath their status. When somebody’s aggressive instinct acts up, the superego likes to look down on it and say, ‘tsk tsk’." 

Dr. Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, believes that we enjoy watching people go off the rails because it’s socially unacceptable for us to do it in our everyday lives. He explains, “Most of us spend all our days working to control [our] thoughts and feelings. We don’t say everything we think or do everything we [want to], and this is part of the stress most people feel, the feeling that they can’t quite be themselves. And so when you watch someone not being able to control themselves, that’s interesting to people because we know how it feels to want to just say the things we’re feeling [...] This is a way of vicariously feeling that adrenaline rush. Getting to see what would happen if you just let loose.” 

throwing stuff at kim kardashian

Think about it. Is it socially acceptable for an adult woman to throw something at her sister during an argument? No, but most of us with sisters have thought of it. It’s common to see it play out on shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and it’s hard to look away when we see it.

Closing Thoughts

From the Kardashian sisters fighting like children to adults partying like college students on Jersey Shore, it’s no secret that our culture is obsessed with trashy reality shows. It’s the perfect form of escapist entertainment, so why not forget the trashy label and indulge in one of these shows?

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