Why Do We Love TV That's So Bad For Us?

There is a better choice.

I love reality TV. And not in the ironic I-watch-it-to-hate-on-it kind of way. I have actually enjoyed it.

But I also know it's probably pretty bad for my emotional well-being, and for the world at large.

For years, so many television stars have made careers out of just generally being mean to other people on TV. That's not to knock them; I admit I watch and love it. But then something amazing happened: I discovered The Great British Baking Show

It was like everything I previously knew about reality TV was wrong. These people were nice. Even though they were in competition with each other to be named the best British baker, they all helped each other decorate their cakes or proof their doughs, they encouraged each other — even the judges offered constructive feedback and encouragement!


It's hard to imagine a positive show being so entertaining — a depressing thing to say, I know — but it really is. The excitement comes in seeing if the bakers really can create that quadruple-decker, 10-flavor brownie bundt cake (OK, I'm making that particular dessert up, but it sounds incredible) rather than imagining how one contestant will stab another with their knives.

It becomes impossible to turn off the episode without knowing whether or not Martha wowed the judges with all three of her bakes because she's just so sweet you start rooting for her and just want her to do well because she deserves it and let her win damnit, thankyouverymuch! 

So if this kind of show can exist, and be completely captivating, what is it about negative entertainment that is so engaging?

In an article profiling a study on schadenfreude, LiveScience suggests one of the reasons we take enjoyment in other people's misfortune — or in this case, their all-out ridiculous behavior — is because we need it to feel good about ourselves.

"I think when you have low self-esteem, you will do almost anything to feel better, and when you're confronted with the misfortune of others, you'll feel schadenfreude," the study's researcher told LiveScience.

And as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, they probably have a point. I've lost track of the number of times I've defended my reality TV habit to my boyfriend by saying I need the craziness of the Bravo TV Housewives flipping tables and throwing wine glasses to feel better about my life.

Because, as much as I may feel like my life is falling apart at times, I'm not getting into screaming matches with my sister or having very public fights with my friends and family in front of millions of people. So, generally, once I watch reality TV stars' outrageous shenanigans play out in all their I-just-can't-look-away glory, I realize I'm actually doing just fine. 

But what kind of effect is rabidly consuming these shows doing to my psyche, and to the public at large? In a piece exploring why we love reality TV villains — and there are A LOT of them, believe me — New Jersey psychiatrist Audrey Longson tells The Huffington Post that "reality TV normalizes narcissism. It's alarming."

The effects are equally worrisome when think about how reality TV stars have fared. Through 19 seasons, ABC's hit show The Bachelor has only produced two truly successful marriages, according to Pop Sugar. 

Now I'm not saying I'm going to quit reality TV cold turkey, nor am I saying you should either, but I have noticed a growing distaste for the wilder and angrier antics of some of my formerly favorite stars. Thankfully the Brits, or at least their best bakers, are here to save the day with their sunny dispositions and mouth-watering confections.

Cover photo via Melissa Gorga / Instagram


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