By Simran Datta
Art by Abi Spingaran
As I fill my stem glass with sparkling water, I carefully assemble my makeshift charcuterie board overflowing with gruyere, apples, and crackers. I settle into my chair and gracefully stretch my neck as I’m transported to the lush vineyards of Napa along with the Real Housewives of New Jersey . I feel a distinct pride holding my stem glass from the tip, mirroring the polite, empowered women on the show. I feel Caroline’s joy and the women's shock as my own when her children surprise her and her friends with a feast on the gorgeous peak of a winery. I feel a sensation on my own fingertips as I watch Melissa pinching fresh grapes one by one. I cringe as I see husbands fooling around in the vineyards and embarrassing their wives. I see Kathy excluded from the final champagne toast of the trip, and somehow I feel ostracized too . I’ve felt ostracism, pride, embarrassment, and thrill all in a mere 40 minutes—and just like that, the episode is over.
Reality television has a unique power to transport viewers into a star’s world without ever leaving their couch. As such, many people, namely college students, enjoy reality TV as a quick escape from their lives . However, significant stigma surrounds this popular pastime. There is widespread debate among indulgers, opposers, journalists, and scientists on the psychosocial effects of watching reality TV. Recent neuroscience and psychology research reveals a broad spectrum of effects reality TV may have on viewers. These effects vary greatly according to the genre of the show but include increased empathy, aggressive behavior, prosocial behavior, and even experiences of somatosensory sensation [3–6]. Furthermore, recent studies have built upon existing research to describe and hypothesize both the neurological appeal and potential consequences of watching specific reality programs such as The Real Housewives, The Bachelor, and Survivor [7–9].
“Your Husband’s in the Pool” - Margaret Josephs
Many enthusiasts think of reality TV as harmless entertainment. Dr. Bryan Gibson, a personality psychologist and professor at Central Michigan University, argues otherwise in his Psychology of Popular Media Culture research study titled “Just Harmless Entertainment?” Dr. Gibson and his team hypothesize that even brief exposure to reality TV programs increases aggression in viewers . The team of scientists anticipated this result because exposure to relational and verbal aggression has been shown to increase aggressive behaviors, and certain reality TV shows prominently feature such types of aggression . Relational aggression refers to behavior that is intended to offend or emotionally hurt a target but occurs outside the target’s view . An example of relational aggression is calling someone’s nose ugly while they are out of earshot and can’t hear you. Verbal aggression, by contrast, is when the aggressor is speaking directly to a victim with the intent to hurt them emotionally, like telling someone that their nose is ugly to their face .
In Dr. Gibson’s study, 127 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to watch an episode of a reality TV show . One group watched Little People, Big World, a family reality TV show that depicted no aggression, while the other group watched a show depicting verbal or relational aggression, such as The Jersey Shore or the violent crime drama CSI. Next, participants were told they were competing in a trial with “another participant” to see who could press a button 25 times the fastest. It is important to note that this “other participant” did not exist; it was merely a
tactic the researchers used to stimulate social and competitive behavior within the lab environment. Participants were told that the winner would blast the loser with an unpleasant noise ranging from 60 to 105 decibels for anywhere between one and five seconds. An option not to blast the opponent was also given. Participants set the intensity and duration prior to the trial, and because the “other opponent” did not actually exist, researchers made it so that participants randomly lost half of the trials and the duration and intensity of the blast the “other opponent” chosen were randomly generated by the research team. The average intensity and duration, ranging from zero (no blast for no amount of time) to ten (the loudest blast for the longest period of time), was evaluated for all participants. The researchers found that participants who viewed the aggressive reality TV show demonstrated more aggressive behavior (picking the loudest noises for the longest time) than participants who viewed the violent crime drama. Participants who viewed the family reality TV show were shown to be the least aggressive. In essence, this experiment suggests that watching reality TV containing verbal or relational aggression leads to more aggressive behavior than watching violent crime dramas or family reality TV .
The question then arises, how does experiencing all of this verbal and relational aggression impact reality TV stars? For some stars, such as the Real Housewives, their contract even requires them to rewatch episodes containing hurtful and embarrassing clips several times, prolonging the experience of social pain. In an exclusive interview with the Grey Matters Journal at Columbia University (GMCU), Margaret Josephs of The Real Housewives of New Jersey described her experience watching and enduring verbal and relational aggression . Josephs is most famous in the world of reality TV for pushing a castmate’s husband into the pool at a party . To set the scene, Josephs and her husband were in a heated conversation with Marty Caffery, the husband of Real Housewife Danielle Staub. Caffery made harsh comments about Josephs’ physical appearance, marriage, and personality, which prompted Josephs and her husband to push him into a nearby pool. In walking away from the scene, Josephs passes by Staub and calmly but pridefully states, “Your Husband’s in the Pool” . In her interview with GMCU, Josephs attributed this signature moment directly to the excessive verbal and relational aggression she encountered, which corroborates psychology research findings that verbal and relational aggression directly inspire physical aggression [4, 10, 11].
Furthermore, previous reality TV stars revealed their opinions on the net effect of experiencing unprecedented levels of verbal and relational aggression in interviews with GMCU . Former Real Housewives of New Jersey star and Teachers College alum Amber Marchese explained that it took “several years after filming” to restore her initial baseline levels of aggression. Marchese explained that she felt a constant need to defend herself during and after filming the show. Despite being on the show for a shorter period of time, Marchese battled residual effects of the experience for years afterward and resents the psychological torment she endured. Marchese’s tagline on The Real Housewives of New Jersey was “I’m a Survivor, No One is Bringing Me Down,” and her time on the show was full of standing up for herself, sticking to her convictions, and trying to make the best of a difficult situation .
On the other hand, during an exclusive interview at her Wyckoff restaurant, Pizza Love, Kathy Wakile expressed gratitude for the aggression she dealt with as a cast member on The Real Housewives of New Jersey . Wakile noted that experiencing a massive amount of verbal and relational aggression helped her learn to speak up for herself and fight back . Viewers saw Wakile evolve from initially appearing timid and non-confrontational to being unapologetic about her feelings and firm in her opinions during her final season . Many viewers comment in blogs that Wakile’s transformation inspired them to become more assertive in their own lives.
“Clip . . . ” Dorinda Medley
As a pre-teen, I was always particularly enthralled by Nickelodeon’s competition reality TV shows. However, I never focused on the questions asked or the tasks performed. Instead, I was captivated by the trademark slime: glistening, green showers and rainstorms of slime . I knew it was unlikely that I’d ever travel to Nickelodeon studios and feel that slime myself, and I couldn’t buy it in a store or make it perfectly at home, but somehow, watching BrainSurge and seeing other kids coated with slime, I felt it myself .
Recent neuroscience research supports that watching someone being touched activates the same brain regions as being touched directly. This potentially explains our fascination with watching certain TV programs that feature tactile experiences . To discern this, researchers used an fMRI which measures changes in blood flow in different areas of the brain, allowing them to visualize brain regions that are activated during certain tasks or in response to experiences. The fMRI results revealed that while observing a participant being touched by an object, the brains of both the participant and the observer showed activity in the secondary somatosensory cortex, also known as the SII/PV complex. The SII/PV integrates information that we receive from our different senses. This would explain why we can almost feel someone else being touched, as the SII/PV is trying to use the visual information from our eyes (visual) and integrate it with previously experienced information from touch (somatosensory), allowing for the sensation of being touched without actually having been physically touched .
These results have two main applications in the realm of reality TV . First, following the results of this study, watching someone touch something exciting in a show could activate the observer’s secondary somatosensory cortex. Since the secondary somatosensory cortex communicates with areas involved in goal-directed actions, it follows that viewers may learn from the tactile experiences of reality TV personalities . For example, viewers may be less likely to touch something if they have seen a reality TV star face negative consequences for touching that thing, or, conversely, they may be attracted to something a reality TV personality seemed to enjoy. During a famous heated argument on The Real Housewives of New York City, Dorinda Medley was infuriated with her co-star Sonja Morgan, who insisted that Dorinda was previously interested in a business venture she was not involved in . Medley, infuriated by Morgan, delivered a lengthy monologue discrediting Morgan, defending her own name, and concluded by channeling all of her aggression into a simple hand gesture—one four-letter word fans will never forget. With all of her fingers pointed in, pinching her thumb, Medley loudly silenced Morgan by exclaiming “Clip!” extending her fingers out and reuniting them at the thumb with each subsequent declaration: “Clip . . . Clip . . . Clip!” . As I watched Medley’s various castmates react to “Clip” in their confessionals, I felt a distinct tingling sensation in my fingers, and I too mirrored her unique hand expression. I, along with countless other viewers, have now made “Clip” a part of my own response to feeling attacked. Instead of flailing my hands around or jumping up and down, I learned from Medley’s unique hand sign and have saved myself time, energy, and exasperation.
Lastly, it’s incredibly engaging to vicariously experience the sense of touch . In many competitive reality shows, participants fall into pits of bubbles and foam, struggle against slick, soapy surfaces, and interact with a slew of other material textures and sensations; these second-hand tactile experiences are fun for the viewer to experience without having to engage in any actual risk .
“That Was a Deliberate Shun” Caroline Manzo
It has been established that individuals, to some extent, have the ability to vicariously feel others’ physical sensations as described in the aforementioned study . This may explain our infatuation with reality programs that highlight touch sensations, such as BrainSurge . But what about emotional pain like embarrassment or ostracism—what does the research say about the vicarious experience of negative emotions?
Reality television is rich with examples of ostracism, and enthusiasts often take to social media to express their shared feelings with characters on the show. Famously, Bravo superfans took to Twitter to express their sympathy for Kathy Wakile being ostracized during an infamous trip to Napa on The Real Housewives of New Jersey . Teresa Giudice gave a final toast to conclude their trip and spoke highly of the couples in attendance, wishing success upon her friends and looking forward to more happy times ahead . In fact, Giudice had a specific compliment for each attendee . . . except Wakile. The couples mentioned in the toast all looked toward Wakile and her husband and later commented on the deliberate malicious nature of the toast . Interestingly, viewers of this episode not only felt reminded of a time they were ostracized and sympathetically recollected their own experience, but also felt Wakile’s exclusion as their own in that moment. Contemporary neuroscientific studies on ostracism and “vicarious ostracism” may serve to explain this widespread phenomenon.
A brain imaging study found that experiencing “vicarious ostracism,” or simply watching another person experience ostracism firsthand, activated brain regions associated with directly experiencing ostracism . Both the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula have been identified as directly relating to the experience of social pain .
Social pain could be defined as pain stemming from interpersonal rejection or loss, such as bullying or exclusion from a social group . Additionally, it was found that vicarious ostracism promoted activity in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), and precuneus brain regions, which have been associated with mentalizing, or thinking about the state of mind of another person .
The brain region activated by vicarious ostracism was shown to be dependent on the target’s relationship to the participant . Namely, observing a friend being ostracized activated the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula, which are related to directly experiencing social pain . By contrast, observing a stranger’s ostracism activates the DMPFC, MPFC, and precuneus brain regions, which relate to the ability to mentalize . So, where do reality TV personalities fit into this analysis? Kathy Wakile of The Real Housewives of New Jersey isn’t my close personal friend, but I’ve watched her life unfold for years. Because of the way reality TV is filmed, I feel as though I have been a guest at many of her parties myself. I feel attached to her struggles and victories. It could very well be that following these observations, and as a result of the niche nature of reality TV consumption, I feel for Wakile when she’s ostracized, and I also feel that I am Wakile in that moment.
In addition to its association with mentalizing, the same team of researchers have found that vicarious ostracism may increase prosocial behavior in observers . This lends itself greatly to the possible social benefits of watching reality TV programs that seem to perpetuate ostracism, in that viewers are not only able to mentalize through exposure to vicarious ostracism, but they are able to respond constructively to ostracized targets in the real world . Following the Napa toast example, it’s possible that a Real Housewives of New Jersey viewer would be kinder (prosocial) to an ostracized figure, like Kathy Wakile, in their own lives—an incredibly powerful effect .
“Just Be Cool, Don’t Be All Like . . . Uncool” Luann de Lesseps
One reason I enjoy reality TV is that it makes me feel like I can practice a social situation without having to actually experience it. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot—from etiquette to what to order at a restaurant to snappy comebacks, and everything in between—from reality TV personalities. At times I’ve even felt like I can practice feelings by watching reality TV. When I watched Kathy Wakile on The Real Housewives of New Jersey arrive at her breakthrough event for her new cannoli business only to find none of her castmates were there to support her, I felt mortified . At first, I thought I felt this way because I have a deep sense of empathy for Wakile, but I quickly realized I wasn’t feeling empathetic or sympathetic. I was feeling embarrassed . . . vicariously?
Vicarious embarrassment (VE) is real, and contemporary neuroscience research recognizes reality TV as a trigger for VE because of its unforgiving presentation of embarrassing behaviors. Given the lack of research on the biological basis of VE, a German research team set out to explore the regions of the brain activated by experiencing this phenomenon . In the study, 60 individuals were exposed to still images taken directly from German reality TV shows while connected to an fMRI machine. These images contained a spectrum of embarrassing moments, some of which were deemed high VE triggers and others low VE triggers. When compared to participants in the low VE conditions, participants in the high VE conditions presented with increased activity in the middle temporal gyrus, right supraliminal gyrus, gyrus rectus, and right inferior frontal cortex. The right supraliminal gyrus is involved in suppressing egocentricity and enhancing perspective-taking, which contributes greatly to etiquette aptitude. The gyrus rectus involves emotional attribution, which is the ability to recognize emotions without having to feel those emotions. Similarly, the right inferior frontal cortex is associated with emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and feelings of compassion. The aforementioned brain regions are all located in close proximity to each other within the temporal lobe. This research suggests that experiencing vicarious embarrassment through reality TV consumption activates areas of the brain that are associated with suppressing egocentricity and knowledge of cultural and social etiquette .
Few other reality TV stars have experienced as much VE as Margaret Josephs. In our interview, Josephs noted that all the VE she experienced on the show, in addition to completely mortifying her, did indeed fine-tune her cultural and social etiquette . Famously, a castmate of Josephs’ zoomed across a Jamaican airport excitedly exclaiming “Ya Mon!” to everyone she saw . Josephs, vicariously embarrassed to a seemingly impossible new extent, retorted in her confessional, “I’m so embarrassed my vagina hurts,” and noted she would never behave that way in a foreign country .
The real-life applications of this study are plentiful and positive . Primarily, feeling embarrassed without having to actually be embarrassed gives us a chance to practice coping with embarrassment. Since research supports that we feel embarrassed watching others experience embarrassment, we can practice embarrassment through reality TV—a safe space—and condition ourselves to respond in a more constructive way. Furthermore, reality TV personalities may serve as positive role models in handling embarrassment, and viewers can learn from the reactions stars choose to craft . In the aforementioned example, viewers saw Wakile obviously disappointed that her castmates weren’t there for her event, but they also saw her entrepreneurial aptitude shine and noticed that she didn’t let embarrassment take away from her opportunity . Wakile enjoyed her event, valued the people that did come to support her, and taught viewers an important lesson that she reinforced during our interview: “In life, you’re going to have people who don’t show up for you; you have to show up for yourself. By doing that, you show people you’re not defeated, you show them you’re empowered” .
“People Say I’m Sweet, but I’m Tough” Kathy Wakile
The above research presents a unique spectrum of both positive and negative psychosocial effects of watching reality TV . Some of these negative effects, particularly those pertaining to increased aggression in viewers, are particularly jarring and may deter viewers from continuing to watch reality TV . However, through my analysis of reality TV, from worldwide neuroscience research to firsthand accounts over coffee or charcuterie with Housewives themselves, it becomes clear that to reap the benefits of a reality TV show, a viewer must develop a healthy relationship with the pastime. As Marchese noted in her GMCU interview, the amounts of aggression displayed on the show are not typical, and are further encouraged and sometimes sensationalized by viral memes, merchandise, or even ringtones . So, it is important to separate yourself from that harmful aggression to avoid letting it affect your personal behavior. The same could be said for the frivolous spending highlighted by numerous reality TV shows. Most viewers are not in the same financial position as reality TV personalities, so it is important to avoid a false sense of prestige and stay as realistic as possible while enjoying the programs.
There are, however, numerous positive effects to watching reality TV as well . By experiencing vicarious ostracism and embarrassment, viewers can reap valuable, tangible benefits from the show, such as increased prosocial behavior and suppressed egocentricity [6,15]. Similarly to Kathy Wakile’s aforementioned quote on showing up for yourself, many of these women have wisdom to share with viewers . Some may sound silly, like “Gone with the Wind Fabulous,” but Kenya Moore, former Miss USA and current Real Housewife of Atlanta, preached positive self talk, along with other abstract messages of positivity throughout this tagline which went on to become a hit single [23, 24]. Seeing Dorinda Medley navigate countless vicariously embarrassing exchanges with her former boyfriend John, always carrying herself with grace while being firm and commanding respect, was another great example to other women in relationships .
In the Housewife interviews I conducted, Marchese, Josephs, and Wakile all agreed that the primary motivation for watching reality TV is relating to a character on the show in some way [8,10,11]. Whether it be through a shared heritage or common adversity, there’s something to be had in common with many women on the show. There is a sense of viewer responsibility while watching shows like The Real Housewives; it’s a delicate balance of learning from the successful women on the show while making sure you remain true to yourself. Creating healthy boundaries while allowing yourself to learn from the personalities is key to effective reality TV consumption. It’s perfectly okay to enjoy the frivolous spending of reality TV stars and gasp in awe at their endless closets, and it’s great to learn to treat yourself, but it’s also important to make sound financial decisions for yourself. It’s okay to use reality TV personalities as examples of being outspoken or firm, and they may inspire you to become more assertive in your own life, but you can’t go around pushing people’s husbands in the pool every day! Finally, if there’s anything to learn from the women on The Real Housewives, it’s independence and self-esteem. You can admire the Housewives themselves, but the goal should be to love yourself the way the women on the show do. In the words of reality TV star Luann de Lesseps, “The message all should learn is even if there’s cash to burn, respect yourself ‘cause no one else can change your path” .
I am extremely grateful to Amber Marchese, Kathy Wakile, Dorinda Medley, and Margaret Josephs for the time, spirit, and passion donated to this piece. From meeting your wonderful teams to laughing alongside your families and enjoying the decadent cannolis I’ve seen on television for years, it was truly a privilege and an honor to collaborate with each of you.
1. Toth Diefenbach, R. (2009). Real Housewives of New Jersey. Hot Tub of Sour Grapes. NBCUniversal.
2. YouGov Reality TV. (2016). Retrieved from https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/v7fbc6gstz/Results%20for%20YouGov%20(Reality%20TV)%20177%2009.21.2016.pdf
3. Meyer, M. L., Masten, C. L., Ma, Y., Wang, C., Shi, Z., Eisenberger, N. I., & Han, S. (2013). Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(4), 446–454. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss019
4. Gibson, B., Thompson, J., Hou, B., & Bushman, B. J. (2016). Just “harmless entertainment”? Effects of surveillance reality TV on physical aggression. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(1), 66–73. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000040
5. Keysers, C., Wicker, B., Gazzola, V., Anton, J.-L., Fogassi, L., & Gallese, V. (2004). A Touching Sight. Neuron, 42(2), 335–346. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0896-6273(04)00156-4
6. Masten, C. L., Morelli, S. A., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2011). An fMRI investigation of empathy for ‘social pain’ and subsequent prosocial behavior. NeuroImage, 55(1), 381–388. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.060
7. Dunlop, S. (2006, Present). The Real Housewives. NBCUniversal.
8. Fleiss, M. (2002, Present). The Bachelor. Warner Bros. Television Distribution.
9. Parsons, J. (2000, Present). Survivor. CBS.
10. Coyne, S. M., Robinson, S. L., & Nelson, D. A. (2010). Does Reality Backbite? Physical, Verbal, and Relational Aggression in Reality Television Programs. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54(2), 282–298. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151003737931
11. Josephs, M. (2022). GMCU interview.
12. Toth Diefenbach, R. (2009). Real Housewives of New Jersey. Hotheads and Hookahs. NBCUniversal.
13. Marchese, A. (2022). GMCU interview.
14. Wakile, K. (2022). GMCU interview.
15. Minsburg, J. (2009). BrainSurge. Nickelodeon.
16. Cohen, A. (2008). Real Housewives of New York. A Bronx Tale. NBC Universal.
17. Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290–292. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1089134
18. Eisenberger, N. I. (2015). Social Pain and the Brain: Controversies, Questions, and Where to Go from Here. Annual Review of Psychology, 66(1), 601–629. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115146
19. Muscatell, K. A., Morelli, S. A., Falk, E. B., Way, B. M., Pfeifer, J. H., Galinsky, A. D., … Eisenberger, N. I. (2012). Social status modulates neural activity in the mentalizing network. NeuroImage, 60(3), 1771–1777. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.01.080
20. Toth Diefenbach, R. (2009). Real Housewives of New Jersey. The Blonde Drops a Bombshell. NBCUniversal.
21. Melchers, M., Markett, S., Montag, C., Trautner, P., Weber, B., Lachmann, B., … Reuter, M. (2015). Reality TV and vicarious embarrassment: An fMRI study. NeuroImage, 109, 109–117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.01.022
22. Toth Diefenbach, R. (2009). Real Housewives of New Jersey. Jamaican Jail Bait. NBCUniversal.
23. Heidt, H. (n.d.). Gone With The Wind.
24. Underwood, C. (2015). Airing Your Dirty Laundry. Arusta Nashville.
25. Lesseps, L. (2010). Money Can’t Buy You Class [Song]. Ultra Records.