What Motivates Us To Go On Reality TV? Psychologist Explains

By Clare BruceFriday 8 Apr 2016The Big Picture

Listen: Jo Lamble of ‘Seven Year Switch’. Above: Bachelorette USA contestants. Image: Facebook.

Australians love reality television, but many viewers still scratch their heads, wondering why anyone would sign up for the intense public scrutiny that comes with being a contestant.

Shows like The Bachelor, Survivor, Married At First Sight, My Kitchen Rules and Big Brother are notorious for putting their contestants in tense, risky, emotional or embarrassing situations—yet every year, a new round of contestants turns up for the privilege of over-exposure.

Mark Hadley of Hope 103.2’s The Big Picture wanted to know why.

So he sat down for a chat with Jo Lamble. She’s one of two clinical psychologists on Seven Year Switch, a show in which married couples in troubled relationships switch partners for a two-week ‘trial marriage’ with someone who has a similar personality to themselves. The show, purportedly aiming to help the real-life couples sort out their troubles, has caused great controversy and been labelled as immoral by critics both in the USA and Australia.

Jo Lamble told news.com.au that ‘switch therapy’, the strategy of pairing a troubled spouse with someone more like-minded than their life partner, is meant to make someone see more about themselves.

“You’re holding up a mirror to yourself,” she said.

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Who Would Go On A Show Like ‘Seven Year Switch’?

Jo Lamble, 'Seven Year Switch' psychologist
Above: ‘Seven Year Switch’ psychologist Jo Lamble.

In her interview with Hope 103.2, Jo said that 500 couples applied to go on Seven Year Switch, and they did so because their relationships were in trouble.

“They saw this opportunity to take a drastic measure to try and save their relationships that mean a lot to them,” she said.

She added that those who entered were quite young, and therefore familiar with the idea of public exposure. “They’re in their 30s and they’ve grown up with the idea of being more comfortable in putting themselves out there via social media,” she said.

It’s the reason most reality shows attract contestants in their 20s and 30s.

Why People Expose Their Private Lives On Reality TV

Above: Contestants on USA’s ‘Celebrity Big Brother’

When asked why people expose the most private parts of their lives – including their emotional struggles, relationship troubles, and their almost-naked bodies at times – on national TV, Jo said there were a number of motivating factors.

Shows like Survivor, for example, attract those who want to prove to themselves whether they can achieve something great.

“Those people are genuinely there to prove something to themselves,” she said. “Can they do this? Can they win, outwit, outlast? I don’t think they’re doing it to be famous. They genuinely want that challenge. They’ve seen others do it and they want to see if they can achieve it.”

Psychologists An Integral Part Of Reality TV

Above: A contestant on USA’s ‘Celebrity Wife Swap’.

Jo explained that psychologists are always present on reality television, whether in front of the cameras or just behind the scenes.

“Psychologists have pretty much been involved in TV since reality television began,” she told Mark. “It’s a duty of care by the networks that people, who are putting their lives in public view, need a lot of support. Particularly when there are competition elements to the show, then they’ve got to deal with expectations, disappointments and sense of failure.

“All those shows – The Voice, Master Chef, Australia’s Got Talent – will have psychologists behind the scenes to help contestants cope with what is a very stressful environment.”

A Generation That Aims High And Falls Hard

Above: Contestants on Australian idol.

While most contestants on reality TV are very competitive and confident people, many are just as vulnerable as the average viewer, according to Jo. In fact, their desire to do something impressive and great means that they often set themselves up for great disappointment.

“A lot of people who appear confident on the surface are just as lacking in confidence like the rest of us,” Jo said. “They can go on [a reality show] with a strong belief of “they can cook, or build or dance or model”.

“The younger generation in particular is growing up in this era where parents, schools and clubs are very much encouraging them saying “you can do anything and your marvellous”. They have a much stronger belief in themselves. So therefore the fall can often be a lot harder.

“When they come up against other people who are just as hungry for success, they can falter and it can be really worrying for them.”

Millennials Pressuring Themselves To Be Exceptional

Jo said that Millennials or Generation Y, the 20-to-35s, are putting much more pressure on themselves to excel than previous generations did. She sees many young people like this in her work with reality TV.

While it’s not necessarily a healthy mentality, it’s clearly one that is providing reality TV producers with a steady stream of new competitors.

“A sense of perfectionism and the high expectations are leading to incredible amounts of stress to achieve…”

“Far greater than older generations, I have seen this sense that they have to really shine at something,” Jo said. “Average is not OK. So if they are struggling to find what their ‘thing’ is that will bring them great success, they feel inadequate. It’s worrying to me, because average is average for a reason. The massive part of the bell curve is most of us who are right there just doing normal things – nothing spectacular. That’s not failure.

“But a sense of perfectionism and the high expectations are leading to incredible amounts of stress to achieve – or it’s leading to complete apathy and giving up and doing nothing, and saying ‘I’ll just wait until it hits me or ‘til someone gives me my break or my job and then I’ll fly’.”

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