How Watching Reality TV Might Help Bring Out the Best in Us

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Honey Boo Boo of the reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.Photo: TLC

Although it’s hugely popular, reality TV is often seen as voyeuristic screen-trash — a showcase for the seedier sides of humanity, for people’s vanity, vacuousness, and vulgarity. And while there’s more than a grain of truth to this analysis — just look at this roundup of awkward clips — a new brain-imaging study in the journal NeuroImage paints reality TV in a slightly different light. 

Martin Melchers and his colleagues at the University of Bonn in Germany used reality-TV clips to explore the brain’s basis for a uniquely human, and ultimately compassionate, emotion: “vicarious embarrassment.” This is our ability to squirm in empathy for somebody else’s social pain or loss, even in cases where the protagonist, him- or herself, doesn’t realize what’s gone wrong. If you’ve ever turned red at a friend’s cringeworthy pickup lines or drunken karaoke performances, you’ll know the feeling.

The researchers had 60 participants, most of them students, watch carefully chosen clips from various German reality-TV shows — half depicting highly embarrassing scenes (if German reality TV is anything like its American counterpart, these likely weren’t hard to come by), the others neutral in content — someone putting groceries away while chatting on a cell phone, for example. Next, the participants lay in a brain scanner while they looked at stills taken from the embarrassing and non-embarrassing clips.

The neuroscientists were looking for brain areas that were activated by the embarrassing scenes but not by the neutral ones, and which correlated with the participants’ feelings of vicarious embarrassment. What the researchers uncovered was a roll call of neural regions that arguably underlie some of the more appealing aspects of human psychology.

Take for instance, the “middle-temporal gyrus,” a region that’s associated with putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Or the “right supramarginal gyrus,” thought to be involved in suppressing our usual egocentricity. And the “inferior frontal gyrus,” associated with emotional empathy and feelings of compassion. Other activation patterns were consistent with the idea that the participants were accessing their knowledge of culture and social rules — after all, you need to understand concepts like etiquette and taboo to realize that someone has made a fool of themselves.

It’s important not to overstate these results — the participants’ self-reported levels of explicit compassion for the reality-TV characters were pretty modest (no surprise, really, given that they didn’t know these people who were making fools of themselves). Rather, the patterns of brain activity here hint more at the participants’ automatic simulation and understanding of the characters’ social suffering. This is the neural groundwork that has the potential to give rise to overt compassion and intervention — and it can apparently light up even in situations designed to evoke ridicule rather than empathy.

Studying the brain basis of empathy is a well-trodden field. You may have heard how, when we see someone else in pain, the pain areas of our own brains also fire up, as if simulating their suffering in our own neural pathways. Other people’s emotional distress has a similar effect.

However, these reality-TV findings break new ground for two reasons. First of all, there was evidence that parts of the participants’ so-called “pain matrix” (a network of brain areas involved in the experience of pain) were involved in their feelings of vicarious embarrassment — this indicates that the same, or a similar, mirroring process that’s triggered when we observe someone’s physical pain is also triggered when we see their social pain.

Secondly, this is new neuroscience territory because up to now there’s been little study of the brain basis of self-conscious emotions like embarrassment, shame, and guilt. These emotions are distinct from the others because they are very much about ourselves and our own reputations. That we are capable of feeling someone else’s self-conscious emotions — even a stranger’s — shows the remarkable extent of human empathy, how we’re capable of keeping track of other people’s social reputation and feeling their pain when their status takes a hit.

There’s debate in psychology over how much other animals like chimpanzees are able to think about other individuals’ mental states, but what this new research highlights is the unique extent of human mind-reading. As Ian McEwan writes in Only Love and Then Oblivion, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.”

Novels are often celebrated for the way they encourage us to take a journey into other people’s minds (and how they may even make us more skilled at doing this). But maybe we shouldn’t be too snooty about other, more base-seeming media. These new results show reality TV exercises our empathy buttons, too.

This might account for the appeal not just of reality shows, but also scripted (and partially improvised) ones like The Office that contrive fictional scenes of excruciating embarrassment. In the same way that horror fiction is seen by some scholars as providing a safe way for us to rehearse and simulate dealing with mortal threats, perhaps we’re attracted to cringe comedy and reality TV as a way to hone our ability to appreciate and understand other people’s social tribulations.

Dr. Christian Jarrett is editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.