Could Reality TV Be Making You More Aggressive?

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What is a guilty pleasure?

Hopefully we don’t feel guilty about pleasure in general, but what sets a guilty pleasure apart from a regular one is that it’s mostly considered a flimsy, empty-calorie experience. Real, deep pleasures like amazing sex, delicious food and fun with our friends add to the richness of our lives. Guilty pleasures are things that don’t exactly reside at the top of the cultural heap: Doritos, gossip, Dude Where’s My Car?, that kind of thing. And there’s probably no more easily accessible guilty pleasure than  TV.

Usually the only negative effect of a guilty pleasure is that it makes you feel a little guilty … and maybe wastes a little bit of your time. But a new study reported on in Science Daily has found that watching relational aggression on television, i.e., “social exclusion, gossip and emotional bullying,” can makes women feel more aggressive – and  as Time’s Aylin Zafar points out these pasttimes are staples of plenty of TV shows, especially of the Reality type.  The study, “Frenemies, Fraitors and Mean-em-aitors’: Priming effects of viewing physical and relational aggression in the media on women,” had college age women who watching one of three fictional clips – one of violence and murder, one of relational aggression and one that was just a scary scene. All three clips caused physiological arousal but the two aggressive clips caused aggressive scripts in the brain to activate; in other words, watching people fight and be bitchy can prime us to fight and be bitchy, i.e., to be aggressive.

Jennifer Rue Linder, a co-author of the study, said that viewers don’t make conscious efforts to imitate television to behave aggressively, but “Aggressive reactions are more automatic and less conscious than other people assume.”

So what does this mean when it comes to your beloved shows, the ones full of scheming, screaming and name-calling, etcetera? And, come to think of it, the news? Certainly some of the ugliness we see there, especially the back-biting that happens in a campaign season, could count as relational aggression, couldn’t it?

Well, it certainly seems like it might be a good idea not to have that conversation about money or some other sensitive topic with your partner right after you’ve watched other people acting like Springer guests. You might not mean to let it rub off but it might nonetheless … who can help feeling sad after a tearjerker? Sounds very similar. Maybe watch those shows before you work out … it sounds like it will give you a little energy boost to attack that elliptical. Your guilty pleasure will remain more of a pleasure if it doesn’t effect your time with your honey … that’s where the real pleasure lies, after all.

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