A Dose of Reality (TV)

By Paula Concepcion


I have to admit: I absolutely love watching TV.

If I’m not busy studying or reading or sleeping, I’m probably watching TV – catching a new episode of one of those series I’m into, or, more often than not, a new episode of one of my favorite reality TV shows.

I’ve been watching reality TV probably since I was eleven, and it all began with my family catching an episode of the third season of The Amazing Race. Since then, I’ve kept up with that show along with other shows like Survivor and America’s Next Top Model. I have also watched parts of shows like The X Factor, The Voice, and American Idol. This makes me wonder: what is it about these kinds of shows that keeps me tuning in, anticipating a new episode?

In 2000, Steven Reiss argued for a theory of human motivation which is referred to as both the sensitivity theory and the theory of 16 basic desires. According to Reiss, the sensitivity theory states that people pay attention to stimuli that satisfy their basic motives while ignoring those that do not meet those needs. Reiss believes that what is unique about the sensitivity theory is that it “offers a unique analysis of basic motivations” based on thousands of goals and motives. His sensitivity theory holds that complex motives are made up of basic motives, just like how complex beings are made up of basic building blocks. Reiss narrowed the list of motives to 16 basic motives, like power, curiosity, status and independence, and in line with each basic motive is the joy we experience if we act on that motive. Furthermore, Reiss argues that people prioritize the 16 basic motives differently and that people maximize the joys they get from the motives that appeal the most to them.


Shows like Survivor may satisfy specific psychological needs.

So how exactly does this relate to watching reality TV shows? Reiss and James Wiltz (2004) conducted a study assessing how much they enjoyed various reality TV shows and how much they “consumed” of these shows. The sensitivity theory then suggests, according to Reiss and Wiltz, that people will choose to watch shows that bring them the joy most important to them. Reiss and Wiltz also differentiate their view of watching reality TV from the view of the catharsis theory. They use the example of someone watching an aggressive television show, arguing that from the point of view of the sensitivity theory, what is important is the feeling of vindication. The sensitivity theory states that this feeling of vindication is what brings joy to the viewer, in contrast to the catharsis theory’s view that watching the show brings a release of tension, which in turn causes joy.

In addition to their examination of the validity of the sensitivity theory in relation to reality TV shows, Reiss and Wiltz also looked at the consumption of these television shows, which have the defining characteristic of having ordinary people as the main characters. Of course, this definition does not seem very specific, which was one of the issues discussed by Nabi, Biely, Morgan & Stitt (2003). Nabi et al. argue that there is “no clear industry standard;” as such, the definitions tend to be more inclusive.


American Idol: the “ordinary” rock star?

Reiss and Wiltz recruited 239 adults from one of two sources: human service fields and college students enrolled at a large Midwestern university. Participants were given a booklet with 3 sections: the first asking for demographic information, the second asking them to indicate their interests in sports, music, television, travel and the like, and the third the Reiss Profile of Fundamental Motives and motivational sensitivities. In order to minimize the possibility of order effects, half of the booklets had the Reiss profile first before the questionnaire asking them to indicate their interests. Reiss and Wiltz included reality television shows Survivor, Big Brother, Temptation Island, The Mole, and The Real World in their study.

What Reiss and Wiltz found was that the more reality shows a person indicated that they liked, the more status oriented that person was. They state that the need for status can be satisfied in two ways. First, reality TV makes viewers feel that they are of a higher status than those ordinary people on the TV shows; second, reality TV shows give these viewers the feeling that ordinary people are important as well.

Additionally, those who watched reality TV placed more value on vengeance compared to those who did not watch these shows, and Reiss and Wiltz state that this desire for vengeance is related to their enjoyment of competition. They also found that their study supported the sensitivity theory in relation to the viewing and enjoyment of reality TV shows. Additionally, they found that people who are more sociable are slightly more likely to consume such shows than those who are not sociable. However, they state that specific shows “may appeal to different psychological needs”.

At the end of the day, much like all the other choices we make in terms of interests, our tastes in television shows might reflect some of our basic motivations and needs. Perhaps next time you need something to pump you up or perk your mood, maybe sitting back and watching a TV show could do just that.


Reiss, S. & Wiltz, J. (2004). Why people watch reality TV. Media Psychology: 6(4), 363-378.

Nabi, R.L., Biely, E.N., Morgan, S.J. & Stitt, C.R. (2003). Reality-based television programming and the psychology of its appeal. Media Psychology: 5(4), 303-330.

About the author

Paula is a 4th year Psychology major interested in Developmental Psychology. She also likes musicals, hockey, Disney movies, Scandinavian Crime Fiction, cooking, Twitter and sleeping, though not necessarily in that order.

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