Reality TV and physical aggression

CMU research first to show some reality TV causes aggression in viewers
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Reality television may not be as harmless as we think. A new study shows some of these programs can cause physical aggression in viewers.

A paper recently published in the scientific journal “Psychology of Popular Media Culture” investigates one particularly important question: Is reality TV just “harmless entertainment?”

“Many reality TV programs contain aggressive acts, mainly verbal or relational forms, and our goal was to evaluate whether or not exposure to this type of program increases aggression,” Central Michigan University psychology professor Bryan Gibson said. “This research clearly shows that these programs are not simply harmless entertainment — exposure to this verbal and relational aggression increases physical aggression.”

Authored by Gibson, CMU psychology doctoral students Jody Thompson and Beini Hou, and Brad Bushman of The Ohio State University and VU University Amsterdam, the paper provides the first data to document that there are potentially some very negative behavioral consequences that could result from exposure to programs that include relational and verbal aggression.

The research team exposed 127 college students to non-aggressive surveillance reality programs like “Little People, Big World” and “The Little Couple”; surveillance reality TV programs containing relational and verbal aggression like “Jersey Shore” and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”; and violent crime dramas like “Dexter” and “CSI” that contain physical aggression. The study showed that surveillance reality viewers exposed to relational aggression were more aggressive than those watching either a supportive family surveillance reality program or a violent crime drama.

The study identifies physical acts of aggression as actions intended to cause physical harm to another person; relational aggression as actions intended to harm a relationship, including withdrawal of friendship, spreading rumors and gossiping; and verbal aggression as any attempt to use words to intentionally harm another person, including name calling or insults.

“These findings are alarming because reality TV is very popular in our society,” Gibson said. “These programs can potentially trigger aggression, making them more than just a guilty pleasure.”