NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

The most interesting studies in psychology occurred around fifty years ago. It’s not that we haven’t found out anything interesting since then, it’s that academic psychology is now required to have all human experiments approved by ethics boards.

Famous studies such as the Milgram Experiment – which measured the likelihood people would cause pain to others if ordered to do so by an authority figure – or the Stanford Prison Experiment which took ordinary people and randomly assigned them to be prisoners or prison guards and had such shocking results the experiment was abandoned – would never have happened if they had to pass through ethics committees.

So while psychology has had to find novel ways to understand human responses in different situations, at the same time not causing them undue or lasting harm, reality TV faces no such inconvenient restrictions.

We’ve now become so accustomed to the genre of reality TV, of ordinary people putting themselves through some trial or series of competitions for our entertainment, that we rarely question it.

This week an article outlined that in the recent local version of Married at First Site (MAFS) out of 11 couples on the show, none of them have stayed together subsequent to the show: A zero per cent success rate.

Psychologists, counsellors and other experts are involved in the selection process of reality shows. And they claim to select people for their suitability and, in the case of MAFS, match couples based on their compatibility.

Which based on the recent series suggests that, at best, they aren’t very good at their jobs. At worst, they’re great at their jobs: matching people to maximise the drama, emotional intensity and fallout.

That makes for great drama because of course the reality of normal, stable relationships would make for terribly boring television.

Now before you call me a party pooper, there are emerging concerns among the profession, and some very troubling research, that suggests that participation in such shows can put peoples lives at risk.

John Aitken, the New Zealand born and trained “relationship expert” involved in the Australian MAFS, is no longer allowed to call himself a psychologist when participating in the show. This is due to a successful complaint to the psychology Council of NSW by a former show participant, claiming people involved in the show were put in “dangerous situations.”

Recent New Zealand participants have complained publicly about their experience of participating in the show and are seeking to have their marriages legally annulled – wishing they’d never gotten involved in the first place.

And while research is still thin on the ground, recent studies have started to look at the psychological impact of participation in these shows. It’s even been claimed in an Australian study that between 1994 and 2011 20 former participants in reality TV shows worldwide committed suicide following their participation.

You might find these shows entertaining – they’re certainly constructed to be so. You may even feel that participants make a choice to be involved, so it’s on them, individual responsibility and all.

But when people are knowingly and deliberately manipulated for our entertainment, perhaps it’s time to question not only whether or not it’s reality, but is it right?

Should we consider people’s suffering entertainment?

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