A few weeks ago, I was asked to appear on 20/20 to discuss the group dynamics that might emerge while filming a reality show like The Bachelor. I’m always pleased when a sociological perspective is included in popular culture, particularly since we Americans traditionally view things from an individual perspective.
The segment’s correspondent, Chris Connelly, asked me several very interesting questions about group dynamics and why people might behave in ways that they might not in a different situation. As with any program, time constraints permitted only some of our discussion to air, so this post will expand on our conversation. The main question Connelly asked me was, What sort of group dynamics emerge when people are isolated from their regular lives, as they are on shows like The Bachelor?
When people encounter a situation they are unfamiliar with, they will often try to create order. Sociologist Harold Garfinkel studied how jurors must figure out how to organize their deliberations in the absence of specific rules about how to do so. Likewise, when people enter a situation such as a reality show, where there might not be specific rules about how to interact with other participants, they might use other reality shows they have seen to guide their behavior.
People who choose to be on a show like The Bachelor are likely to be somewhat savvy about “unscripted” programming and therefore probably know what sort of reality “characters” get the most screen time. As one of the show's producers admitted, many contestants aren’t necessarily there to find true love, but to get on television. In a tough economy like this one, appearing on a reality show could put someone on the fast-track to celebrity and perhaps to a career of sorts that involves simply being themselves (like Heidi Montag and others).
And of course candidates for the show aren’t selected because they are necessarily good matches for the Bachelor/Bachelorette. They tend to be people who look good in bathing suits, have a bit of an exhibitionist streak, and who might be somewhat emotionally volatile. Conflicts will emerge when you combine these factors with free-flowing alcohol. And of course a television show without drama is not likely to stay on the air for very long.
In some ways shows like these bear passing resemblance to dynamics in cults and other total institutions, a term sociologist Erving Goffman coined to describe organizations that essentially run a person’s life, if only for a short time. When someone participates on The Bachelor, they live in a spectacular mansion and must cut off contact from the outside world (contestants report not even knowing that Barack Obama was elected president while in the house). They cannot talk about what went on during the show until after it has aired either.
Their time is structured by producers, and they feel lucky to be chosen to spend time alone with a central figure that the other participants fawn over. To be selected by this (sometimes) charismatic figure at the end of the show signifies specialness. This dynamic is not unlike the way cult figures interact with the group’s leader. To the outside world, a cult leader might seem really creepy and strange, but in the context of a total institution, their attention might imply salvation.
In the context of The Bachelor, it is normal for the anointed one to have sexual rendezvous with multiple women, and for the women to have friendly conversations with each other in which they compare notes about those encounters. Separated from trusted others, such as friends and family, who might in normal circumstances weigh in on their romantic lives, the experience seems okay. While in our daily lives we might have many things to define our identities, such as school, our work, and our relationships with friends and families, little else defines contestants during this process but how well they fare with the bachelor/bachelorette.
Just as psychologist Philip Zimbardo found in the Stanford prison experiment, in a short period of time people will change their behavior to conform to the expectations of those granted powerful roles. Connelly asked me why people seldom want to leave, and I suspect the answer is similar to Zimbardo’s findings. No, The Bachelor is not a prison, or even a mock prison, but the context is very powerful here. Participants live in a fantasy-like setting, don’t have to go to work, and can spend their evenings in beautiful formal wear. They might travel to exotic locales and have dinner with an impossibly perfect sunset as the backdrop.
I know, so far this sounds like the opposite of Zimbardo’s experiment. But the point is that people often become somewhat passive when others have defined the situation for them. And the situation on The Bachelor is that being chosen as “the one” by the bachelor is the super ordinate goal, even if one is miserable in the process—or really doesn’t care much for the bachelor as a person. In the prison experiment, people adapted to their roles as prisoner and guard too well, and soon let go of their normal inhibitions and began acting accordingly. It is likely that people on a show like The Bachelor would soon behave in ways they might not normally too.
There are many other interesting sociological aspects to The Bachelor and similar shows, including issues pertaining to gender, the “happily ever after” fantasy of love and marriage, and the celebration of consumption. What sociological issues do you see in this and other so-called reality shows?