vicarious embarrassment

The Attraction of Reality Television

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(Photo Credit: Antonio Guillem)

By Alicia Cox, MA, AMFT

I write a lot about strategies people can practice at home to maintain their mental health. One of the strategies I use is watching reality television. It sometimes helps me prepare for my day as I watch the show while working out on a treadmill. Also, I sometimes use it as a tool when I need to decompress at the end of a busy day. Some reality television shows have a bad reputation for being unsophisticated, but it can be a useful tool for decreasing stress.

So why is this the case? One reason I have found reality television to be beneficial is that I can put myself in someone else’s world for an hour, which helps me forget about the stressors in my life. People may also find these shows engaging because they star ordinary people similar to themselves. There are multiple studies now that also support this reasoning for the appeal of reality television. For these reasons, watching reality television can help people manage their daily stress.

One recent study published in NeuroImage showed that reality television can trigger “vicarious embarrassment,” which is feeling embarrassed while watching another person experience something that could be considered humiliating. The scientists who conducted the study researched how the brain was affected when people watched several reality television clips showcasing the emotion of embarrassment. They found that the areas of the brain responsible for empathy, compassion, and suppression of self-interest were activated when a person watched these television clips. Based on both the self-report from participants and the brain activity data, they concluded that watching these shows simulated empathy since the participants had a better understanding of the reality star’s social suffering from their own personal experience. Even though the participants reported no explicit compassion for the person they were watching on television, their brains were able to relate to what they were going through since they related it to part of the human experience.

Another reason many people watch reality television is that the people chosen for these shows are ordinary people just like the people watching them. Reality television stars typically gain fame as a result of being on television. This can lead viewers to develop a fantasy that they could be chosen for one of these shows in the future, and if they were chosen, there is a chance that they would someday become famous too. Even though this isn’t motivating for all fans of reality television, there is a lot of appeal in watching someone similar to you competing on television or having cameras documenting their lives. Being on television is also seen as a status symbol in our society, so some people may also see being on television as a way to climb the social ladder.

Watching reality television can help people escape their lives temporarily and gain a better understanding of the human experience. We watch characters on these shows, season after season, getting to know many of the intimate details of their lives. We become close to these characters from a distance and begin to care about the direction of their lives. These are all reasons why reality television viewing can be used as a temporary, satisfying escape from our own lives.


Melchers, M., Markett, S., Montag, C., Trautner, P., Weber, B., Lachmann, B., …Reuter, M. (1 April 2015). Realty TV and vicarious embarrassment: an fMRI study. NeuroImage. 109, 109-117.

Reiss, S. & Wiltz, J. (1 September 2001). Why America loves reality TV. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

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