Psychological battles reality TV contestants face when they return to real life.

When any experience ends, especially if it has been long and intense, and more so if it was largely positive, there is often a sense of loss.  (Think about how you feel when you come back from a holiday you’ve enjoyed.)  Even if the experience had ups and downs, for example a contract or a project, because you have focused on it for a long time, it has become your norm, you structure your day around it, when you have the freedom to choose something else, you might feel unsure of where to start.  Sometimes you might try to pick up where you left off, but the world (or at least your corner of it) may have changed so that becomes harder, or you might see it as the opportunity to try something completely different, which can bring with it all the fear of uncertainty.

Then, when the experience you are talking about is life changing – as being catapulted into not just broadcast media stardom, but social media as well, where not only have you become a household name, but you are now dealing with offers, contracts, money and many many people whom you have not had to work with before – it can be extremely overwhelming.  On top of that, the consequences of your choices can also become larger because of how familiar the public is with you…you become news, so if you make a poor investment, trust someone you shouldn’t, or perhaps even get caught saying something which was taken out of context, it can feel like everyone has an opinion.

To take some of the issues that reality TV contestants may experience in turn:

                                                         Overnight fame

Research into the world of football (in particular), is a damning blueprint of what can happen when you are exposed to huge wages, with little support or financial planning.  (And the FA have set up a benevolent fund to support those connected with the sport who are going through hard times…although this is responsive rather than pro-active).  There are now many Independent Financial Advisers who specifically support footballers, BUT even then (as with any profession) there is poor advice out there, leading to the UEFA and Santander collaborating to run a course to help footballers make better choices.

Another issue identified in sport is Fraud because players have so much wealth, they are easy targets – Ollie Phillips a professional rugby player who was the victim of mortgage fraud and now works for PwC said “You meet lots of successful people who are genuinely successful,” he says. “Then you meet lots of other people . . . they throw lots of cash around and make life seem amazing. Underneath, it’s all built on a pack of cards.”

The problem is, you get used to living a “disposable” lifestyle, you enjoy the excitement and the interest in you and the parties while it lasts, and as (or if) it starts to ebb, you may find yourself chasing it rather than securing your basic living needs.


While it can be argued that perhaps athletes are more “at risk” because they may have an injury which stops their career, I would argue that to some extent, the marketability of the Love Island contestants is on their looks (at least initially, until they take control of their narrative and steer it otherwise – for example Dr Alex George was able to pivot his career during the pandemic by becoming a spokesperson and expert for the NHS), and looks will fade (or/and be an extra pressure in terms of maintaining them.)

And then there’s the opposite – if you expected more interest and this isn’t forthcoming, especially in the world of social media where “likes” affect our feelings of self-worth, this can be hugely devastating, because it can feel like rejection on a huge scale.  When we feel rejected, this can cause us to spiral into thinking other negative thoughts about ourselves eg: I’m not talented, I’m not attractive, I’m not good at my job…and so on, and this can lead us to feel depressed which in turn can mean our mental health takes a hit.

                                                                    Internet trolls:

The effect of unconscious projection

As humans we connect with what we see, and our brains have trouble separating fantasy from reality when it comes to experiencing emotions.  We can get as invested in soap characters as our own relationships because empathy often means we simply experience the emotional reaction to their story without fully appreciating that it is not related to us personally. This can cause many problems if we have been through what we are seeing (or think we are seeing), especially if it was a negative experience for us.  If we have not worked through our specific experience, understood our role in what happened (even if we were not to blame), any residual anger or negative emotional memory can be unconsciously or otherwise directed onto the person we see as behaving in the manner that hurt us.  This is damaging to both ourselves and the object of our projections. So, for example, if an Islander behaved in a way that triggered an emotional memory in us which we found negative, we will have a tendency to project that onto the Islander rather than the real cause of the pain.

                                                 The audience reaction is unpredictable:

Authors and directors will often say (colloquially) that if there are 500 people reading/watching…there will be 500 different interpretations of what they see.  We simply do not know how our communications and behavior will be received. AND, on the flip  side to this, while audiences discuss and analyze – and produce quite cruel memes and hashtags about contestants – ARE they forgetting they are talking not about characters written in a drama, but people who might see them?  (Not forgetting that those under scrutiny are also people whose performance has been edited, often without their knowledge or approval). It IS possible to take audience reaction as a form of learning (although remember we cannot please everybody) – but if a majority perceived a behavior to mean a certain thing, we might be able to use it as an opportunity to think about how our actions are coming across and change them should we wish.  Similarly to the point about how we DO like to welcome back people who we see have changed is the “Service recovery paradox” which is a model from customer service behavior which suggests that if a service has made a mistake BUT they fix it, the customer is often MORE loyal to that business than they would have been had everything gone well…so when it comes to public opinion, if you aren’t liked, and you can show change, you might well come back stronger than before!

                                                   The effect of “bullying”

What we might call “social commentary” – the discussion and analysis of relationship behaviors – is sometimes, in reality, cruel memes, hashtags about contestants, and a large amount of vitriol expressed on what is an edited narrative.  On a Reality TV show, not only is being filmed an unusual situation but the camera rolls while asleep too. This gives no respite. There are no secrets. Worse still, contestants are not the editors of their own story. 24 hours of footage is condensed, perhaps taken out of context to create a “plot line” over which the contestant has no control.  There is no chance to explain, nor even have the “whole picture” presented

                                             It is this which is responded to by the audience.

If an allegation of “Bullying” is raised in the workplace it is taken seriously.  The investigator’s own opinion on whether what was said or done should be perceived as bullying, but rather, if the complainant feels  bullied, the disclosure is investigated as such. (2019) defines bullying as:

“…repeated behavior which is intended to hurt someone either emotionally or physically…[it can]… take many forms:

– Physical assault

– Teasing

– Making threats

– Name calling

– Cyber bullying”

While one could argue that “mean posts” are not necessarily “repeated behavior” (trolling perhaps would be though), so for those of us watching, perhaps a better rule of thumb is to ask two questions:

– Would I be affected emotionally if someone said that about me?

– Would someone I knew, and who I knew would see it, be affected by it emotionally when they read it?

…a third, if really necessary, If it was said about my son or daughter, would I find it unacceptable?

If the answer is yes to any of those questions it would not be appropriate for us to write about anyone.

                                            Comment and analysis by experts

Related to the above, I also have my own reservations when making any such comment on others – firstly I cannot speak to anything except what I have seen on TV, so this would never get near any sort of professional analysis (and if I were in that position, then professional confidentiality wouldn’t permit me to comment) – but any “experts” (psychologists, body language and the like) also need to be very careful with what they say.  There is the “Goldwater Rule” which  is stated in Section 7 in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Principles of Medical Ethics.  This states that “psychiatrists have a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health, and when they are asked to comment on public figures, they refrain from diagnosing, which requires a personal examination and consent.”  To be fair, even with my clients I KNOW I can only make observations and speak to what they might suggest rather than form firm conclusions, but in a client session the client has a chance to refute and explain and that allows me to reset my thinking – do those on Reality TV have this luxury?

                                Why do people feel the need to be mean?

Misery loves company, and sometimes when we’re in a bad mood we don’t want to learn, we don’t want to grow, we just want to be heard!  So, say something we’ve seen has triggered a negative feeling, we put our rant out there and when it is “Liked” (because out of the whole population of those on social media, someone is likely to agree, even with some very extreme or unpleasant comments) – we feel validated.

Delving more deeply into this, Julian Baggini in his book “Complaints” says that complaining (or ranting) is a social norm and some of us actually enjoy it – at least to each other – especially when it is about someone else!!  It can make us feel part of something – which again brings me back to the first point – we feel validated.

Related to that, is, sadly, how often we feel unheard.  You do not need to have experienced deeply traumatic events to feel a sense of rejection, much less have it impact on your life.  If we, as children, were always told “Cheer up”, “stop it”, and/or we never had our feelings acknowledged (even the idea of “family hold back” can result in some children creating a belief that they are not as important as the people mum and dad are trying to impress), we can grow up with a need for acknowledgement, without really having learned the tools to provide this for ourselves.  As such, we try different ways to receive what we are craving and – objectively – one successful way is to say something negative about others, or go on a bit of a rant – because it seems to attract attention.

( A drier way to see this is we also simply pay more attention to a negative post because our brain is hard-wired for negativity.  The Negativity bias occurs because we often learn more from negative events, and we are also able to keep ourselves safer when we are aware of the dangers.  Thus, we may be drawn more to read something negative in case we might learn something useful, and if more people see something, it can be simple statistics which can result in more likes…but, to come back to the first point, if attention is what we want – we’ll do what works – and we may not consider the actual consequences when the real people we are being mean about read what we have said).


     Inclusion and a shared reality

Those who love the show talk rather less about the contestants themselves, but more about the connection that collective viewing brings them at work – from an informal poll asking why people watched, I found they said it was about: “…hav[ing] a good old chit chat and debate about the superficiality of today’s society; their behaviors and reactions towards one another.”

“… laughs and chat in the office…”

“…fair amount of analysis and debate…”

Some even felt “left out” at breaks when their colleagues were all discussing it, and praised the show for “… breaking down age barriers.”

Inclusion is identified by psychologist William Schutz who created the Firo-B psychometric measurement in 1958. For Schutz, connecting with others was as essential as food and water – and as such many are drawn into the show in the first place.

Further, there are elements of schadenfreude that might come into play – if these beautiful people are struggling with their love life, then perhaps I’m not doing so badly; OR we can use what we see to start conversations about relationships a bit like the “asking for a friend”.

So in some ways, Reality TV can be quite helpful to our social conduct “In Real Life”.  BUT it is also possible to get “attached” to what we see. One old theory of how relationships formed was “familiarity” – in other words, people rated faces they were familiar with as more likeable than ones they had not seen before – so when people are on our screens 6 out of 7 nights, and we get to see what is to a great extent unscripted (although it might be set up at times), that sense of familiarity can make us believe we know these people.  This can sometimes go further when people start thinking “I could be best friends with X if they would just see me” when you see you have a lot in common, or they/their actions resonate with you in some way…whereas the truth is, you feel you know them because you have watched them so often, but they do not know you at all – this is only a passive, one sided relationship.

BUT, then, because of the nature of social media it is possible that a comment you make may be “Liked” by the account of the Reality TV personality OR others in that sphere may “like” or support it, and again, you can get an even stronger false sense of connection.  Online relationships can trigger the same feelings as ones in real life, but they are really only a pseudo connection because you do not “know” each other in the context of reality, but that feeling that you do is described colloquially as “stanning”.

                                                       Erotomania, Pseudo relationships and Narcissism

To return to the “Dark triad” of traits, it is also possible that someone who scores highly in narcissism or psychopathy may not have a well developed “theory of mind” – which is the recognition that other people have a different perspective to you.  (The famous experiment by Piaget sat a child on one side of a mountain, and a doll on the other.  The child with a developed theory of mind could recognise what he was seeing was different from what the doll “saw”, but the child who did not would describe what the doll saw as the same as his own perspective).  As such, this can lead people to think – because I like you with that passion, you must like me the same.  (To be fair, this is something we can mistake ourselves when we call someone at 3am because we’re wide awake and somehow think they are too…sometimes we just cannot see what isn’t in our landscape to see – and that can include that someone else can think very very differently!)

Related, “Erotomania” is a delusional disorder where people believe that a famous figure (or indeed any object of their affection) is in love with them, but it can present, for example, that the person with the delusion believes that the Reality TV star is speaking directly to them through a general social media post (Makin 2021).

Social media can result in a confusing pseudo relationship where, for example, you are unsure if the person who liked your comment is the actual person or their team – and deeper than that, it can be confusing as to what a “like” actually means (usually just that with nothing deeper).

While “superfan” behavior may actually be pleasant and positive while it remains in balance, it can become problematic if the celebrity in question does something which the superfan perceives as a slight (we must not forget that the celebrity does not know there are any such expectations placed on him/her); OR if the superfan comes to clash with other superfans of their rival; OR if in their eyes the celebrity can “do no wrong”.  All these issues can have real life repercussions which can turn violence causing real hurt…and sometimes the celebrity may feel responsible…for example Arianna Grande’s heartbreak after the bomb went off during her concert.

                                            Other issues:

These are just other things which could be considered:

There IS a lot of negative publicity surrounding shows such as Love Island especially when it comes to body image.  A few years ago research by “Level Up” revealed that 40% of women ages 18-34 reported they felt more conscious about their bodies after watching Love Island; one in ten considered lip fillers, 8% a boob job, 7% botox. While the celebrity is not necessarily responsible for other people’s choices, they may be “made” so by social media and media in general.

                                                                 About Audrey

She is a Chartered Psychologist (CPsychol), and award-winning author – “The Leader’s Guide to Resilience” 2021 (prev. The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness” (Pearson & FT, 2018) and “Be A Great Manager – Now” (Pearson, 2016)) with a focus on practical self improvement. She hosts podcast ‘Retrain Your Brain for Success’, and The Wellbeing Lounge on NLiveRadio, is presenter for “Psych Back to Basics” on DisruptiveTV, and resident psychologist on Channel 4’s “Don’t Diet Lose Weight”, and The Chrissy B Show (Sky).

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