Blog post

The price of chasing fame on reality TV shows

Reality TV has always danced the line of controversy. The recent news and debate around the Jeremy Kyle show has certainly proved how controversial shows of this kind can be. Yasuhiro Kotera, who leads our online Counselling and Psychotherapy courses, looks at the issue.

By Yasuhiro Kotera - 22 May 2019

Though I don’t follow British TV much, I heard about the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show. This came as a result of the seemingly direct impact it had on a guest which is reported to have resulted in their suicide. Reality shows and their impact on participants’ mental health have long been a topic of conversation. While in most cases participants voluntarily apply to be on these shows, some news articles are reporting that the aftercare was poor. This is in contrast with their active push on participants to behave in a certain way. In certain circumstances, it is being suggested that they were manipulated into participating in the first place.

All of this begs the question of why people volunteer themselves and agree to feature on these shows at all. As my research is about human motivation, thinking about this from the motivational point of view can give us some insights.

Drama, humiliation and suspense

First of all, let’s define what type of reality shows we are talking about here, because there are so many different types. For example, my own experience of featuring on a reality TV show involved a happy family show that helps to reunite long distance couples and families. The show airs on Christmas Day in the Netherlands, and many Dutch people watch it. But what we are discussing here is reality shows that are built on drama, humiliation and suspense. These shows are more common in the UK.

People who apply, or agree, to be on this type of show have a strong desire to be known. This desire by itself is neither bad nor good. Many people have this type of desire to some degree. Social media is one example. People post things to share with others. This act of sharing and receiving reactions from others often (but not always) gives us a sense of connection, which addresses our needs for safety. It is, in a way, a natural human behaviour, as we are a social animal. How people around us see and treat us is important.

The desire to be known

However, what is different in people participating in reality shows may be their motivation for wanting to be known. In many cases it is intrinsic motivation that leads us to adopt genuine socialising behaviours (you want to feel connected with others and share things). Intrinsic motivation is all about doing something because it will satisfy you on an internal, personal level. However, it is extrinsic motivation that drives their desire to appear on TV knowing that the show would involve them in drama and tragedy. Extrinsic motivation is about being driven by the need for external rewards. And fame is one common extrinsic motivator.

This works for TV stations too, as often what they want is high audience ratings, and they know that our brain reacts to negatives way more than positives. For example, a newspaper saying that ‘It will be sunny tomorrow’ will probably get less attention than the one saying ‘Warning: Big thunder storm tomorrow’. This makes sense because our brain’s ultimate purpose is survival, so it tends to capture danger more than safety. This was seen in my research as well, where people respond to the negative more than the positive.

Paying the price

Extrinsic motivation comes with a price to pay: it is related to poor mental health, high shame and unethical judgement. People who are extrinsically motivated (wanting to receive fame, money or status) tend not to mentally feel well or mind making unethical decisions, as opposed to intrinsic motivation. When someone is intrinsically motivated, they take an action just because doing it itself is a reward to them. In the university, for example, you can see intrinsically motivated learners who just love to study what they are studying, as well as extrinsically motivated learners who only care about their grades and assignments. On the surface, you can see two people equally motivated and working actively, but it is possible that their underlying motivation may be different. One of them may be working hard because they think the work is inherently interesting, while the other one may be doing the same but motivated by the money they can get.

People with high extrinsic motivation attach their emotions too much to the extrinsic rewards, which are out of their control, so cannot always get them. However, people with high intrinsic motivation can almost always receive their intrinsic rewards. Participants in this cancelled reality show no doubt anticipated substantial extrinsic rewards of fame, or were lulled into extrinsic rewards through being treated like a celebrity by the production teams offering them incentives up front (such as a free meal and night in a hotel). This was so pleasurable that they attached their emotions to these extrinsic rewards, therefore not getting the anticipated fame can feel so devastating. It is almost the same as an addict not getting their objects.

Beyond reality shows

This is not limited to reality shows. For example, you can see it in sports as well. A boy who loved playing football started a career as a professional footballer. He made it big and started to receive millions of pounds. Here, his love for football is converted to money. One day, his contract changes, and he won’t be able to receive millions of pounds anymore. He now feels worthless and depressed, and chooses not to play football anymore – something which 20 years ago he willingly played for free.

Humiliating reality shows actively stimulate participants’ extrinsic motivation, keeping them on the top of the extrinsic tower, and enjoy them falling from it. Their non-identified audience enjoys this, as reported in previous research. This cancellation of the reality show may be another example to illustrate the danger of extrinsic motivation. It seems really easy for people to be attracted to extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation, and once you are glorified with extrinsic motivation, it seems really hard to get out of it (extrinsic motivation is sticky). To protect mental health, it is useful to be aware of your motivation before being sucked into addiction to extrinsic motivation.

About the author

Yasu Kotera smiling, sitting at a table in front of tea cups and a jug of water.

Yasuhiro Kotera
Former Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology

Dr Kotera's teaching primarily focused on mental health and research modules including supervision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.