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Meaner than fiction: Reality TV high on aggression, study shows

All the gossip, insults and dirty looks add up fast on popular reality shows, far outpacing the level seen in equally popular dramas, comedies and soap operas according to a new Brigham Young University study.

The researchers looked at five reality shows and five non-reality shows and found 52 acts of aggression per hour on reality TV compared to 33 per hour for the non-reality programs.

“The Apprentice” topped the list at 85 acts of verbal or relational aggression per hour.

Simon Cowell and “American Idol” checked in a little lower at 57 aggressive acts per hour – but then again, backbiting is tough to do while singing.

“I knew the level of aggression was going to be high, but I had no idea it was going to be this high,” said Sarah Coyne, a BYU professor of family life and lead author of the study. Coyne’s findings will appear in the June issue of The Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.

The researchers analyzed 120 hours of programming and coded every instance of physical, verbal and relational aggression. The 10 shows selected for the study are popular with audiences in Britain, although several shows are American productions.

And despite the “reality” label, half of the aggression appeared to be incited by producers. One common tactic is to put participants in a booth and bait them into saying something nasty about their competitors.

What’s the big deal?

Numerous other studies, including one by Coyne, demonstrate that meanness rubs off on viewers. And that was using very contrived and clearly fictional scenes.

“Of any type of program out there, I would think that reality programs are the most likely to be imitated,” Coyne said. “All audiences think it won’t affect them, but we aren’t as immune as we think we are.”

Professor David Nelson from BYU's School of Family Life is a coauthor on the study.


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  5/26/2010 10:21 PM by John

"Whenever I watch American Idol, I'm filled with an intense urge to beat the living daylights out of my roommates."

Your sarcasm betrays your ignorance. This study isn't implying what you seem to think at all. Watch people behaving rudely toward each other enough and it will rub off. Everyone thinks they are invulnerable to the effects of exposure to the media (whether its aggression, sex, or whatever), but chances are you aren't.

  5/26/2010 10:15 PM by Sherry

"I wonder how many "aggressive acts" per hour occur in a person's actual life. Especially in a competitive context. I bet it wouldn't be too different."

Not in my life. I'm not aggressive toward people and people aren't usually aggressive toward me either in my daily life. I'm pretty sure if you filmed my life it would only be a few aggressive acts per day, not even per hour. But I'm a guy so its easier to see when I'm being aggressive. I don't give dirty looks or gossip. If I'm not yelling or punching something I'm not being aggressive.

But Really
  5/26/2010 3:07 PM by Christy

First of all, that is not what begging the question means. Begging the question is assuming in your premise the very conclusion you are trying to prove.

Second, if you are not familiar with the entertainment/performance industries, shows like American Idol might seem harsh. However, the real world is usually worse. Should the media sugar coat the process or show what individuals must go through to get far? I feel that my experiences have been somewhat validated when shows portray the things I have had to deal with (although, honestly, it's still sugar coated).

Potential performers entering competitive industries should be aware of what they're in for, because once they enter the business, they will have to deal with all kinds of meanness, unfairness, underhandedness, and abuse (depending on their field). Whether that is right or wrong, it's true.

Maybe we should be more concerned about ethics in business and society rather than about reality being portrayed on TV...

American Idol is SO violent
  5/25/2010 3:55 PM by Benjamin

Whenever I watch American Idol, I'm filled with an intense urge to beat the living daylights out of my roommates. The violence just makes me rage

Violence is not the answer, but sometimes...
  5/25/2010 3:49 PM by Benjamin

Does this mean we should skip the war chapters in the Book of Mormon?

Not far from reality
  5/25/2010 7:34 AM by Keith

I have sat in "board rooms" before and it's sometimes worse than what you see on TV. Read the book Driven by Doug Robinson and learn about a passionate man and how he got things done. People may be inherently good, but the process is not always pretty.

Too Much aggression.
  5/21/2010 3:30 PM by Derek

This article is right. There are too many aggressive and/or critical comments out there, especially on TV.

  5/21/2010 10:30 AM by Patrick

I wonder how many "aggressive acts" per hour occur in a person's actual life. Especially in a competitive context. I bet it wouldn't be too different.

  5/20/2010 5:51 PM by Shelley

When this story comes up on the BYU homepage, the lead misuses the phrase "it begs the question." Begging the question is a logical fallacy in which one uses the conclusion of an argument as a premise. The correct phrase to use would be, "this causes one to ask the question..."

Story Highlights

  • Episodes of "The Apprentice" served up 85 acts of verbal or relational aggression per hour
  • "American Idol" checked in at 57 aggressive acts per hour
  • The researchers found roughly half of the aggression on reality TV shows was incited by producers

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Professor Sarah Coyne teaches in BYU's School of Family Life.
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