From the glitzy world of the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing to the edgier realms of Big Brother, these reality shows all have something in common – we’re hooked because of the “psychological pleasure” we get out of seeing contestants fail.
As body language and behaviour expert Judi James explains, “I think there’s probably as much mileage for most viewers in getting rid of the contestants they don’t like. There is a genuine pantomime effect where there’s people that we can’t stand on there and people get a lot of psychological pleasure out of seeing them fail as much as sometimes seeing the winners win.”
From yelling at the television to voting to keep the ‘pantomime villain’ in the show (if only to annoy Simon Cowell) we want to feel our voice is being heard.
Judi notes, “In modern society people want to feel that their opinion is involved in most things. We want shows to get us. We want to feel involved in them. I think the big thing about reality shows is that there’s an exaggerated feeling of power with the audience, as if viewers don’t like someone on it, they literally get to decide whether those people can be humiliated. Classically in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, anyone the audience doesn’t like who’s squeamish, they almost get more and more feral in the way that they, in a jokey way, put them up every week to do the worst tasks.
“That feeling of power over television is really unique to this decade,” Judi adds.
And while a new series can call on months worth of dedication from viewers, it’s the pantomime villains that keep us hooked, says Judi.
In a way viewers are “coerced” into doing that says Judi, adding, “the whole essence is that there will be some people who are so acutely annoying and people are so torn between getting rid of them at the start, and losing some of the bigger characters, or keeping them in and suffering. “
On the power this offers the viewer Judi notes, “I think I would say a lot of these shows rest almost more on people’s dislike of the annoying ones than their admiration of the popular ones. You knew that at some stage you’d have the power to get them out, so there is a degree of vengeance going on.”
On actual emotion among the formulaic nature of the shows, Judi says that as viewers we’re looking for the human responses and it’s from the contestants, not the judges, that we’ll get this.
“I think what’s fascinating, in terms of body language, is that acted responses are never the same as real responses,” says Judi adding, “For years we’ve been fed on a diet of acted responses to situations and I think it’s very education to watch genuine responses and maybe learn a bit about human nature.
“The judges become very much in their own belief that stars of the show, the highest-ranking people on the show. They sort of see themselves as a character and have the belief the public will choose who they want them to choose and then they don’t, and I think that’s quite funny in itself really,” Judi concludes.