April 05, 2010

Sociology Meets The Bachelor

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

A few weeks ago, I was asked to appear on 20/20 to discuss the group dynamics that might emerge while filming a reality show like The Bachelor. I’m always pleased when a sociological perspective is included in popular culture, particularly since we Americans traditionally view things from an individual perspective.

The segment’s correspondent, Chris Connelly, asked me several very interesting questions about group dynamics and why people might behave in ways that they might not in a different situation. As with any program, time constraints permitted only some of our discussion to air, so this post will expand on our conversation. The main question Connelly asked me was, What sort of group dynamics emerge when people are isolated from their regular lives, as they are on shows like The Bachelor?

When people encounter a situation they are unfamiliar with, they will often try to create order. Sociologist Harold Garfinkel studied how jurors must figure out how to organize their deliberations in the absence of specific rules about how to do so. Likewise, when people enter a situation such as a reality show, where there might not be specific rules about how to interact with other participants, they might use other reality shows they have seen to guide their behavior.

People who choose to be on a show like The Bachelor are likely to be somewhat savvy about “unscripted” programming and therefore probably know what sort of reality “characters” get the most screen time. As one of the show's producers admitted, many contestants aren’t necessarily there to find true love, but to get on television. In a tough economy like this one, appearing on a reality show could put someone on the fast-track to celebrity and perhaps to a career of sorts that involves simply being themselves (like Heidi Montag and others).

And of course candidates for the show aren’t selected because they are necessarily good matches for the Bachelor/Bachelorette. They tend to be people who look good in bathing suits, have a bit of an exhibitionist streak, and who might be somewhat emotionally volatile. Conflicts will emerge when you combine these factors with free-flowing alcohol. And of course a television show without drama is not likely to stay on the air for very long.

In some ways shows like these bear passing resemblance to dynamics in cults and other total institutions, a term sociologist Erving Goffman coined to describe organizations that essentially run a person’s life, if only for a short time. When someone participates on The Bachelor, they live in a spectacular mansion and must cut off contact from the outside world (contestants report not even knowing that Barack Obama was elected president while in the house). They cannot talk about what went on during the show until after it has aired either.clip_image002

Their time is structured by producers, and they feel lucky to be chosen to spend time alone with a central figure that the other participants fawn over. To be selected by this (sometimes) charismatic figure at the end of the show signifies specialness. This dynamic is not unlike the way cult figures interact with the group’s leader. To the outside world, a cult leader might seem really creepy and strange, but in the context of a total institution, their attention might imply salvation.

In the context of The Bachelor, it is normal for the anointed one to have sexual rendezvous with multiple women, and for the women to have friendly conversations with each other in which they compare notes about those encounters. Separated from trusted others, such as friends and family, who might in normal circumstances weigh in on their romantic lives, the experience seems okay. While in our daily lives we might have many things to define our identities, such as school, our work, and our relationships with friends and families, little else defines contestants during this process but how well they fare with the bachelor/bachelorette.

Just as psychologist Philip Zimbardo found in the Stanford prison experiment, in a short period of time people will change their behavior to conform to the expectations of those granted powerful roles. Connelly asked me why people seldom want to leave, and I suspect the answer is similar to Zimbardo’s findings. No, The Bachelor is not a prison, or even a mock prison, but the context is very powerful here. Participants live in a fantasy-like setting, don’t have to go to work, and can spend their evenings in beautiful formal wear. They might travel to exotic locales and have dinner with an impossibly perfect sunset as the backdrop.

I know, so far this sounds like the opposite of Zimbardo’s experiment. But the point is that people often become somewhat passive when others have defined the situation for them. And the situation on The Bachelor is that being chosen as “the one” by the bachelor is the super ordinate goal, even if one is miserable in the process—or really doesn’t care much for the bachelor as a person. In the prison experiment, people adapted to their roles as prisoner and guard too well, and soon let go of their normal inhibitions and began acting accordingly. It is likely that people on a show like The Bachelor would soon behave in ways they might not normally too.

There are many other interesting sociological aspects to The Bachelor and similar shows, including issues pertaining to gender, the “happily ever after” fantasy of love and marriage, and the celebration of consumption. What sociological issues do you see in this and other so-called reality shows?


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Very interesting post!

Your appearance was great - so informative and articulate.

I too have wondered about the context of The Bachelor in regards to relationships:


I believe that the lesson that ‘The Bachelor’ does teach is the value of selection and removing your own limitations.

the bachelor, and other reality shows, is usually so fraught with emotions that it's hard to see the dynamics that help explain for 'unreasonable' behavior, and we know audiences go crazy everytime an undeserving girl get even close to getting the guy..
very clearly written too!

This was a really interesting article. I had never really thought of a reality show, such as The Bachelor, to be like this. I knew most of the people in the show were not acting like their true selves, but I had never looked at it in this viewpoint. This was very informative as to why they act the way they do.

I really think a lot of people are acting like their true selves. The only difference would be now their on T.V. and it shows truly who they are. Some people remain true to themselves and some get buck wild. Usually the ones that are sweet and polite get the boot. Its extremely crazy to see. It goes to show you that its not what goes in a man that defiles him, but what comes out of him.

I find what you have concluded a perfect example of how i feel when i watch shows of that nature. When in a group you behave differently then you do when your around family for example, and this is normal. However once you add a goal to the mix the "cattyness" is seen and we seem appauled but we can't stop watching it because of out intrigue of how it will end.

I think one of the main issues with reality shows, such as "The Bachelor," is how it is nothing like reality, but viewers and contestants want to believe that it is. For example, all of the contestants have some type of face-work, the term used by Erving Goffman to refer to the efforts people make to maintain the proper image and avoid public embarrassment. These women seem one way on television, but in real life they are probably completely different. Another issue is the fact that the producers can cut anything they would like out of the show, as well as edit clips together to make more drama, or allow one contestant seem like one type of character, and someone else another. I will admit, I watch "The Bachelor" every week, but seeing it in a sociological perspective does change a few of my views on the show.

I hate how they call shows like "The Bachelor" reality TV. I mean clearly they aren't. People go on the shows not looking for true love, but to find money. When you're put on television and you know millions of people are watching you there is no way that you can act like your true self. When there's cameras watching everything you do I'm sure you're going to do a few things differently. The point is everybody changes when there put in situations like this, and it really isn't a reality show.

Very interesting post. Shows like the bachelor have so many emotions even though it is not reality. It is called reality tv but is clearly not. When you mix in people acting different for tv and the goal of money things get very interesting.

Reality TV is not like reality. People aren't going to act like their normal selves when many people around the world are watching them. People still follow these shows all the way until the end because there is always drama or something about to happen and people can't stop watching. It is basically just watching someone elses drama. Why would you want to do that when you know it isn't how the person truly is?

This post was very interesting, and I liked the way you analyzed the sociological aspects of reality shows such as The Bachelor. Comparing The Bachelor to Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment helped me understand the importance of roles in social situations. The Bachelor is unrealistic because the “true love” that emerges is heavily influenced by group dynamics, personal motives and predetermined roles. Nevertheless, the entertainment value of the show’s drama makes it popular, as well as profitable.

Everything in the bachelor is very emotional I mean 25 men/ women is fighting for the love of one person. There is deffinetly going to be drama and alot of emotions. But everything that goes on, on the show makes it very interesting which makes people get into it and watch it.

According to Erving Goffman and his concept of the dramaturgical approach these 'reality tv' images are merely people putting on different faces, different roles at different points in time. Therefore it is my view that society is bewildered by images and fantasy as the post industrialists would argue and it is no doubt that these reality shows provide great entertainment with images that mean nothing and hold no true significance in "reality".

This post was very interesting. I like how you explained that the roles people normally take on in a culture are distorted in a total institution. I think it is important to draw attention to this because of how drastically the behavior and views of some of these people can sometimes change when put in this type of situation.

Interesting post- this shows the deeper dimensions of the human psychology.

I find this post relly intresting well first its correct about how people start acting as someone else that they are really not. Just like the Zimbardo's experiment they got the role and started acting hopeless or with too much power. The show "The Bachelor" is just two peolpe tryng to become some one they are not. Well first of all love happens by it self I mean Love finds you. Second of all the Tv stars always try to act and look good for the audience.

I like how you added Zimbardo's mock prison trial into what you said. It helped to provide a precedent and a basis for what you were saying about The Bachelor, which in my opinion, is a stupid show.

It's great that you thought so much about infectious group dynamics and how to ethically deal with these.. The Zimbardo study taught us a lot, group dynamics are tricky.

We are teaching our young women that it's ok to ditch our Christian beliefs about saving ourselves and that its ok to be on a show that makes money on a false sense of what true relationships are about. I'm sure that you group of 30 women or men together on a tv show would all fall in love with one man or woman- #letsgetreal

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