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Reality TV and What It Can Teach Us PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Barbara Drescher   

The Osbornes are clearly not a typical family. Getting a job as a chef does not usually involve living with a bunch of other candidates to be picked off one by one over a period of weeks, all while being yelled at nightly, and forced to consume various innards or chase pigs as the Hell's Kitchen contestants do. And I seriously doubt that The Bachelor just forgot the camera was there when he was on a 'date'. If the cameras do not catch humans in their natural habitats, what can we learn from them? A lot, I think.

Most research into human behavior involves unnatural settings and manipulations. Research is goal-driven and studies are designed to answer specific questions, but sometimes the most valuable knowledge is completely unexpected and unplanned. After all, Pavlov set out to study the gastric function of dogs, not classical conditioning, and Fleming's Nobel Prize winning discovery of penicillin was the result of a contaminated sample. There are also a few shows (e.g., Cops), which capture relatively natural behavior in specific contexts. Many everyday experiences and observations spark hypotheses or provide examples of well-known principles which can be used in the classroom.    

Of course, I have some specific examples in mind.

   

The Naturalistic Observation of Candid Camera

 Allen Funt is a bit of a hero among introductory and social psychology teachers. The 'experiments' conducted on the original show demonstrate some of the most fundamental principles of human behavior.    

In what is arguably the most famous clip, three Candid Camera staff enter an elevator separately, appearing to be strangers. They face the back of the elevator as we watch a subject enter and struggle with conflict between the norm of facing forward and draw to conform and face the back. The funniest subject is persuaded to turn sideways, remove his hat, replace his hat, and ignore the fact that the elevator doors open repeatedly on the same floor - all simply because everyone else is doing these things. There is no better demonstration of the power of social influence, including Asch's experiments in the 1950s.

Clips from the classic show which have been compiled for use in psychology classrooms are available for purchase at candidcamera.com.    

 

American Idol, the Failed Self-Esteem Movement, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Setting aside that a recent contestant 'knew' she was about to be cut because her horoscope told her...    

Although many people in the 1980s questioned the wisdom of charging parents for uniforms, coaches, and equipment so that they could watch their kids play a game with no apparent goal because nobody kept score, myths about self-esteem are still alive and well today.

By 2004 the evidence clearly refuted the long-held belief that bullies were children with low self-esteem who lashed out to avoid more pain. Although this view allowed us to avoid facing our contempt for these children, avoiding the truth – namely that bullies tend to be narcissistic and that their aggression stems from feelings of entitlement – impedes our ability to develop effective ways to deal with that aggression. In the meantime, victims of bullying suffer from more than simply a blow to their self-esteem.    

The "everybody gets a trophy" approach was well-intentioned, but misguided. Instead of teaching children that everyone is equal, it taught them that everyone is the same. This message seems to contradict the accompanying message that the child is special. When children cannot reconcile their 'specialness' with the idea that others are equally deserving, they fail to develop an understanding of the very real competition for limited resources that we all must face as adults. The product of this failed movement is a narcissist with little knowledge or interest in the needs or abilities of others. It should be of no surprise that narcissism among college students, as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory [NPI], increased 30% between 1985 and 2006.   

So what does this have to do with American Idol?

Well, I find the auditions and "Hollywood Week" the most fascinating. The last segment of this process when the judges inform, personally, the last set of contestants (usually around 50 or so) whether or not they were chosen for the 'main stage' part of the show. Most who make it that far only to be rejected handle it fairly well, but some do not. Last year one contestant begged, claiming that she alone faced a an illness that affected her voice and declaring that she deserved a spot on the show. The famously blunt Simon Cowell was rather gentle when he explained that, since they'd already chosen the contestants, giving her a spot meant taking one from someone else. That seemed to fly right by her as she to chanted again and again, "I deserve it!" She continued this mantra outside, telling Ryan Seacrest about how many of the contestants deserved it. At no time did she appear to understand that there were a limited number of spots, so whether or not she or someone else deserved it was not the issue. One person deserves it more than another, regardless of how slight that lead is; that is the issue.    

Narcissism is highly correlated with entitlement attitudes and external attributions for failures (e.g., "I failed because the grading/judging was unfair."). These, in turn, are correlated with overestimating one's own competency (the Dunning-Kruger effect). Those who overestimate the most are the least competent; those who understand the least are also the least equipped to recognize that they do not understand. We see this in action during the auditions for American Idol. The worst singers seem to be oblivious to the fact that they cannot sing. Many curse and cry after leaving, stating that the judges – usually music industry veterans - do not know what they are talking about. The funniest are those who continue to sing after being told "absolutely not" as if they will somehow hit just the right note, the skies will open up, the angels will join in, and the judges will shout, "Wait! We made a mistake!"

   

The Goal is the Key on Survivor, in School, and Everywhere

The end of the first Survivor competition was a bit of a shock to many viewers because the man who won, Richard Hatch, was considered one of the least likeable of the cast. Early in the show, contestants tended to vote off the worst performers, the people who contributed the least to the community. Hatch was the first to vote for the expulsion of a strong contributor, citing that she was a threat. He recognized that the goal, in the end, was to be the sole survivor. This meant more than meeting the physical demands of the contest. It meant outlasting one's opponents. Popular contestants were a threat because nobody wants to vote off people that they like.    

Adapting to the goal happened very quickly on this show. The same thing happens whenever goals are placed. For example, outcomes-based education (when funding for schools is tied to student performance on standardized tests) promotes fact-based teaching strategies rather than skill-based. Students study for multiple-choice exams by memorizing definitions using flashcards and associating terms, neither of which involve understanding concepts at any level which would allow application or transfer. When they are given short answer exams, the work of memorizing is more difficult, but many continue to do well by reciting and describing examples that were presented to them. However, given the task of organizing the material themselves or producing original examples of concepts, most are unable to do so because they simply do not understand what they memorized. Thus the programs which were put in place to fix what some thought was a poor education system had the opposite effect. Students do not learn how to think.

Many complain today that the Scholastic Aptitude Test [SAT] and Graduate Record Examination [GRE] do not test what they claim to test: aptitude for success in college (or graduate school). There is some truth to this because preparation programs teach test-taking strategies which are specific to each test. The tests themselves must change dramatically every few years if they are to continue to assess aptitude for success rather than skill at taking that test.    

Discussing the No Child Left Behind Act is opening up a can of worms, but I will say this: the real key to education is accurate assessment. If students cannot earn a passing grade without demonstrating a deep understanding of the material, those who are motivated and capable will change their study strategies to gain that deep understanding. Accurate assessment cannot be achieved without flexibility, frequent adjustments, and a lot of manpower. This is very difficult to achieve on a grand scale.

   

In conclusion, reality TV may not be real, but…

…neither are laboratory experiments. There are lessons to be learned everywhere; the biggest obstacle to learning is the thought that someone, something, or some experience has nothing to teach us.      

 

References

Achacoso, M. (2006). 'What do you mean my grade is not an A?': An investigation of academic entitlement, causal attributions, and self-regulation in college students. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A, 67

Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193(5), 31–35.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.    

Juvonen, J., & Graham, S. (2004). Research-based interventions on bullying. In C. E. Sanders, G. D. Phye, C. E. Sanders, G. D. Phye (Eds.), Bullying: Implications for the classroom (pp. 229-255).

Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, W., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality, 76(4), 875-902.

   

Barbara Drescher teaches research methods, statistics, and cognitive psychology at California State University, Northridge. Her research interests include perception, attention, learning, and reasoning. At ICBSEverywhere.com, Barbara evaluates claims and research, discusses education, and promotes science and skepticism.

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Spot on regarding education
written by themusicteacher, April 07, 2011
In music education, we don't have the testing (aside from that which we do to assess the progress of our own students) and it allows us flexibility and freedom to teach skills and concepts in a performance-based way;while facts and knowledge are important and I do teach them, the proof of understanding is typically in the performance (and is most apparent in sight-reading, the equivalent of an essay question in music performance). The response to music education lacking testing structures is mixed: some people think we get off easy or that because we don't test we aren't a real subject, others (even those in the profession) think we should succumb to the testing craze so we can somehow prove these people wrong. I can't think of a more wrong-headed approach to any sort of education and introducing that type of stricture on music would be very, very bad.

The stated goals for my performance programs are that students will be able to perform music (even music they've never before seen) with musicality, fluency, competence and understanding. Now, this requires and underlying basis of knowledge and facts and experiences but relies on the student to continually be performing many different types of music in many different genres to obtain a grasp and feel for effective musical performance with skill. The degree to which this happens depends on how well I do my job but also how well my students do theirs. Unfortunately, most of my students are content simply to "get the right answer" (push down the correct buttons at the correct time; this is, sorry to say, not the same as making music) and look no further. No amount of prodding or cajoling on my part will change the lazy student who can't take it further than, "Is this going to be on the test?" This sort of lazy mentality is what permeates the entire notion of outcome-based education: it's easier and clearer (not to mention less time consuming and cheaper) to see results on a scoresheet than it is to get into the muck and reality of education in any real way. If we were really concerned with teaching kids to think (as many people are wont to say but rarely support in any functionally meaningful way), we'd scrap testing in favor of portfolios and other such more involved methods of assessment. Somehow, I don't think that is going to happen.
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written by BrianEngler, April 07, 2011
I too never waste my time on these poor excuses for television programming, although it's difficult not to hear about them since so many media, news, and just plain folks seem unable to shut up about them. It seems to me that their presence says lots more about the lazy and pinchpenny attitudes of TV executives who fail to see the value in higher quality well-written and produced fiction and non-fiction programs. Not to mention the lemming-like public fascination with what are purported to be "real" people and situations but are, as noted in the article, actually contrived to create what passes for drama. I enjoyed the original Candid Camera because it was unique and clever. As is typical in the entertainment industry though, one success breeds innumerable, and generally poorly conceived, copies. Hence today's "reality" glut. I acknowledge that we need to be open to learning from any experience, and I applaud those who can stomach this stuff and find some psychological or other insights in it. In my view, though, there are many more ways in this fascinating world to interact and to learn than to vegetate on a sofa watching this sort of tripe.
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written by philosaur, April 07, 2011
I no not what course others may take, but I have never, ever watched one of these programs. What are you talking about?


Sure thing, Yoda. Your point might carry more weight if you spelled "know" correctly.

Also--pathological cultural ignorance is no sign of sophistication.
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written by OldProf, April 07, 2011
The graduation rate at the university where I teach is perfectly correlated (and has been for years) with the mathematics ACT score. Those tests still quite clearly measure college aptitude. The people (usually parents) who complain about standardized testing are too often 'helicopter mothers' who have helped their children get A averages in school, and whose children then get average ACT scores. At that point, it is clear (to them) that it's because their child "doesn't test well".
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@OldProf
written by badrescher, April 07, 2011
Standardized tests really are not the problem; the problem is in their abuses. BTW, the biggest complaints I hear about the SAT and ACT are that they are culturally insensitive, but that kind of criticism seems to miss their purpose. They don't measure intelligence or ability.
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written by kenhamer, April 07, 2011
"pathological cultural ignorance is no sign of sophistication."

But it is a sign of good taste.

Sorry, Charlie.
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written by badrescher, April 07, 2011
"pathological cultural ignorance is no sign of sophistication."

But it is a sign of good taste.


Actually, it's not. How much the masses like something is not a measure of its quality.
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written by OldProf, April 07, 2011
@badrescher - I didn't say that they measured intelligence or ability. I said that they do what they are designed to do, which is measure the aptitude for higher education.
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written by Ron Obvious, April 07, 2011
Can I just mention that I haven't watched TV since 1988 and have never seen any reality TV. This not only makes me smarter than most people, but smug about it.
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@OldProf
written by badrescher, April 07, 2011
?? I think you misread my comment.
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written by BrianEngler, April 08, 2011
This hilarious critique by Ken Levine of one reality show at least shows that they provide a certain amount of humor even if unintended: http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/...cking.html smilies/cheesy.gif
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written by OldProf, April 08, 2011
@badrescher - I don't believe that I did. There might be some argument about cultural insensitivity, but why does this translate into lack of success in higher education?
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Spelling
written by peterwbarber, April 08, 2011
My deepest apologies to those whom I may have offended by mistyping the word know as no. I am properly humbled to have my early morning mistake pointed out to me in such a civilized manner. I do beg your forgiveness. I throw myself on the court’s mercy with the excuse that I had only one cup of coffee.

As to my sophistication, I pled guilty to not being unaware of “pathological popular culture.” I am not sure what of “pathological popular culture” is. In fact, I pled proudly guilty.
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written by themusicteacher, April 08, 2011
@badrescher

You know, what you're saying about standardized tests is absolutely true but I will say this. My wife, a speech-language pathologist, was attending a conference a few years back when a presenter posited (without much explanation) that memory is intelligence. Could this be a reason why some (unfortunately powerful) people attribute so much to them? Are they mistaking memory with intelligence? I still think there is a large laziness component to testing but I think there are many people who think that standardized tests are somehow proof of what a child is capable of, in a larger sense, how well a teacher teaches and how well a school is doing at Educating kids.
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@ badrescher
written by JarlNjord, April 08, 2011
@ badrescher: "Actually, it's not. How much the masses like something is not a measure of its quality."

I was under the impression that the cultural insensitivity issues with the SAT & ACT tests involves questions that are nuanced so that those without a thoroughly "American" background might have some difficulty answering them. This, of course, would likely not apply to most questions in the maths section.
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written by badrescher, April 08, 2011
I could not agree more.
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written by OldProf, April 08, 2011
@badrescher - "are they mistaking memory with intelligence?"

Certainly, the US K-12 education structure does this.
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written by Mark P, April 08, 2011
As a Maths teacher, the I think primary guide to whether a student passes or not is how good their memory is.

I can teach any child the elements of trigonometry. With care and attention they can solve any "find the side" or "find the angle" question. What I cannot guarantee is that they will remember it a week later.

Ability with abstract applies only comes in at the higher levels of Maths. It is what distinguishes the genuinely good from the merely average. But ability with abstract thought won't actually help you solve a simple trigonometry problem if you haven't learnt the basic skills. It will merely allow you to employ those skills more quickly and to more difficult problems.

Since one cannot realistically improve one's memory or abstract thinking skills, the only way to improve performance in Maths is practice. And practice is phenomenally successful at this, so we see that hard working kids pass Maths, and lazy kids fail it. The smart kids who think they don't need to study soon find that being smart won't help them remember when you use Cosine and when you use Sine.

So when a person complains "this test is for memory" they often have the wrong end of the stick. As an employer or enrollments officer I don't care how my employee/student gets the ability I require. I just need him or her to be competent with the requisite skills.

Testing for ability without a memory component would be worse than useless. Clever lazy people would do well in the test. And promptly fail at the task they were selected for, since being clever is no cover for laziness.
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written by Steel Rat, April 14, 2011
Part of the problem of "reality TV" is definition. Most are simply gritty game shows, and have little to do with reality in the sense of everyday life. Survivor is a game show, Big Brother is a game show, The Bachelor is a game show, etc...
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written by metzomagic, April 19, 2011
American Idol and its ilk (Pop Idol, X Factor, et. al.) have an even worse effect on society than the reality TV aspect: they stifle musical creativity and originality. These programs are nothing more than glorified karaoke. A band is more than a singer, and these shows do nothing to foster the creation of original music by talented upcoming musicians and songwriters. In fact, they actively discourage creativity by giving young people a false idea of what being a successful musical performer is all about. With a few exceptions, the winners of each show are back on the street again a year later.

We are unwittingly creating a generation of imitators and cover artists.
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