Psychology of Social Connection

Reality Check: How friendships draw us to reality TV

March 13th, 2021 · 5 Comments

The reality-competition game show Survivor is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with 40 seasons aired since the American show started in 2000. The Survivor franchise has become almost cult-like: with around 7 million viewers, it continues to be one of CBS’s most popular shows (TV Series Finale). But what makes this show so captivating? Why are we as humans drawn to reality television so much? Well, there’s a lot there— so buckle in and stay tuned for our take on it! 


If you haven’t watched Survivor, one, you should (I’ve been binging it all semester) and two, I’ll break down the format for you. Basically, a group of strangers are marooned together in an isolated location competing to be the sole-survivor and winner of one million dollars. The group competes in physical challenges that earn them benefits; safety, resources, and special prizes. Here’s the catch; every few days, one member is voted out of the tribe by the others. So beyond the physical challenges and surviving in the wild, this game show has a huge psychological component. Forming friendships, allies, and trust is integral to making it through the show for the chance to win $1,000,000. 

Watching along from my couch at home, it is impossible not to think about the social dynamics within the show– especially this week as we learn about friendship and acquaintances. Along with fulfilling their basic need to survive like finding food and water, contestants must also form social connections and bonds in order to stay in the game. This mirrors our backbone Baumeister & Leary paper– that social connections are a fundamental human need (1995). In order to win, contestants must form connections. 

Forming and maintaining friendships are the only way to stay and get to the end of the show– so how do contestants form these bonds and know who to trust? We learned this week that friendships form based on proximity and chance which can be directly seen in the show (Back, Schmukle & Egloff, 2008). At the start, contestants are randomly split into two tribes and when they connect back together further on in the season, alliances are almost always along original tribe lines. 

Maintaining these friendships and allies on Survivor are mostly based on trust– and the willingness to reciprocate that trust to prove your alliance. As we see in the study by Lount mentioned in the lecturette, “trusting another person requires a willingness to be vulnerable in potentially costly interactions, with the hope that one’s partner will act with positive intentions” (2010). This is continuously seen as the contestants build allies and friends– by putting their trust in others and being vulnerable in the hopes their partner will stay true and not vote them off the island, they build a reciprocal relationship. 

However, this trust gets broken throughout the 40 seasons over and over by the players. It has been shown that humans will compromise their values when there is a monetary reward present– and with $1,000,000 on the line, people are more willing to cheat, lie, and play the game to stay ahead (Météreau et al. 2019). That’s a whole other blog post though… 

When I watch Survivor, I always ask myself, “What would I do if I were on this show in this situation?” We are entertained by shows like this because we can in some part experience and feel joy from these relationships without having the negative consequences of actually being in them. 

However, the use of friendships for entertainment is not at all exclusive to Survivor. One could make a strong case that friendships are part of what draws us to the realm of reality television in the first place. Reality television combines the human love for stories with our craving for relationships, friendships, and of course, the ~juicy drama~ that comes with it. Without actually experiencing the drama firsthand, we are able to invest ourselves emotionally into the characters’ lives and friendships through the plot. 

“Much narrative entertainment is about characters and social interactions…People who love exploring relationships and friendships might like shows that emphasize the ‘unscripted’ social interactions and small scale personal dramas, such as soap operas or reality TV,” explains Brendan Rooney, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University College Dublin who researches the emotional and cognitive engagement with entertainment (Ryan-Christensen, 2020). When thinking about what makes “reality TV” what it is, the storytelling mechanisms and “real-life” editing it uses makes perfect sense why we are attracted to it.

Assuming we watch these shows with a big “reality check” knowing they are warped, the exploration of reality TV relationships and the scenarios they endure becomes, in some ways, “practice” for our friendships in actual reality. Although the interactions are fabricated from our perspective, the ability to “experience” these low-cost friendships through reality TV reflects research that suggests there are rewards in “weak tie” and “low-stakes” friendships. Entertainment “friendships” are likely not a substitute for true acquaintances, but they may be a complement; maybe there exists a connection between the enjoyment we feel when watching these shows and the higher positivity ratings of more “weak tie” interactions in experiments such as Epley & Schroeder (2014). Sandstrom & Dunn (2014) also note higher happiness ratings associated with the number of weak tie interactions an individual makes in a given day relative to their average (Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W., 2014). If watching reality TV allows us to, in some ways, “simulate” these interactions, could this also be an explanation for why we choose to binge watch these series?

A large shortcoming of this hypothesis is that reality TV interactions are not necessarily “interactions” in the sense that there is communication between two individuals. The benefits discussed by Volpe (2019) emphasize the potential for developing social networks among acquaintances and low-cost friends. Volpe’s argument also uses conversation as an almost necessary cause. The experiments conducted by Epley & Schroeder (2014) and Sandstrom & Dunn (2014) observe humans interacting with other humans. Of course, watching a reality TV show does not allow the viewer to hold a conversation with or introduce themselves to the character. In this respect, it brings to question whether or not the interaction has to be two-sided in order to reap certain benefits of “experiencing” friendships.

Nonetheless, reality TV still stands as a great manifestation of the fundamental need to belong within the entertainment industry. By making it an integral component of success within the game, Survivor quite literally places the need to belong with other fundamental needs of food, water, and shelter. The examples don’t stop here; from The Kardashians to The Bachelor (but more on where romance fits into all of this next week), we are drawn to the experience of friendships through reality TV’s storytelling mechanism. Although it may not directly fulfill our need to belong, it is clear that reality TV provides practice in friendships that is both applicable to real life and fun to watch.

– Tess + Kara

Works Cited:

Baumeister, Roy F.,Leary, Mark R. The Need to Belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 117(3), May 1995, 497-529. Back MD, Schmukle SC, Egloff B. Becoming friends by chance. Psychol Sci. 2008 May;19(5):439-40. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02106.x. PMID: 18466403.

CBS 2019-20 Season Ratings. TV Series Finale. October 29, 2020. Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014). Mistakenly seeking solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1980–1999.

Lount, R. B., Jr. (2010). The impact of positive mood on trust in interpersonal and intergroup interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(3), 420–433.

Qu, C., Météreau, E., Butera, L., Villeval, M. C., & Dreher, J. C. (2019). Neurocomputational Mechanisms at Play when Weighing Concerns for Extrinsic Rewards, Moral Values, and Social Image. PLOS Biology, 17(6), [e3000283].

Ryan-Christensen, Aoife (January 2020). What’s the psychology behind our obsession with reality TV? RTÉ. 

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910-922.
Volpe, A. (May 2019). Why you need a network of low-stakes casual friendships. New York Times

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5 responses so far ↓

  • Lara // Mar 16th 2021 at 1:13 am

    I really like the way you two tied the theoretical work on friendships and social connection to the idea of reality TV and friendships being at the center of that. I also, just like I expect everyone else who is taking this course to, totally relate to this when I watch any scripted or unscripted TV show; there are characters on every show that I virtually vibe with and would want to be friends with in real life. From Robin in How I Met Your Mother to Bonnie Bennett on The Vampire Diaries (yes, I loved that show); these were the people I hung out with when I couldn’t be with my real friends and wanted to feel connected and understood. Based on your blog post, I wonder how much watching such TV shows can be a protective factor against loneliness, especially during the pandemic? I still feel less alone and more surrounded by those similar to me when watching certain shows, a little like the mere exposure effect. The easy turning on and off for TV characters makes it somewhat too easy to be surrounded by people and feel connected, even when they are fictional characters. Again, this could be seen as both a protective factor from loneliness, but also dangerous in how easy it is to choose fake over real people. -Lara

  • Ari // Mar 21st 2021 at 7:40 pm

    This week, I was actually just thinking about the extreme example of social connections between contestants on The Bachelor/ette. As you mentioned, I’m sure the romantic side will come up in romantic relationships week but I think the friendship dynamic between contestants is so interesting. I have not watched much of Survivor but I may have to!
    As I have been living alone this semester, I have been watching more reality TV compared to previous months. It started when I put it on for background noise when I was doing other work. After living in a house with 7 other senior girls last semester, I got used to constant background chatter and sometimes the apartment seems too quiet without that. Thanks to reality TV, I now have a replacement, albeit a poor substitute, for social connections. Although I often am more than slightly hesitant to implement some of the strategies used in reality TV, it makes for good entertainment, or at the very least, background noise.

  • Ellie Harvie // Mar 22nd 2021 at 7:36 pm

    Going into college, I was not a reality TV person AT ALL. However, I learned quickly that, to my friends, Monday nights were sacred and could only be spent watching Chris Harrison announce, “this is the final rose for tonight”, when we could all clearly see that for ourselves. At first, I watched The Bachelor only because all of my friends did and I totally had major FOMO. Now I can at least appreciate watching the different interactions and relationships form in such a unique environment, similar to what Ari said in her comment!
    I’m left wondering how non-reality TV might fit into the idea of using entertainment as a “weak” social interaction. Are these connections more difficult to make when the characters are completely on-script? I have my doubts about this; as a die-hard Grey’s Anatomy fan, I definitely feel connected to many of the characters and feel their emotions with them often. My friends and I even feel so connected to the writers sometimes that we get mad at them when something happens that we don’t like (yes, I’m looking at you Shonda Rimes). I would be interested to hear how others feel about this difference!

  • Anonymous // Mar 23rd 2021 at 3:44 am

    I really enjoyed your blog post! I watched The Bachelor this season and after Threat Detection week, I thought a lot about how the girls who get sent home must be feeling in that moment. I appreciate this additional perspective on reality TV and the material we are learning in the class. It’s a great observation and I think it is part of why reality TV is so popular. We feel a sense of connection to the people on the show even though we have never met them. While reality TV is heavily edited, it often deals with many of the daily emotions we feel in our relationships. We get excited and relieved when we find out other people trust and accept us. We feel hurt and sad when we get rejected. While the actual context of the situation is different from our normal lives, the emotions are very real, and I think is part of what keeps us coming back.

  • Anonymous // Mar 23rd 2021 at 3:45 am

    ^oops that last comment is from Tyler

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