If I watch a lot of TV but view it as escapist entertainment upon which I should never model my own behaviour, my real-life relationships are unlikely to be affected. If I watch a small amount of TV but believe that I am seeing accurate portrayals of real life, my decisions and perspectives might be significantly impacted.
Dr Jeremy Osborn
New research from Albion College in the United States has revealed that those who believe in televisual portrayals of romance are less likely to be committed to their spouses. The study, which was published in the journal Mass Communication and Society
, found that when people expect their home lives to resemble those featured on television, they are putting their real-life romantic relationships at risk.
More than 390 married couples were surveyed as part of the study. Participants answered questions concerning their relationship expectations, their levels of commitment, satisfaction with their current romantic relationships, whether or not they believed in televisual portrayals of romantic relationships and how frequently they watched television. The results revealed that individuals who believed in televisual portrayals of romance tended to perceive their relationship costs – the loss of personal freedom, the loss of time, the unattractive qualities of their partner – as being higher than those who did not.
I spoke to the study’s author Dr Jeremy Osborn to find out about those most at risk of having television jeopardise their love lives. I began by asking whether or not viewing frequency affected one’s likelihood of believing in television romance.
"Actually, what I found in my research was that those two variables are independent of one another," he replied. "Heavy television watching itself is not a particularly good predictor of these attitudes. The most important factor appears to be the way in which an individual interacts with television. If I watch a lot of TV but view it as escapist entertainment upon which I should never model my own behaviour, my real-life relationships are unlikely to be affected. If I watch a small amount of TV but believe that I am seeing accurate portrayals of real life, my decisions and perspectives might be significantly impacted."
Essentially, whether or not televisual experiences encroach upon reality depends on the person in question. Which people then, are most likely to be affected in this way?
"It seems that factors such as a person's relational experience might affect the ways in which he or she processes the information they see on TV," said Dr Osborn. "For example, adolescents who have little personal experience of their own are probably going to be more affected by TV portrayals. In a 2006 study, Zubriggen and Morgan found that people who see TV as a learning tool are more likely to express attitudes that are consistent with the attitudes reflected on the shows that they watch. It's easy to see how adolescents and others with little experience might be more likely to see TV as a learning tool and to thus be impacted by what they watch. Individual-level factors like these seem to be where researchers should look next. What are the individual factors that help to predict whether or not somebody is likely to believe in these portrayals?"
Dr Osborn contends that popular television series whose storylines prominently feature romantic relationships, such as ABC’s The Bachelor
and CBS’s Two and a Half Men
, might also be influencing viewers’ romantic expectations on a subconscious level. Even if individuals are aware that these portrayals are exaggerated, their views might still be shaped without them realising. I asked Dr Osborn whether or not programme makers have an obligation to deliver realistic portrayals of romantic life.
"[Laughs] That’s a loaded question," he answered. "I was a radio and television major at college so I can see this from a business perspective. I also studied journalism at as a postgraduate and I spent a lot of time discussing ethical issues. Do programme makers have an obligation in this respect? Technically, no. TV is a business. Its primary responsibility is to investors. In a cultural sense, I think that we would be better off if programme makers gave some thought to the ways in which their products might affect viewers. Even so, it’s a difficult business to be in. I don’t know whether it’s fair to expect production companies to change the way in which they do things. I think that it falls on us as academics to try to bring these issues to light; to help viewers become more educated consumers of information. People need to think twice about whether they are being affected by the things that they assume are not affecting them."
I went on to ask Dr Osborn about the measures that viewers can take to prevent television from adversely impacting their romantic relationships.
"I think that the most important lesson that people can take away from my research is to be realistic about their expectations and about where these expectations come from," he replied. "Why is it that we seem to hurt the ones we love the most? There are lots of reasons, but essentially, it comes down to the fact that we are tied up with these people. We are heavily interdependent. I think that a certain level of self-reflection is necessary in order to prevent ourselves from being overly judgemental when it comes to our partners. Take for instance programmes such as The Bachelor
and The Bachelorette
. Contestants compete to win the heart of a person who has been selected to perform the title role. The show’s producers put participants up in a lavish mansion and arrange dates in exotic locales. Participants do things that most of us wouldn’t do on a regular basis; it’s all very extravagant. I think that when people watch programmes such as these, they need to be aware that they cannot expect their partner or their life to resemble these portrayals on a day-to-day basis.
"When we are hard on our significant others, it is important for us to take a step back and to question whether our behaviour is warranted. At what level is the bar that I’ve set for this person? Is what I’m doing, or asking them to do, actually something that is reasonable? If not, I should ask whether my expectations have been shaped by the portrayals that I’ve been exposed to via television. Perhaps television relationships aren’t a direct corollary with my personal relationships."
Self-reflection is vital, according to Dr Osborn. Even if we are aware of the artificial nature of television romance, we must consider the possibility that such portrayals might be affecting us unconsciously.
"If you were to ask people whether or not they believed what they saw on television, most would probably answer, ‘No’," he concluded. "The bigger question concerns whether or not people are being influenced on a subconscious level. That’s an issue that I haven’t yet addressed in my research but it is something that I would very much like to investigate."