Complain About MAFS Drama But Can’t Stop Watching? There’s a Psychological Reason Why


I have never been a fan of reality television. I never jumped on the Keeping Up With the Kardashians bandwagon, never cared about the Real Housewives of anywhere and couldn’t tell you the first thing about anyone, ever, from The Bachelor or Bachelorette franchises.

My aversion to this type of content stems from a few things — first and foremost that I am vehemently opposed to taking valuable space and air time from legitimate content creators, performers and screenwriters in favour of people desperate for a few extra Instagram followers and their 15 minutes of fame.

Another reason is that I cannot stand the type of needless conflict these shows often promote, encouraging people to hold onto the most inconsequential of infractions for the sake of a storyline.

Perhaps it’s a side-effect of having lived in America for over a decade — four of them under Trump’s reign of terror — but the only drama I want in my life is the kind you find on HBO.

Having recently watched some of the current season of Married at First Sight for the purpose of my job, I found myself wondering why on earth the show is so popular when it’s just a bunch of people squabbling with each other interspersed with infrequent moments of manufactured marital bliss.

Could it be that fans of the show actually enjoy the drama — a strange concept for my conflict averse self — and if so, why?

It turns out there is a very good reason, as behavioural scientist Dr Juliette Tobias-Webb explained to The Latch.

According to Dr Tobias-Web, who has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, people can become obsessed with drama not only because it is “emotional and exciting” but it can also give people a sense of meaning. 

“The physiological arousal from drama is exciting; increasing our heart rate, visceral arousal and leading to the release of endorphins in the brain which are pain-suppressing and pleasure-inducing, not much different than the effect of some drug addictions,” Dr Tobias-Webb said.

“Like any addiction, you build up a tolerance that continuously requires more to get the same neurochemical effect. In the case of drama, then means you need more and more crises to get the same thrill.” 

This might explain why so many MAFS viewers spend so much time complaining about the show and its participants, yet refuse to — or are unable to — stop watching.

Apparently, it goes even deeper than the initial neurochemical response and veers into schadenfreude territory as reality television audiences can sometimes be drawn to the drama as it makes their own lives feel less chaotic by comparison.

 “A 2014 research article found that people watch television shows to simultaneously make comparisons with the people on the shows and to feel better about themselves and their personal circumstances,” Dr Tobias-Webb said.

“This aligns with the Social Comparison Theory which postulates that humans have a drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities, prompting people to compare their faculties, feelings and anticipated responses to those of the TV star. Comparisons can aid in understanding social norms to forming feelings of self-worth by identifying where we stand in society — i.e. do you see yourself better or worse than the people on TV?”. 

For some people, these comparisons can bleed into their own real-life relationships as relationship educator Joey Garcia has seen first hand.

“As a relationship advice columnist, I’ve received letters from young men who say their girlfriends unconsciously act out behaviour they’ve seen on a reality TV show —sometimes even picking an argument using words plucked right from a show’s script,” Garica told The Latch.

Garcia also argues that there are some sociological benefits to the drama and chaos of reality television as it assists us in figuring out our place in the world.

“People also relish the feeling of peeping in on other people’s lives like a fly on the wall,” she said.

“Gossip is the opiate of the obsessed but while deconstructing your coworker’s behaviours is most certainly not acceptable, it is acceptable to gossip about reality TV show characters.

“Reality TV also pushes socially acceptable boundaries. While talking about the life-determining decisions that reality show characters make, people discover what others in their social circle really think, where social boundaries are set and how to navigate those lines.” 

To that end, some of the drama on the current season of Married at First Sight has veered into extremely volatile territory, with thousands of viewers uniting in their disgust at the behaviour of groom Bryce Ruthven — going so far as to circulate a petition demanding an apology from Channel 9 for giving him a platform.

And what about the participants themselves? Is it simply the lure of a lucrative career as an Instagram influencer and a few weeks off of work that entices them to apply for shows they know will test them to their emotional limits?

Not quite.

As previously reported on The Latch, reality TV personalities require a hefty amount of hedonism which is “the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence.” This, of course, ties in with the theory of the addiction to drama as the two things release that same trusty (and sometimes pesky) chemical — dopamine.

As for how these traits play into their actual love lives off-camera, Dr Tobias-Webb doesn’t necessarily think that people with a propensity for onscreen drama are more likely to mistake it for passion in their personal lives.

“I think people are often optimistic about their outcomes on TV shows and how they will end up appearing,” Dr Tobias-Webb said. 

“People are often more attracted to the dream that is sold to them from the reality show — adventure, attention and status in the community.”

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.