All the Ways Reality Shows Can Mess With a Contestant’s Mind

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos by ABC, TLC and CBS

All week long, Vulture explores what happens to reality-TV contestants after the show ends — and the future of the genre itself.

After the weirdness of appearing on a show like Naked and Afraid or Hell’s Kitchen, how do you return to your normal, boring, decidedly not-televised life? A few psychologists and media-studies scholars are beginning to study exactly that: the lives of minor reality stars after they return to the real world. Depending on the type of show, researchers tell us, some of them have an easier time of it than others. 

Crazy Challenge Show
Examples: Survivor, American Idol

According to interviews conducted by S. Mark Young, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, most people who appear on reality shows have some majorly narcissistic tendencies. (Shocker!) And while on the surface narcissists seem like the perfect picture of self-confidence, in truth many of them are needy types, who often have pretty low self-esteem. For a time, being on a reality show brings them exactly what they want: attention. This is true for any reality show, but Young argues it may be especially so for those on competitive shows like Survivor or American Idol.

Inevitably, their time on the show ends. “And the worst thing is, once they get kicked off — or even if they win, and let’s say they don’t get a record contract or a movie deal or something like that — it’s much worse for them than if they’d never done it at all,” Young said. This taps into something psychologists call loss aversion, the idea that people take losses especially hard; the sting of losing something you once had overpowers the joy felt from gaining something new. “The outcome of these shows is probably detrimental to the narcissists in the end,” Young said. “It gives them false hope.” 

The “You’re Being Watched” Show
Examples: Big Brother, Kate Plus Eight, Jersey Shore

Most viewers are familiar at this point with the personas reality-show participants adopt: the Villain, the Girl Next Door, the Weirdo. If those of us watching these tropes are a little bored with them by now, imagine the people who have to play those parts. Hugh Curnutt, a professor in the school of communications and media at Montclair State University, has studied the lives of people after they appear on reality shows, starting back with The Real World. In those early days of reality TV, the participants had an odd problem: They were famous, yes, but they had no real way to monetize that fame. And so many of them, Curnutt has found, end up leaning heavily on the type they played on their show in an attempt to translate that into paid appearances at bars or spring-break spots. “If your occupation is connected to this celebrity, you have to maintain it,” he said. “And in order to maintain your celebrity, you have to be able to negotiate the public and private spheres. Your fans have to see you in both worlds — they see you at the Oscars and then they see you walking your dog.”

“They’re essentially always performing themselves,” Curnutt continued. “And that can be very stressful.” 

Career Shows
Examples: Hell’s Kitchen, Top Chef, Project Runway

If you absolutely must be on a reality show, and you would prefer a low risk of psychological distress afterward, this might be the genre for you. These programs can function like a supersize networking event — albeit one that happens to be competitive and televised — Curnutt and Young say. “I don’t think the vast majority go into these types of programs thinking that their goal is just to win,” Young said. “The goal is just to be on the program in hopes of making connections.” Not that Gordon Ramsay is going to bankroll every former contestant’s new restaurant, but for a lot of people, the connections made with fellow contestants can prove useful.

Then again, this could just be the story these former contestants are telling themselves. Because think about the setup for a minute: When you’re kicked off one of these career-oriented shows, it means you’ve failed — publicly — at your job, the thing you do for a living. On a show like The Apprentice, for example, you are (or were, in the Trump years) literally told that you've been fired, which could make it incredibly difficult to return to your job back in the real world. Coming to terms with the unhappy fact of being fired on national television can require some post-show compartmentalizing, said Lisa-Jo van den Scott, a sociologist at Northwestern University who has analyzed the exit interviews on reality programs. The losers on these shows tend to tell themselves this was a brief step outside of their usual lives, one that had a beginning and an end, something van den Scott calls a bracket. What’s inside the bracket doesn’t really count. “They have to find a way to say, Look, this happened in a bracketed chunk of space and time, and it’s not how my business life is really going to go,” she said.

Dating Shows
Examples: The BachelorThe Bachelorette, Dating Naked

Getting dumped is awful. Getting dumped on television, in front of millions of people? Unthinkable. And yet if the men and women who appear on these shows want a shot at a healthy post-show dating life, they can’t totally forget about their experience on the show.

Many of these shows idealize romantic relationships, and they are constructed around the idea that true love and soul mates are very real things. So if the contestants have any hope of finding these things in real life, they can’t really tell themselves that what happened in the world of the show didn’t count, unlike the ex-contestants on a program like Hell’s Kitchen. “They talk about their feelings on the shows in ways like they’re really trying to prove it was real,” she said. “They want to believe that it’s not a special rule inside the bracket — that true love really does exist.” If love doesn’t exist in the context of the show, can it exist outside of it?

Weight-Loss Shows
Example: The Biggest Loser

It would seem that any negative consequences of appearing on a program like The Biggest Loser would be somewhat, uh, slim. Even if you get booted off early, you’ve still likely lost quite a bit of weight, and you can keep plugging away at the exercise routines and diet designed for you by top trainers and nutritionists. Except for one thing: The research has shown a surprising link between weight loss and depression. One study published last year in PLOS ONE found that after overweight and obese people lost weight, they were 52 percent more likely to report a depressed mood. “Just because you’ve lost the weight doesn’t mean you’ve solved all your problems,” Young said.

And then there is this: Some evidence suggests that the show’s approach to weight loss may actually end up destroying the participants’ metabolism. One study, published back in 2012 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, followed participants after their appearance on the show, and found that their metabolisms slowed much more than what typically happens when people lose weight. The researchers — including Robert Huizenga, who appears on the show as Dr. H. — speculate that this could be due to the show’s extreme approach to exercise and diet, adding that their findings suggest the former contestants could be at risk for “weight regain unless the participants maintain high levels of physical activity or significant caloric restriction."

The Kids:
Examples: Honey Boo Boo, Kate Plus Eight, 19 Kids and Counting

What’s Honey Boo Boo going to be like in college? What will middle school be like for the youngest Duggar children? So far, according to the experts I spoke with, no one has systematically studied what happens to the children who appear on reality programs. The closest model we have, Young said, is the trajectory of the lives of child stars. Some kid actors grow up to becoming seemingly well-adjusted adults — Mara Wilson is a fine example. Others, of course, lose their way. According to a theory in psychology known as hedonic adaptation, people return to a stable state of contentedness pretty quickly; as fame or money piles up, they don’t get any happier. On the other hand, once you’ve experienced what it’s like to be the recipient of huge amounts of attention or money, it’s nearly impossible to dial those expectations back down.

A total lack of agency also takes a psychological toll. “I think the worst part is the kids don’t have any choice, really,” Young said. Research in psychology has consistently linked autonomy — feeling like you have control over the direction of your life — to higher well-being. The children on many of these shows, especially the ones whose lives were documented starting from a very early age, didn’t sign up for this. Years later, they may end up resenting their parents for making this huge decision for them; in the case of the oldest Gosselin girls, at least, it looks like some of them already have