For those who don’t live in Belgium or the Netherlands this might be hard to believe, but 15 years after the Fox Network cancelled Temptation Island, the show still has its fair amount of popularity in Europe. In fact, that’s an understatement. At the moment, in Belgium season 9 is approaching its grande finale, while season 10 is already in the making. The show has had its ups and downs over the years, but especially among young people, Temptation Island is still one of the most popular shows on television.
My friends know that I – being a huge pseudo-intellectual elitist – can’t help but comdemn them for watching Temptation Island (for a host reasons I’ll expand on shortly). But after hours of conversations on the moral character of reality TV, I decided to just live and let live, and no longer bother them about watching the show. Why? Well, because advice that’s unasked for is only rarely accepted in grattitude – especially when it’s coming from someone who purports to be speaking from a moral highground.
So I kept my mouth shut. And then one day, I received a text message from a friend that I’ve only known for a couple of weeks now.
“Do you watch Temptation Island? I want to ask you something about it. But if you don’t watch it, that’s OK. Then just drop it.”
“Actually, it’s been years since I’ve watched TV. So no, I don’t watch Temptation Island. But even if did watch TV, I wouldn’t watch Temptation Island. I just think it would be a huge waste of time. But I’m curious, what did you want to ask?”
“Well, I’ve always considered it to be just mindless entertainment. But now… I can’t do it anymore. What’s happening, and how they play it out… It’s just so dreadful, and I feel bad for watching it.”
So right when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. It just seems inevitable. I’ll have to argue about Temptation Island once again. So I took the effort – for once and for all! – to boil down every single discussions I’ve had about Temptation Island to the 3 most common justifications I’ve heard as to why my friends watch the show. Of course, I also took the effort to explain why I think my friends are bullshitting themselves about the negative consequences reality TV has – both for yourself and other people. In short, here is why I think they – and you! – should know better than to watch Temptation Island.
JUSTIFICATION 1: “I have a job. That means I have to work and think all day long. So at the end of the day, I just want to shut off my brain for an hour and watch some mindless entertainment. What’s wrong with that?”
I get it, life is hard and exhausting. It’s only normal that you want to relax for an hour at the end of the day, preferably in the couch, exasperated. But do you really have to do that at the expense of other people? Do you really value your own relaxation higher than other people’s moral integrity and their ability to manage their impulses and arguably the most valuable thing in their lives, i.e. their relationships? If it’s really about shutting your brain off for just an hour, why don’t you go for a walk? Why spend your time watching other people’s failings and misery while, in the meantime, sending TV networks the economic signal that’s exactly what you value?
In other words, couldn’t you find something more noble to do in your spare time? To use Neil Postman’s words, there really is such a thing as “amusing yourself to death” – or brain death at least. There’s more than ample evidence that when you indulge in so-called innocent, mindless entertainment, you impress habits of thought that often prove detrimental in other circumstances. And don’t think you don’t apply the mental models you acquire while watching Temptation Island in other situations. For do you really think that your brain doesn’t extend all the ways of looking and judging while watching TV beyond the screen?
I sincerely hope that all viewers of Temptation Island can compartimentalise the mental circuits they use while watching reality TV and, for example, don’t speculate about their friends’ relationships in the same way as they do about the participants of the show; but as you’re mentally training those circuits by watching reality TV, and indulging in them, I actually fear that you might.
JUSTIFICATION 2: “Those people made the conscious decision to participate in Temptation Island. They knew beforehand the potential consequences; they knew their actions would be aired on TV. That’s why we shouldn’t feel guilty watching and even mocking them.”
So let me get this straight: you’re watching a show about people who display a clear inability to assess the impact of their moral decisions, and yet you justify your mocking them, because they previously decided to participate? How is this not using a double standard? If they are really “so stupid” when it comes to the decisions they make about their relationships (as viewers often say they are), then why do you think they are sensible enough to assess their own moral capacity to withstand tempation? (Which, by the way, is a much harder thing to assess, because it involves moral introspection on a meta-level.)
I would say that this is clearly indefensible. On every level of analysis, you are mocking people for their inability to make reasoned decisions – but when it comes to defending your own complicity and voyeurism, then suddenly refer to their own conscious choice to participate. Clearly, this line of reasoning is either hypocritical or just inconsistent.
At least I’m trying to be consistent by saying: I really don’t think that the participants of Temptation Island fully understood what they signed up for – and their inability to do so is proved by every failure they make during the series. We also shouldn’t forgo the statistical fact that about 15% of the population’s IQ impedes that group of applying a general rule to themself, meaning: even when you explicitly tell them that participating in Temptation Island will quite likely ruins their relationships, they won’t be able to apply this advice to their own case. (That’s why the army doesn’t allow people whose IQ is under 83, i.e. 15% of the population, because they simply cannot follow instructions.)
JUSTIFICATION 3: “A lot of people watch Temptation Island because of the sensation and entertaintment value, but not me. I’m watching because I would like to see the couples succeed; I want to see whether they can stand the test.”
Call me cynical for questioning your motives, but if you were to say this to me, I’d really, really think you’re lying – both to me and to yourself. Just ask yourself this question and answer it sincerely: would you still watch Temptation Island if all participants would be able to resist the temptation and would remain faithful to their partner? Please allow me to answer that question for you: of course you wouldn’t, unless you are a deeply committed student of human psychology,
I can only interpret that fact in one way: you are actually watching Temptation Island for the shock-factor; for the entertainment value that you derive from people cheating on their partners and the misery it causes. And I can’t help but condemn you for that. Because deep down, you know that you are essentially rooting for people to cheat on their partners; deep down, you really are rooting for people to break someone else’s trust; and deep down you know that you should know better. Sure, we can all agree that Temptation Island’s participants have a lot of moral deficiencies, but that moral failure – of rooting for people to cheat on their partner and causing heartbreak – is totally on you.
As a last argument, let’s draw a comparison that might strike you as far-feched, but only on first sight. Would you ever watch a TV show in which people are tested on whether they can resist the temptation to drink alcohol? How about drugs? What if you knew that all the previous participants were not exactly exemplars of insighful moral behaviour? Wouldn’t it not only be immoral to run such a show, but also to even watch it? Wouldn’t you worry about a form of moral complicity? Wouldn’t worry that by watching such a show, you would be sending the TV network an economic incentive to arrange such immoral tests? In short, wouldn’t you be somewhat responsible for the exploitation of weakness of character, merely for the sake of entertainment?
Now, am I saying these cases are equivalent in every respect? No, definitely not. Am I saying they are at least similar in that they are both a test of moral charachter and of one’s propensity for destructive behavior? Yes, that is what I’m saying, even though they differ in reprehensibility. And I really believe that if you have reasons disapproving of the drugs-scenario, you might have some reasons for disapproving of the infidelity-scenario. You might even have an additional reason. You getting high might only harm your own health, but cheating on your partner involves another person by definition.
Why you really watch reality TV
Of course, whenever I’m in my rage of moral designation, I often ask myself: who am I to speculate about someone else’s motives? Maybe, just maybe, a lot of my friends do watch Temptation Island without indulging into the worst parts of their humanity. Maybe they can detach themselves enough from what’s happening on the TV screen as to not let any negative habits of thought be stimulated.
Unfortunately, the science on the effects of reality TV, and the kind of person that is likely to watch it, are in – and they’re not looking good. It should come as no surprise that voyeurism is one of the highest contenders for why people watch Temptation Island. But research has shown that the largest significant motive, by far, for watching reality TV is social status, which is correlated to “the joy of self-importance.” (Only slightly less strong was the need for vengeance.) People often try to elevate their own social status by a psychological mechanism called downward social comparison. In the words of psychologist Steven Reiss: “Some people may watch reality TV partially because they enjoy feeling superior to the people being portrayed,” Reiss said. “People with a strong need for vengeance have the potential to enjoy watching people being humiliated.”
In short, people may watch reality TV because comparing themselves to the participants makes them feel better about themselves. They like to watch ‘stupid’ people make stupid decisions, because they believe that of course they would never do such a thing. “They are stupid and morally weak; but I, of course, would never cheat on my girlfriend.”
Well, I’ve got news for you: I do know people who have cheated on their partners and neither did they think they would ever cheat on them. I honestly believe that even you, who are of course much smarter and morally decisive than Temptation Island’s participants, couldn’t tell beforehand whether you would be strong enough to withstand two weeks of constant seduction. The same goes for me. Even with all the best and most loving intentions in the world, I just have to be realistic and – most important of all – humble about my own weak, defective moral character. I’m not so sure whether I would remain faithful to my partner, and I’m not so sure that you would.
In fact, I think that a lot of debate about our moral shortcomings would improve if we all were to be somewhat more humble about our moral capacities. I don’t think it is moral to extract a sense of self-righteousness and superiority (or “relaxation”, as they call it) from Temptation Island. But of course, that’s where I have to be humble as well. That’s why I constantly fight the urge to condemn all of my friends who take pleasure from watching temptation island. Why? Because I see that it would be enormously hypocritical of me if I looked down on my friends, just for looking down on other people.
Nonetheless, I cannot shake of the feeling that at least some of my friends should know better. I think they should know better than wasting their time rooting for people to cheat on each other. I think they are persisting in a moral failure and I would be lying if I claimed to feel anything different than disappointment whenever they are watching the show. But of course, as I said, that might be my own moral failure. I’m trying hard not to look down on people for not doing what they (perhaps) know they shouldn’t do. I try to avoid the deadly trap of feeling morally superior than my friends. But while they’re watching Temptation Island, I hope they try to do the same.
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