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Monkeys prove evolution wired us to watch reality TV

Monkeys prove evolution wired us to watch reality TV
A rhesus macaque on Lion Hill in Hong Kong (Photo by cattan2011/Flickr)

Modern reality television has been for almost 30 years, and it’s been almost 50 years since An American Family invited viewers into a family’s home, showing their intimate personal lives on PBS.

Today, there’s an incredible amount of TV—because, of course, there are people willing to watch it. Maybe that’s why some people keep asking the big question Why do we watch reality TV? Psychology Today asked the question in 2001, and Ireland public media asked it last year. Scholars have found various answers over the past two decades.

Now, researchers The Bliss-Moreau Lab at the University of California, Davis—which “conducts comparative and translational affective science using multimethod, multispecies, multilevel approaches to understand the social and affective lives of humans and nonhuman animals”—have offered their own answer.

They’ve discovered monkeys would rather watch reality TV than nature programs, and have an idea about what that means for us.

People in a stock photo choose what to watch on TV
People in a stock photo choose what to watch on TV. (Photo by Jan Vašek/jeshoots.com)

The study was published Jan. 12 on PsyArXiv, a site that allows “allows scholars to post documents such as working papers, unpublished work, and articles under review.” It notes that “the extent to which nonhuman primates prefer social stimuli relative to similarly complex nonsocial stimuli has not been documented” until now.

The researchers, Eliza Bliss-Moreau, Anthony C. Santistevan, and Christopher J. Machado, write that they wanted to know, “Why is it that people watch so much reality television—television programs that focus on the lives and activities of other people? Is our love of watching other people simply wired into our biological blue prints?”

So they decided to test if “rhesus monkeys would consistently choose to watch videos of other monkeys,” they write.

So they had four adult rhesus macaque monkeys—their names are Neal, Galoca, Mason, and McTabish, and they’re between nine and 11 years old—watch 900 videos each, over 15 days.

Researchers made sure the monkeys were not just choosing video of other monkeys, they were actually watching it, so the researchers “quantified visual attention by recording eye-movement data using an infrared eye tracker.”

During that time, the monkeys “developed a significant preference for the social stimulus, choosing it on 60.2% of trials (95% CI [58.6, 61.8], p < 0.001), indicating that as a group, the monkeys had a significant preference for social information,” the report says.

They write that the monkeys:

freely selected whether they watched “reality television” (30-second videos of conspecifics; “social videos”) or nature documentaries (30-second videos of nature documentaries; “nonsocial videos”)

After monkeys learned how to pick either category of video, the group showed a preference for viewing social videos. Monkeys demonstrated an attention-related preference for social information as well. Eye-tracking data revealed longer durations watching the social, as compared to nonsocial videos, without breaking gaze. Psychological properties of viewed videos predicted the choices that monkeys made on subsequent trials.

The findings: “these results demonstrate an evolutionary old preference for social versus nonsocial information.”

They conclude by writing:

“So, is the popularity of reality television biologically hard-wired? The answer is probably: to some extent. Since rhesus monkeys show similar preferences for reality television, a bias for watching members of our own species is likely old in evolutionary time.”

Why would the evolutionary process retain this desire to watch other members of our own species as entertainment? Here’s what they write:

It has been hypothesized that, in the absence of face-to-face relationships, people try to satisfy their need for social connection via surrogate relationships with characters depicted in television. … For example, watching more television influences people’s relationship satisfaction similarly to having more friends, suggesting that watching television may make people feel socially connected (Kanazawa, 2002). Additionally, people watch more television when they are lonely (Derrick et al., 2009). These findings suggest that watching television may serve as a partial substitute for real social relationships. In this vein, monkeys, like people, may be more motivated to watch “reality” television—videos of other monkeys—if their social needs are not being satisfied in their daily lives.

The idea that people may satisfy their social needs via surrogate means is consistent with evidence from the nonhuman primate literature on environmental enrichment.”

That certainly sounds familiar to me—watching reality television when I didn’t have much social connection. But of course, reality TV viewing is now very social. After all, I’m writing about it right now, you’re reading this, and some of us may discuss this (or the shows we watch) in the comments below or with our friends and family. But either way, reality TV is increasing connection between people.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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