Producing Reality

July 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the end of the video about his famous prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo says, “Our behavior is much more under the control of situational forces and much less under the control of things like character and personality traits.” If you’re looking for a good example of what he means, try at least the first few episodes of  “UnREAL” on Lifetime.  The show is fictional, a behind-the-scenes look at a reality show called “Everlasting,” its fictional version of  the reality show “The Bachelor.” Are you still with me? A fictional, or simulated, prison and a fictional TV show about a fictional TV show are telling us something important about reality – not reality-TV but real life, real reality. (And yes, I am aware of Nabokov’s dictum that reality is “one of those words which mean nothing without the quotes.”)

The creator of “UnREAL”, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, worked on “The Bachelor” for three years, and   “UnREAL” is partly an exposé revealing how the producers of the show manipulate the girls (as the show usually calls them) into doing things that are good for the show’s ratings but disastrous for the contestants themselves. “Cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, catfights,” the “Everlasting” show-runner Quinn yells to her producers.

(Vocabulary note. The “producers” are the assistants whose job is to manipulate the contestants and the “suitor” into doing what’s good for the ratings. The person in charge of the show, its creator, is the “showrunner.” The word produce is used unironically as a synonym for manipulate. In one episode, when the Suitor was pursuing his own strategy, Quinn, the showrunner, tells Rachel, a producer, to get him back in line, saying something like, “You know what to do. Produce him.)

The producer who serves as Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s alter ego is Rachel Goldberg. In the Season 1, Episode 1, we see her lying on the floor of a limousine full of beautiful, gowned contestants. She is out of camera range, wearing a t-shirt that says, “This is what a feminist looks like.” The t-shirt is frayed, threadbare, a relic from her student days at Vassar.

She’s a feminist, yet she knows that in the coming weeks, she and the other show staff will exploit these women psychologically and physically. They will make sure the girls get little sleep and much alcohol. They will tell them lies to bring about tears and fights. “The Suitor” is no place for female solidarity. As Shapiro put it in an interview, Rachel is like “a vegan working in a slaughterhouse.”

Shapiro says that her own morality suffered a similar conflict and quick erosion. Here’s a clip from that same interview.

(Here’s a transcript of the end of the clip.)

I went to Sarah Lawrence, and I remember some seminar where we were talking about what would it cost for you to torture another human being, and everybody was like, “twenty-five million dollars.” And I quickly discovered it was like fifteen hundred dollars a week without benefits was fine.

It’s not just the money. The show becomes its own world. The contestants are required to give up all contact with the outside world (no cellphones, no Internet) so that the staff can more easily manipulate their reality. For the staff too, 19-hour workdays leave little time for life off the set. So the world of the show, with its  overarching value on ratings, is their reality as well. Staff get not just money but admiration for producing heartbreak, catfights, and other drama. They also have contracts and career aspirations that make it difficult to walk away. And for the staff, there was the added attraction of power.

“What Would You Do?” asks ABC’s popular television show, which is basically a variation on a theme by “Candid Camera.” It contrives a situation, then sets the cameras running to catch the reactions of unwary people. What will they do when they see a bicycle thief in action, a rude barista, a drunken cab driver, a racist store clerk, etc.? We think that we are the kind of person who does the right thing even in the face of social pressure.

“What would you do?” The most accurate answer is , “I don’t know.” As we have learned from a half-century of social science experiments – the Milgram obedience experiments are the best known – we are not very good at predicting behavior in a novel situation. People wind up doing things that seem to go against their most cherished values. It happens in real life too, and the important difference from the the ABC show and the psychology lab is that real-life situations come with a longer history and a thicker context.

Of course, most of us do not spend our workdays trashing our moral principles. But is that a testament to our strong moral fiber? Or, as Zimbardo suggests, is it because the situations that life affords us do not push us in that direction.

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