Reality TV: The Soulmate Machine?

For those still tuned in after 10 seasons, 7 total judges, and countless sob stories, American Idol ended this week after crowning teenage country crooner Scotty McCreery as its newest addition to the confetti-covered winning lineup.

On top of its usual fanfare of tears, hugs, and a cheesy coronation song (this year’s crowning number was “I Love You This Big,” presumably because they’ve run out of song titles that involve dreams and mountains), this year’s finale brought on water cooler gossip for one more reason – the big ol’ kiss that runner-up Lauren Alaina planted on Scotty’s mouth after he won, right before he said that they had been together since Day 1 and were going to “stay together” after the show.

This isn’t the only rumored relationship to pop out of this year’s Top 13. Earlier this season, jazz singers Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams also faced media questions about their relationship status after the pair seemed comfy-cozy both in their duets and on the elimination couches.

In fact, despite the limited success of shows like The Bachelor when it comes to establishing successful love matches, it seems that the contestants we see on reality TV shows – more often than not – end up forging (or at least sparking gossip about) potential love connections.

PR move? Possibly. Shared interests and personality traits? Quite likely.

But there’s another reason why contestants thrown into a house together to live, sleep, eat, and breathe with each others’ constant company might end up falling in love more often than chance would suggest.

According to the mere exposure effect, there’s a simple process at work in our minds and our relationships: The more we see something, the more we like it.1 This is presumably because seeing something over and over again makes it easier for our mind to “process” its presence – we get so used to something being around, our brains don’t have to put perceptual effort into making sense of it. Our minds like simplicity: The easier it is to process something, the happier it makes us. So, familiar people make us feel happy.2 And maybe even make us feel love.

These effects actually don’t just apply to love and relationships. Stock traders tend to over-invest in domestic securities, even when international markets offer better alternatives – why? Because the domestic companies are more familiar, so they just ‘feel’ better.3 Politicians with more public exposure get more votes, regardless of how popular (or unpopular) their policies are.4 These effects even apply to seemingly-random targets. When non-Chinese-speaking people saw pictures of certain Chinese characters more often than others, they reported ‘liking’ the frequent characters more – even though they had NO idea what the symbols meant!1

The more we see someone or something, the more probable it is that we will end up strongly liking it – regardless of initial feelings. You may be fairly neutral towards your co-worker, classmate, or colleague now, but if you have to see them every day, you may be looking at your future best friend.

1 Zajonc, R. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9 (2), 1-27 DOI: 10.1037/h0025848

2 Reber, R., Winkielman, P., & Schwarz, N. (1998). Effects of Perceptual Fluency on Affective Judgments Psychological Science, 9 (1), 45-48 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00008

3 Huberman, G. (2001). Familiarity Breeds Investment. Review of Financial Studies, 14 (3), 659-680 DOI: 10.1093/rfs/14.3.659

4 Bornstein, Robert F.; Craver-Lemley, Catherine (2004). “Mere exposure effect”. In Pohl, Rüdiger F.. Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory. Hove, UK: Psychology Press. pp. 215–234.

4 responses to “Reality TV: The Soulmate Machine?

  1. What? I didn’t know they were supposedly together. I love your blog not for the psychology, but for the gossip.

  2. Pingback: News » Blog Archive » Editor’s Selections: Video Games, Reality TV, and Fantasizing

  3. Pingback: Rum and Reason » Editor’s Selections: Video Games, Reality TV, and Fantasizing [The Thoughtful Animal]

  4. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

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