Knowing who was voted off Survivor, who got eviscerated by Simon on American Idol and who had a private date with the Average Joe is essential pop-culture knowledge these days. Include makeover shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Trading Spaces, and "surveillance" series such as Newlyweds, and it's easy to get a dose of reality TV every night of the week.
Though many of these shows appeal to our baser instincts, including our perverse pleasure in seeing other people embarrass themselves, there's good news for reality-TV addicts: Some experts say these programs actually have redeeming value. "There's much in them you can make use of," says Patricia Farrell, Ph.D., author of How to Be Your Own Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Competent, Confident Life (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary, 2002).
"You can learn vicariously by watching people overcome fears, strategize, assert themselves, acquire something they need and get people to cooperate with them," explains Farrell. She likens the process to the "cinematherapy" technique some psychologists use when they recommend certain films to patients: The movie's message becomes more acceptable because it's coded as entertainment. (For some other positive reasons we watch, see "Not-So-Guilty Pleasures.")
These shows often provide opportunities to gain insight from others' mistakes. "We tend to learn more about how to conduct ourselves from watching people fail than we do from watching them succeed," says M. Gene Ondrusek, Ph.D., a consulting psychologist at the Center for Executive Health at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., and a former consulting psychologist for the first season of Survivor. (Ondrusek currently holds the same position on Fear Factor.) We see people solving problems and making decisions and think, "Wow, I would have done that differently." Then there are the extreme examples: Anybody who watched Jackass had to come away feeling a lot more normal. So you reinforce a positive sense of self when you say, "At least that's not me!"
The tube as growth tool
Reality television also can tap into what motivates and drives us. According to Pamela Brill, Ed.D., author of The Winner's Way: A Proven Method for Achieving Your Personal Best in Any Situation (McGraw-Hill, 2004), certain programs might be useful to you because they help you identify what needs, goals and issues you're working on. Maybe you want a more fulfilling life, better dating skills or career strategies that pay off. Perhaps you're looking for a push to work through your fears and go beyond your comfort level, or to feel more confident by improving your appearance or surroundings. "When you figure out what you want," Brill says, "think about what you could do to make it happen."
Perhaps this is reality television's most constructive use: to motivate us to become more engaged in our own reality. Here's how some of today's popular shows might inspire you to take action to change your life.
Your goal To challenge yourself and live a more exciting, less predictable life
Real-life action plan Take a volunteer vacation: You'll spend time in the wilderness building or repairing trails and paths, or perhaps participating in an archaeological dig. You'll also work with a team of like-minded people in some of the world's most beautiful backcountry. (And unlike Survivor contestants, you get fed and can take a change of clothes!) Find volunteer vacations at wildernessvolunteers.org, passportintime.com and sierraclub.org/outings/national/service.asp.
Your reward You'll get the Survivor experience without the fear of being voted off, as well as camaraderie and the satisfaction of knowing you've made a contribution.
Your goal To find the perfect partner
Inspiration The Bachelor
Real-life action plan Going on television to find love is not an option for most of us. But you can still be adventurous about meeting people. Rather than leaving love to chance (or to a TV producer), stack the odds in your favor by targeting singles groups that are based on interests and activities you enjoy rather than ones that focus just on dating. Start by checking out the Fitness Singles online dating service at fitness-singles.com.
Your reward You'll meet new people, take part in interesting and fun activities and increase your chances of making a lasting love connection.
Your goal To succeed in the corporate world or in your own business
Inspiration The Apprentice
Real-life action plan The appeal of The Apprentice is that highly competitive up-and-coming businesspeople get the opportunity to learn from -- and eventually work for -- an acknowledged master in his field: Donald Trump. Why not find your own mentor? If you work in a large company, approach a supervisor or manager who exemplifies the qualities and abilities you'd like to cultivate and simply ask for his or her help. If you're self-employed or just starting a business, contact SCORE (www.score.org), an organization of retired and working business professionals from various backgrounds who volunteer to help just-starting-out entrepreneurs.
Your reward You'll hone your work skills, develop new talents and get more in tune with the culture of business. And with any luck, you'll never have to hear, "You're fired!"
Your goal To follow your passions and conquer your fears
Inspiration American Idol
Real-life action plan You've got to admire the courage of would-be Idols who aren't afraid to put it all out there for the entire country to judge. If you have a secret yen to sing, dance or act, seek out a community theater group or dance class, or simply belt out "I Will Survive" at a karaoke bar. Afraid to even speak in public? Check out Toastmasters International (toastmasters.org). This organization has regional clubs where you can attend meetings and social events, polish your public-speaking skills and give and get constructive criticism.
Your reward You'll fulfill your creative and artistic dreams, gain confidence, network and make new friends. Who knows? If you're good enough, you might even be discovered.
Your goal To find a style that really works for you
Inspiration What Not to Wear
Real-life action plan You don't need a fashionista to tell you that chartreuse sweater makes you look like you've been embalmed. Just ask some style-savvy friends for uncensored but constructive fashion advice; they've probably been dying to tell you what not to wear anyway. Once you've culled offending items from your closet, hold a clothing-swap party; you can donate any unclaimed items to a thrift shop or shelter. Business outfits are welcomed at Dress for Success (dressforsuccess.org), which gives them to disadvantaged women to wear on job interviews. Another option: Make an appointment with a personal shopper at a local department store. This service is free, and you'll get advice tailored to your body type -- and budget.
Your reward Your closet will be clean (no more guilt about those fashion disasters you blew money on), and you'll be stylin'.
What not to watch
Not all reality television has redeeming qualities, of course. "The message in some shows is that money is worth humiliation, and that's a bad one," says psychologist Tina Tessina, Ph.D., author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page Books, 2003). She believes programs like Fear Factor and Joe Millionaire just make us more cynical.
MTV's The Real World, which started the entire phenomenon in 1992, has degenerated into a show about young people who binge-drink, have casual sex and even get arrested. There's not much to emulate there. And mercifully short-lived shows like Temptation Island (in which couples were enticed to cheat on each other) and The Family (members were pitted against one another for money) were hardly inspiring or uplifting.
So watch reality TV judiciously, filter shows through your own common sense and value system, and glean what positive messages you can.