Relationship reality TV: entertainment masquerading as science

Channel 7’s new program Seven Year Switch is not based on evidence, despite couching itself in scientific terms. Channel 7

Over recent years we’ve seen an increasing number of reality TV shows on the topic of relationships. Much of the viewing audience understands these shows sensationalise relationships and that, in the “real world”, romantic relationships don’t play out as they do on these programs.

But what do the viewing public make of reality TV shows about relationships when they masquerade as “science” and feature “relationship experts”?

The most recent instalment to hit our screens was this week’s Seven Year Switch. The program takes four fragile heterosexual couples in relationship turmoil to engage in a partner swap in which they live and sleep with a like-minded individual in the hope that it will save their relationship.

In the process, the couples are shepherded by relationship experts – who also decide the partner swaps. The program has elements in common with Married at First Sight, another “social experiment” in which relationship experts partnered off individuals who had never met in the hope that their scientific approach to partner matching would result in relationship longevity.

Channel 9’s Married at First Sight contestants were paired up by ‘experts’. Screenshot

Proponents of these shows contend they create an atmosphere for viewers to explore their own relationships. By watching and listening to the couples and experts, the viewers supposedly develop insights that enhance their relationships. One of the producers of Married at First Sight told me these shows do for couples “what MasterChef did for amateur cooks”.

In principle, this sounds fine, but these programs are problematic on many levels, none more so than that they attach science and relationship experts in an attempt to legitimise experiments with little scientific evidence or preliminary testing to support them.

Let me reframe the premise behind the Seven Year Switch. Imagine you and your partner are experiencing significant problems and you seek the advice of a relationship expert who says:

“I have an untried intervention that may do the trick. Leave your partner for two weeks, spend that time investing in someone else, someone you may end up liking a great deal, we’ll give you a bed to share, and then let’s see how this helps your troubled relationship.”

What would you make of such advice from a relationship expert? Would you be concerned about such an intervention? Or would you think seriously about taking part because an “expert” has endorsed the intervention and you are desperate for help?

So many books. So much science. Seven Year Switch relationship expert Peter Charleston. Channel 7

Feedback via social media suggests many viewers of the Seven Year Switch and Married at First Sight perceive the contrived nature of these social experiments to be anything but real. However, some people find the shows more acceptable because they are framed as having a scientific basis. Research on viewing shows about relationships suggests that watching does influence people’s perceptions about their own relationships.

While these shows may not necessarily alter what people want in a partner, they do appear to affect the way they evaluate their partners. They largely view their partners as falling short of their ideals, and overestimate viable alternatives to their current relationship. Research tells us these perceptions reduce relationship satisfaction and increase your chance of defaulting on the relationship.

And what of the couples taking part in these programs? While many motives may be driving their participation, these are vulnerable couples whose lives are being sensationalised via some crafty editing to get the audience’s attention and strike a ratings bonanza.

In research, we take participation in experiments very seriously. We are required to submit ethics applications that address issues of risks and benefits for participants involved. If we increase the risk above and beyond what they would experience in everyday life, then we need to put in place controls to safeguard the well-being of participants. These TV shows fall well short of the ethical benchmarks we uphold when undertaking scientific studies.

We know from years of research that commitment is one of the most important factors in the success of a relationship. It requires people to make investments in their own relationship and to consider viable alternatives as unworthy pursuits.

How does the Seven Year Switch experiment stack up with 30 years of commitment research? Pretty poorly. And what message does it send if partner swapping results in people comforting and supporting another person’s companion instead of investing that effort in their own relationship?

Research suggests we feel the greatest sense of validation when our partners sensitively and responsively attend to our needs. How can this be achieved in light of separation and an alternative partner? Relationship science provides no basis for these social experiments.