"‘The Bachelor’ Has A Secret: The Psychology That Keeps Millions Of Americans Tuned In"
The women stand on risers, like high school students at a pep rally.
“Ladies, good evening,” says Chris Harrison. “Welcome to your first Rose Ceremony!”
The women reply, “Thank you!” Almost in unison, but not quite.
“Here’s how this works,” Harrison says. “You hear your name called, you step forward.”
His explanation is unnecessary. The Bachelor is the longest-running reality romance show in the history of television; it’s no one’s first time at the Rose rodeo.
Harrison congratulates Sharleen on winning a First Impression Rose. (Women on The Bachelor, like waitresses at T.G.I. Fridays, are on a first-name-only basis, with a first initial of her last name added only as a last resort.) “As for the rest of you,” he says. “If you do not hear your name, you’ll be going home. Immediately.”
A harp strums. Enter The Bachelor: Juan Pablo. Eventually, this season will go off the rails. Juan Pablo will reveal himself to be mind-blowingly unlikeable. He will fail to propose to the woman of his choice; he will not even tell her that he loves her. He will be so repulsive to the contestants who last long enough to know him well that more than one will exit the show of her own volition, citing Juan Pablo’s idiocy, his rudeness, or both. He will appear to all the world as a homophobic, idiotic prick.
But not yet. Now, he is The One. Or he could be The One. All he has to do is exhale nervously—“Whoo!”—to set off a chorus of charmed giggles. Have you ever heard a group of grown women giggle, in your regular, day-to-day life? Probably not, but no matter. This is not regular, day-to-day life. This is Bachelorland.
Juan Pablo explains, awkwardly, that he has to make the right decisions for his life and daughter, which means some of the women before him will not make it to episode two. “This is the part I don’t like about this,” he says, a broad, dopey smile on his face. He lifts one rose from the pile and says the first name: “Claire.”
Claire, her skin a Jennifer Aniston bronze, her hair in Victoria’s Secret waves, points to her heart, disbelieving. “Me?”
Juan Pablo nods. The camera cuts to Amy J., a 31-year-old massage therapist who had tried to charm Juan Pablo earlier that night by giving his back an oil massage—while he was still wearing a suit. Amy J.’s expression sours under her dark bangs. She screws her mouth up into a tight, angry knot.
Across the way, Juan Pablo clutches the rose stem with both hands. “Claire, will you accept this rose?”
“Yes, I would love to.” Claire speaks in a whisper. “Thank you.” She goes in for the hug, the cheek-kiss. The camera cuts to Nikki, who it turns out will be the winner, if getting stuck with Juan Pablo can be considered a “win.” She ruffles her blonde hair off her face, a lion shaking out his mane.
Claire returns to her place, triumphant. For now.
“I cannot believe this, this harem of 25 women, it’s so ridiculous.”
Almost everything about The Bachelor is absurd. It’s a guilty pleasure, and everyone knows it— even, sometimes, the contestants. But if delight at the absurdity of others was the only thing driving the series, The Bachelor wouldn’t be the cultural juggernaut it is today. Eighteen seasons in, the show continues to be buzzed about, recapped, reenacted, mocked, and parodied. Though never as popular as it was in the early years — the most-watched season ever was season two, which had 11 million viewers for its premiere and a whopping 25.9 million people tune in for the finale — The Bachelor still pulled in 11 million viewers for the latest season finale, higher ratings than the previous five. Even its lowest rated season, the eighth, had just under 9 million viewers throughout. And, in the grand tradition of everything from comic books to Kardashians, The Bachelor is more than a show; it’s a franchise, spawning the gender-flipped series The Bachelorette in 2003 and the-more-the-merrier spin-off Bachelor Pad from 2010 to 2013, which culled its cast from Bachelor and Bachelorette rejects looking for a second shot at love, or fame, or both.
The Bachelor operates on a strange, fascinating tension. In our world, it’s 2014. In Bachelorland, tradition rules the day. Season in, season out, the hopefuls take it one date at a time, no sex until the show says so, all the way to the altar. The goal of the show is right there in the logo: a wedding band.
CREDIT: Jordan Strauss/Invision
Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, has been watching The Bachelor since day one. “What The Bachelor does, in thirteen weeks, is essentially a ritualized replaying of the American courtship-to-marriage ritual circa the 1950s,” he said. “For every other aspect of life, we are glad not to be in the 1950s. [But] the fact that no really effective courtship-to-marriage model has emerged after the breakdown of the old one, we’re kind of nostalgic for that, even though we know it’s incredibly old-fashioned and oppressive and stacked in all kinds of ugly ways with regards to gender.”
The Bachelor takes place in a vacuum-sealed alternate universe that barely resembles the world in which real people actually date. You’ll never hear about national divorce rates, same-sex partnerships, or casual hookups during an episode. Contestants don’t use cell phones. They can’t text, email, or Facebook. The suitors pursue only the star, and the star must operate under the illusion that the twenty-five options before him are the only women on Earth.
Outside of the show, dating options abound. Be exclusive or don’t; meet on Tinder or JDate or Match, instead of in person; have sex whenever, with whoever; live together whether or not you’re engaged, or plan to be; have kids before your wedding; get a divorce and try again. Social mores are no more. Given that the vast majority of social mores predate women’s lib, the gay rights movement, the acceptance of interracial couples, etc., this is a good thing for reality. But not for reality TV. What The Bachelor does is take present-day romance—a liberating, confusing, overwhelming, free-for-all—and lace it back up into a corset.
“For as much as any reasonably feminist-thinking person might look at The Bachelor and say, ‘I cannot believe this, this harem of 25 women, it’s so ridiculous,’” said Thompson. “There is something kind of pleasantly organized about the idea that social morals no longer set these rules, so we have to let a reality show do it.”
CSI: Romantic Love
In the beginning, there were seven strangers. Everyone knows how this true story goes: they’re picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite, [dramatic pause] and start getting real.
The Real World premiered in May 1992, the first animal of its kind. Actual humans, plucked from obscurity and plunked in front of cameras, left to just… be. And had no one improved on that model, reality TV might have fallen off the map before the turn of the century. But in the summer of 2000, two shows premiered that changed everything. One was a Swedish import, Expedition Robinson, renamed for American audiences as Survivor. The other came to the States by way of the Netherlands, with a title taken from the one who is “always watching you” in 1984, perhaps in the hope that Americans would always be watching, too: Big Brother.
Big Brother followed the Real World blueprint—strangers in a house—but with one key change: instead of just mucking about, screaming and screwing and so on, the housemates participated in organized challenges and, at regular intervals, voted to evict one another. “You completely infuse their lives with structured ritual,” said Thompson. Survivor used the same tricks, amped up to outrageous, self-consciously ridiculous heights: the tribal council, the torches, “the tribe has spoken.”
“The history of reality TV in this country is about the necessity of ritual,” said Thompson. “Usually, structure and sense is put into a television show by a script. With reality TV, you take out any kind of sense because you’ve got no script. It’s chaos… Reality TV works because you strip it of the traditional notion of structure and sense—a script—and you have to replace that with something. And what replaced the script in reality TV was ritual.”
The Bachelor is the same show every season: the one-on-one dates, the hometown visits, the Fantasy Suites, the Rose Ceremonies, where flowers are handed out like love diplomas. As with all rituals—religious, patriotic, familial—very little about these rites within the series holds up to close inspection. But that’s the power of tradition: we learn to expect events to unfold a certain way within a specific structure and, once that expectation is in place, it is deviation from that script, not adherence to it, that feels like a mistake.
CREDIT: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
When The Bachelor came on the scene in 2002, said Thompson, it “really got a lot of the DNA of Survivor in it.” In place of athletic challenges, there are dates; in place of torches, there are roses. “The Rose Ceremony reminds me so much of a Tribal Council. Everybody comes together, and you’ve got this dramatic music with the unrelenting close-ups of people who are eventually on the block.” The trick of The Bachelor was to take the ritualistic elements of Survivor and add the most compelling element of all. As Thompson put it, “How much more basic can one get as the idea of somebody searching for someone who they can love and spend the rest of their life with?”.
The Bachelor is basically CSI: Romantic Love, a procedural for the path from singledom to marriage. The very critique people like to throw at reality competition shows—that they’re so formulaic—isn’t a flaw at all. Counterintuitively, imposing a structure is the smartest way to keep viewers engaged. Producers need to force each season to essentially replicate the season before it, with minimally different results. It’s a practice as old as Wheel of Fortune, a show that “sounds like it would be the most incredibly, dreadfully dull thing in the world,” said Thompson. “The only thing that can explain it is the satisfaction of its predictability. And that’s what ritual is all about.”
“I’ll win the show of my life, and bad people will get punished.”
Not too long ago, Michael Norton noticed something about rituals: they were everywhere. Rituals for everyday things, like your morning routine, and rituals for special occasions, like births or weddings. There are break-up rituals: burn all the photos, delete that number from your phone. We have rituals for eating, drinking, and getting dressed; rituals for death, burial and mourning. “In every domain of human life that we observed, there were rituals.”
Norton is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Last year, he co-authored a study, “Rituals Enhance Consumption,” analyzing effect of ritual on an individual’s enjoyment or success of the activity that followed it.
Some rituals, Norton said, “we know will not work,” like rain dances. But a ritual intended not for an external thing, like the weather, but something internal, like your confidence or happiness, well, that’s another story entirely. “If you do a ritual to make yourself feel better before you sing a song in public, maybe it has a psychological effect that is beneficial.”
Repetition is key for a ritual to be effective, said Norton, and “the more you repeat the ritual, the more it grows.” They found consumption rituals, like swirling wine in a glass or smelling freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, “enhance your involvement in the process, and that involvement actually makes the wine or chocolate taste better.”
Rituals “attract our attention: our literal attention and our emotional attention,” said Norton. “That engrossment heightens the experience for us.” What rituals can do, he said, is something like the concept of “flow,” “where you’re really immersed in what you’re doing,” what athletes or musicians sometimes describe as “being in the zone.” “It’s the psychological state of being in the moment,” said Norton. “Rituals get you to feel in the flow. It’s rare people feel that way in their everyday lives. Rituals make you feel that way, that deeply engrossed.”
“Ritual is something that’s pervasive in our lives,” said Caitlin Duffy, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Northwestern University and writer for LoveLogica, a site about the science of relationships and romance. As for The Bachelor, “I think it makes a lot of things about the show feel normal to us that wouldn’t ordinarily feel normal, both from a contestant standpoint and a viewer standpoint. We’re less likely to question it because it feels familiar to us. Even the familiarity feels familiar to us.”
According to Duffy, humans seek out ritual because “from a social psychology standpoint, it presents a stable, predictable world. We like to have rules and script to follow, because we want to know how to behave so we can have a place in our social world.” That hunger for order is only intensified when people feel the stakes are high. “[Ritual] is something [that] we are drawn to… especially when it’s something like romantic relationships that are so important to our lives and happiness and well-being,” she said. “It’s natural for us to feel compelled by rituals in this context.”
Of course, real life, and love in real life, is rarely, if ever, predictable— all the more reason to be swept up in the rigid order of The Bachelor universe. Melanie B. Tannenbaum, a Ph. D candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois, blogs for Scientific American about the connections between social psychology and popular culture. The structure of The Bachelor, she said, not only imposes order on “unpredictable and uncertain” lives, but it also satisfies our desire to see good people be rewarded and bad people be punished. “You want to think good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people,” she said. “And part of that is because we don’t like feeling like we don’t have control over our own lives or outcomes.”
When a Bachelorette contestant reveals himself to be on the show “for the wrong reasons” and gets sent home, “It confirms that sense of, I’m a good person—and everyone thinks that they are a good person—[so] good things will happen to me,” said Tannenbaum. “I’ll win the show of my life and bad people will get punished. Anything that helps cement that belief is going to be comforting and entertaining.”
But the result of ritual, intended or not, can be mind-numbing. Get caught up in the way things go on a Bachelor-like show and you forget to question why things are going that way at all. “You wander into this bizarre universe and the host is acting as if it’s so normal,” said Thompson, and while you’re watching, you slip into thinking it’s normal, too.
“If you’d come out of the blue and said, ‘We have a guy who lines up all these girls, and he sends one girl home, and we’re going to watch her take her suitcase and get in a car,’ when you take that out of the ritual—when the numbing aspect of repetition is eliminated—it’s so degrading and ridiculous,” said Thompson. “But when you’re watching it, you’re not even thinking about the structure. By the time we get to the end of the show, the show is so much operating on its own rules, I don’t think we even question the Rose Ceremony.”
“Why are they even on this show?”
Part of what lets The Bachelor get away with all the campiness is that, every now and then, the process does work: a handful of people do get engaged, some of those people do get married, and some of those people do have children. At the end of the tangled web of a season, somebody ties the knot.
The odds aren’t great; of 27 matches made between 18 seasons of The Bachelor and nine of The Bachelorette, only five couples are still together. And The Bachelorette has a higher success rate, maybe because the ritual of the show more closely mirrors traditional courtship rituals from reality. That’s Duffy’s hunch. “We have the theory that women should be choosy and select among many suitors, but men aren’t necessarily doing that,” she said. “When a man is choosing among a bunch of women, we feel like that’s not supposed to happen, and maybe that’s why it’s dissolving. Because maybe each person in that couple is not comfortable with how they got together.”
Whether or not the couples make it last too long after the finale, though, doesn’t matter quite as much as the show’s ability to produce a couple in the first place. “It’s like American Idol. The only way that show was going to work was if it created stars,” said Thompson. “That’s what’s at stake in The Bachelor. It’s not a million dollars. It’s not stardom.” For the series to maintain any sense of credibility, “it’s important for The Bachelor to have a few couples to prove that this is possible. Every now and then, they have to be able to remind us that the overall premise of this is not just a complete joke. Because if you totally took away the idea that this could lead to marriage and happiness, [you’d think], ‘Why are they even on this show? Are they so stupid and naive they think this will happen, even though it’s never happened before?'”
For all its outlandish trappings, The Bachelor relies on the simplest premise: our all too human hope that you can find love anywhere, anytime, with anyone. The person you’re looking for could be just around the corner. Or they could be on television.
“The genius of The Bachelor is, it’s an outrageous, crazy, often degrading, ridiculous process,” said Thompson. “With the end being the actual, real possibility that, on a few occasions, all of that ridiculousness could lead to something very old-fashioned: the notion of romantic love and lifelong commitment.”