Reality TV Short-Circuits Human Empathy

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The recent suicide of Russell Armstrong, husband of Real House Housewives of Beverly Hills star Taylor Armstrong, illustrates the real problem with Reality TV.

Armstrong, 47, was found hanged on August 15. His death follows bankruptcies, two other deaths and many failed marriages among the cast of women who appear in the Bravo series.

While much attention has focused on the stresses of living life while also staging one’s life as a TV show, I think there’s a much more ominous reality related to Russell Armstrong’s death that is worth focusing on: People care about Armstrong hanging himself just about as much as they would care about a fictional character dying in a TV drama—say, the same amount they will care if Charlie Sheen’s character is killed off on Two-and-a-Half Men.

The not-so-subtle difference is that Charlie Sheen, the actor, would still be alive after the character he plays are no longer being written into episodes. Russell Armstrong, on the other hand, is really dead. He really lived through what must have been terrible psychiatric suffering before putting a noose around his neck and crushing his airway.

I don’t think folks can immediately make that distinction. I think Reality TV shows that seek to turn people’s lives into entertainment/media events actually succeed in doing so. The medium of television or the Internet comes to own and operate the contrived characters, nearly fully dehumanize them and, thereby, extinguishes our empathy for them.

A real man named Russell Armstrong committed suicide, but he’ll be replaced on the series by someone who dates his grieving widow, a woman who recently grabbed headlines asserting she was attacked by her husband prior to his suicide.

Again, I don’t think anyone really cares about that act of domestic violence any more than they would care—really care—about such an act unfolding on the hit series Entourage. It would be very bizarre, indeed, to sincerely worry a whole lot were a female character on that drama series attacked by her husband.

Well, no one who has heard about Ms. Taylor’s alleged assault really cares that she was reportedly punched in the face—even though it may really have happened.

Now, here’s the biggest problem: Because events that actually happen in real life, when contaminated by the Reality TV production and broadcasting, elicit no particular empathy from the public, I believe they end up subtly reducing the ability of viewers to empathize with anything—even the real, evocative trials and tragedies that unfold around them (possibly even in their own lives).

Reality TV is, then, an actual toxin that erodes the capacity of human beings to empathize with other human beings. It does this by fictionalizing real people so that no one cares about them any more than they would scripted characters. And the effect is viral.

This same dehumanizing effect of video broadcasting of “real life” dramas explains a lot. It explains why people actually record videos of themselves beating others and then post them on YouTube. The fact that a scene is being “produced” renders the victims less than human. They are actors worthy of no more empathy than any other made-up character. It may explain why groups of shoplifters brazenly storm stores and make off with the merchandise while being videotaped. The videotaping makes it all “not real.”

Witness the recent horror story in which a woman was apparently told by a producer at the Dr. Phil show that she couldn’t appear as a guest because she had only threatened to hurt her child, rather than actually hurting him. So she made the child drink hot sauce, videotaped the abuse and then sent the video to the show. Voila, she was booked to appear on the show.

Reality TV takes the truth of human pain and makes it the stuff of scripted drama—of fiction. It cleaves us from our instincts, which include caring not only about our pain, but about the suffering of others. It risks making us lose our moral bearings. And it is, therefore, a public health menace of the highest order.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at His team of Life Coaches can be reached at