Lately, I’ve been thinking about a by-gone era. A time when we could turn on our televisions and get a weekly dose of Snooki, JWow, Pauly D, the Situation and the rest of the Jersey Shore gang. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not nostalgic for their dating debauchery but rather reflective on the impact that it has had on our society. Thinking back, I’ve come to the conclusion that all I didn’t want to know about relationships, I learned from the Jersey Shore.
Although I could easily be referring to the urban dictionary definition of a “grenade” or the meaning of GTB (gym, tan, break-up with Paula) or DTF (which I will not translate), I’m actually referring to how MTV’s Jersey Shore was a truly ingenious demonstration of social psychology principles. Unfortunately, it’s possible that we may all be worse off for having shared in their sexually-permissive hijinks. Here’s why:
1. Desensitization Makes Us Feel More Causal about Casual Sex: Think back to the first time you saw the Jersey Shore cast trolling for one-night-stands. If you are an avid fan, you may have noticed that the discomfort and disbelief that were previously present have long since disappeared. Now, in their place is a form of acceptance. As much as you may want to deny it, repeated exposure to their promiscuity actually makes us more physically and mentally comfortable with it. The psychological term is “habituation,” which basically means that we grow accustomed to what used to be shocking, such that we are less sensitive to the same aversive stimuli.1 Could you imagine what your parents or grandparents would think about the typical Jersey Shore episode? Quite likely, they have not had the same repeated media exposure to the sexually permissive standards that are characteristic of the current culture. If you think that this desensitization is no big deal, imagine how you would feel if one of those DTF girls was your daughter, sister, best friend, or relationship partner. In such a case, you might not be so cavalier about this casualness towards sex!
2. Lowered Self-Awareness Can Lead to Lowered Inhibitions. Have you ever noticed how few mirrors there are in the Jersey Shore house? It took me all six seasons to notice that despite being filled with eight of the most appearance-obsessed characters on TV, the Shore house is almost completely void of mirrors. True, this could be a practical maneuver to minimize the unwanted footage of cameramen or crew, but an alternative explanation may be that the lack of mirrors is a strategic move on the part of MTV to keep the housemates and their houseguests on their worst behavior! As it turns out, mirrors reflect more than just our physical image. They cause us to turn our attention inward and examine how we measure up to personally held standards or our “ideal self.”2 Imagine the potential travesty for the show’s ratings if the cast and their nightly playmates found themselves focusing less on the fulfillment of carnal desires and more on the inappropriateness of their own behavior. If the house were filled with mirrors (or television screens to project the footage being taped by the cameras), it’s quite likely that the previously eager bedmates would be more apt to dwell on the way that their actions failed to live up to what they, not to mention their families, friends, and significant others, would deem acceptable.3
3. If you dress like a skank, you’re more likely to act like a skank. Interestingly, this lesson is not limited to the Jersey Shore. It has practical implications for any occasion where you are likely to be costume-clad (particularly Halloween). However, I will credit Mike “the Situation” with being the first person to publically exploit this principle for his own hedonistic fulfillment. If you recall, when Mike brought a girl home from the club, he would immediately have her change out of her clothes and into his. Although this transformation may seem small, it has much larger implications. In fact, changing your clothes could ultimately change your behavior. Although no research exists to show how putting on Mike’s pajamas could make you skankier, a whole host of literature does exist to show that uniforms, costumes, and masks increase anonymity. This in turn leads to lowered inhibitions and more “destructive” behavior as people lose their sense of individual identity and instead take on aspects of the “role” they are playing.4,5
So what have we learned by following this motley crew through Jersey, Miami, Italy, and back? Well, if you are a would-be player, you’ve learned how to successfully employ social psychology to improve your odds of scoring. I genuinely hope that is not what readers take away from this post. I think that the most valuable message of the show and this article is that psychological principles aren’t trapped in textbooks. Rather, they are a part of our everyday lives, whether we are misbehaving at the Jersey Shore or home watching it all unfold. Although I learned a lot more about Shore house shenanigans that I had ever set out to, I also learned a great deal about how my social psychology class is relevant to the real world.
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1Latvak, S. B. (1969). Attitude change by stimulus exposure. Psychological Reports, 25, 391-396.
2Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. New York: Academic Press.
3Gibbons, F. X. (1990). Self-attention and behavior: A review and theoretical update. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 23, pp. 249-303). New York: Academic Press.
4Haney, C., Banks, W. C. & Zimbardo, P.G. (1973) A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4-17.
5Diener, E., Fraser, S., Beaman, A., & Kelem, R. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33 (2), 178-183.
Dr. Sadie Leder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.