The Complex Biology Behind Reality TV Dating Shows

Our decision to do weekly reviews of ABC’s The Bachelorette this summer brought reality TV dating shows back into my life after a long, and very intentional, hiatus. As a genre, reality TV is not very fulfilling for me. But despite that fact, by the time I’ve watched even 20 minutes of a show like The Bachelorette I am invested. For some inexplicable reason I now care deeply about a mostly bogus relationship between two people I will never meet. Hours of my life will be lost to the show this summer. But my time watching the men on The Bachelorette clamoring for the attention of a lone female has given me a lot of time to think about the biological underpinnings of these shows and the behavior demonstrated on them. The patterns that start to pop out in how the contestants talk, act, and “feel” are all reminders that we are still animals. And that there is a lot of biology behind reality TV dating shows.

Now let’s be clear, when I say biology that’s the broad field. More specifically I am talking about the evolution of sexual selection (if you are a staunch non-believer of evolution this may be a good time for you to stop reading, there’s not much here for you). Most of the concepts included in this article are based on the general principles surrounding the process by which we select our mates (technically the basis behind reality TV dating shows). The whole issue of how we evolved our particular human mating rituals, sexual attractions, and social pairing is truly fascinating and is laid out well in a great book called “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” by Matt Ridley. If you find any of this even mildly interesting, you need to read that book.

The basic message is this: Despite our complex social structure, technological wonders, and unmatched intelligence, we are still heavily governed by our animal instincts that have been evolving with us since our ancestors crawled out of the primordial ooze. In other words, the decisions we make and the lengths to which we go to “get laid” have defined our species and made us what we are today. In the inescapable game of natural selection, it’s all about passing on your genes. And in that sense we are a hyper-intelligent ape that is still driven by the exact same logic as the bacteria on our kitchen sink. And our reality TV dating shows are a great public record of this fact. Let’s take a look at some elements of these shows and break down the biology that lies beneath.

“He’s not here for the right reasons”

Biology Behind Reality TV Dating Shows

If you watch any reality TV dating shows you have heard this one before. On a program like The Bachelorette it is almost a go-to phrase lesser contestants use to try and unseat a frontrunner. The apparent effectiveness of saying something like this is rooted deeply in our biology as a sort of monogamous species.

First we need to back up and discuss the fact that when it comes to producing offspring (the fundamental purpose behind coupling up), the investment of men and women is not equal. Sure, each partner contributes roughly the same amount of DNA to the process. But for a woman, the investment of time, energy, and other resources is immensely larger. A man could simply be there for “the act” and never be in the picture again and he would still be considered successful from the standpoint of passing along his DNA. For a woman, that option does not exist. For her it is a decade-long commitment at minimum. The man not being in the picture after conception likely happened all the time in the course of our evolution as a species. And as we know it still happens today, although we have societal safe-guards against total absenteeism (like child support). And while women have demonstrated that they are more than capable of raising a child without a man around if need be, we also know that kids are more successful when a father stays in the picture.  Women have been aware of this fact throughout our evolution as a species and it’s why articles like this exist. Women want to know that their selected mate is going to be there to raise their child. So that’s why a phrase like “He’s here for the wrong reasons” may cast some doubt on a suitor’s intentions by essentially implying he will date and dash or he’s only trying to use the opportunity to gain some fame (and possibly use that to sleep with other women). While saying such a thing may work to undermine a woman’s confidence in a suitor, women are often intuitively equipped to ferret out those characteristics in men all on their own. Thanks evolution!

“She’s fake”

Biology Behind Reality TV Dating Shows

This could just as easily be “he’s fake”, it goes both ways. This is perhaps the most ubiquitous criticism leveled on reality TV dating shows. And it cuts to one of the deepest truths in evolution: whether you are a bird of paradise in a secluded jungle or an inebriated human at bar close, we are more than willing to present an inflated image of ourselves to potential suitors. It’s one of the great ongoing games in evolution. We don’t really have to be the total package to pass on our genes, we just have to convince a potential mate that we are. Which sounds very cynical, but it’s true.

That’s why on reality shows there are constant accusations of someone being fake, and they are usually accurate! People on the shows are doing the same thing people on first dates do every day: lie, omit, exaggerate, or enhance the truth to hide flaws and accentuate strengths. It’s a sort of covert ops game between a person and their potential mates: are they really as great as they are trying to make me think they are? Are they worth my investment of time and reproductive energy? And when there is competition for the same mate, suitors often feel like they can improve their own odds by calling out this “fakeness” to ensure that kind of gamesmanship is noticed by the potential mate.

Once again, getting fooled into reproducing with someone who has successfully presented an inflated picture of themselves is a loss for the partner. You bought a lemon. And the difference in reproductive investment comes into play again. The ramifications of picking a “bad mate” are way higher for a female than a male. A female only has so many chances to produce offspring in her life because it is such a long and intensive investment for her. Men can try to reproduce again later that day theoretically… (and no, it’s not fair. It’s biology.)

The hot people still win

Biology Behind Reality TV Dating Shows

On every season of The Bachelorette there is at least one guy who has considerably more personality than the rest of the pack. In fact, that’s kind of his thing. This guy is always a couple steps down in attractiveness (though just relative to the show, if you met him on the street he might be the most handsome person you know). Why can’t he be as handsome as the others and still have the fantastic personality? Well, he could. But then he would be a completely well-rounded human being and he would be starring in movies or a senator or something and not on The Bachelorette. Anyhow, in the most recent season of The Bachelorette, that guy was James Taylor. He was a fairly good looking guy, but his whole deal was that he was super nice. He survived until week 6 when he was axed, leaving four tall, chiseled, man-wiches behind to vie for the heart of the bachelorette. James Taylor did everything he could to play up his personality (which was also kind of fake seeming, as per above). He even tried to cut down the other guys. He was doing what he felt like he needed to do to compete with better looking suitors. Because, whether conscious or not, he is aware of a difficult biological truth: looks do matter.

That is not a particularly PC statement, so it may be better to follow with an example from the animal world rather than the human one to illustrate the point. Let’s talk about peacocks. Everyone is familiar with the male peacock and it’s ridiculously long and colorful plumage. That plumage is a major liability for the survival of those male birds. So why on earth did they evolve like that? Well, at some point way back when peacocks looked mostly like one of their plainer ancestors, a male was born with a mutation that left it with larger tail feathers. He was different. But the female peacocks dug it. As a result, he was very successful passing on his genes (he was “crushing that peacock ass” as the kids say). But he was also mating with females that preferred that longer tail, so his daughters started looking for the same thing. Before long, the natural selection was for males with longer tails and for females that were into that. In short, looks mattered. Peacocks had to have certain attractive traits to successfully find a mate. And they created kids that looked for the same. The tails got bigger and bigger and were viewed as more and more attractive. And as much as we humans value inner beauty (which is probably considerably more than we used to), looks still matter for us too. Ask James Taylor, who is watching the bachelorette and her stable of remaining hotties from his couch at home.

What’s more natural, The Bachelor or The Bachelorette?

Biology Behind Reality TV Dating Shows

Earlier this year our own Frank Anderson noted that he’s more comfortable watching The Bachelorette than The Bachelor. What Frank may have been sensing is that The Bachelorette is a more natural fit for how our species is supposed to operate. And once more, the reasoning comes down to reproductive investment. The investment for a woman is considerably greater than that of a man. So a show about a woman searching through a field of potential suitors is a better representation of our sexual selection process. Or at least how it should work. Throughout nature you see all kinds of evidence pointing toward sexual selection operating more like The Bachelorette than The Bachelor. It is why male birds are typically more colorful to compete for mates, while females can afford to be drab (and choosey). It is why males build and guard nests and try to attract females to them in many species of freshwater fish. And it is why male deer have antlers and compete for dominance and mates. All that macho posturing and showing off on The Bachelorette is simply human males behaving in a slightly more evolved manner than our animal counterparts.

This all holds true with one large caveat: that the men and women are on an equal playing field. And by that I mean they each have a similar ability to support themselves and their offspring. But as we know, our society is typically not equal, it is male dominant in many aspects. The reasoning behind how we got to that point is complicated and could be its own (considerably less fun) essay. But in short, it goes back to physicality and the roles that males, as the larger (and more expendable) sex, assumed in society and how that gave them power of a different kind (resources, then later, money). At some point this alternate kind of power trumped the inherent power women hold in their ability to carry offspring.

So in essence, saying The Bachelorette is the more natural iteration of the show is somewhat aspirational. Very often our society operates more like The Bachelor because we still don’t have true equality between the sexes (in keeping with that The Bachelor has enjoyed 8 more seasons than The Bachelorette). That’s not saying men don’t have a right to choose their mate in the same manner that women do. It would be fantastic if both men and women were vetting their mates intensely and only reproducing if they were certain they had found a great partner. But it is important to recognize that women are bringing a lot more to the table than men when it comes to producing offspring. Respect it.

But we’re not monkeys anymore

All these observations are rooted in our past as a species. Sometimes way in our past. What makes this all the more interesting is how complex our species is. We are not simply driven to survive and reproduce like most other species on the planet (I mean, maybe there’s something more complex happening in the brain of a jellyfish, but probably not). We are still driven by those things, but we also do so much more. We are also driven by the urge to climb mountains, to write books, to wind-surf (although a hard-core biologist might argue all those things are done to increase your attractiveness so you can reproduce). But no matter how complex we get as a species, our primal urges will always be there beneath the surface. And if you want to get a peek at them, just turn on The Bachelorette.

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