Suspending disbelief? Don’t you believe it.

Abstract: The intellectual downgrading of today’s TV programming…

There’s an advert on TV that is particularly infuriating. It features two attractive women standing next to identical washing machines positioned in the middle of an unbelievably uncluttered kitchen. One of the women is bemoaning her inability to remove a stubborn stain from a garment she has just pulled out of the machine. She obviously hasn’t realised her machine is neither plugged in nor connected to the water supply.

I know what you’re thinking: it’s only an advert. But that’s the part that interests me – you know that the two women are fooling you, and yet you’re still expected to trust them. Not only that, but trust them to the extent that you will rush out and buy the product they say works without water or electricity. This means you must be gullible.

There is of course another explanation: ‘suspension of disbelief’; and it’s behind the intellectual degrading of TV programming.

When the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge created this term in 1817, Europe was evolving from a belief in the supernatural and was embracing a time of new science and rational thinking. For this reason Coleridge asked his readers “to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”. What he was saying was that in order to appreciate the subtle intensities of his romantic writing, it was necessary to momentarily put aside logic, and just go with the flow.

Today, suspension of disbelief is an integral part of enjoying films. It’s why a woman cries when someone dies in a romantic drama. Obviously no one is actually dying in the movie. An actor is just pretending to be someone – invariably a fictional character – and that character is portrayed as if they were dying. However the tears being shed by the woman watching it are real. And that’s the problem.

Like most of the intriguing quirks in human behaviour, psychology tries to get to the bottom of this and looks to the brain for answers, specifically the ongoing struggle between the pre-frontal cortex, which governs abstract thinking and rational analysis, and the limbic system, which is involved in emotional behaviour.

Because the human brain is so evolved, we are able to ‘juggle’ both systems. This means that when we watch a fictional movie on TV we are able to able to temporarily disengage our logical action system – which tells us ‘it’s just a movie’ – and still engage our emotional system. As a result we momentarily suspend the disbelief that what we see is not real, and react emotionally.

Hopefully, when the movie is finished, we re-engage our logical action system, say “what a great movie”, realise that no one actually died, and get on with our lives. Importantly, we don’t follow up on what we saw and try to contact the family of the character who died in the movie and send them our condolences. Something in our head recognises that the people we saw on the TV – like the two women with their washing machines – were temporarily fooling us into believing that what we see is real.

So why then when the woman in the TV advert claims that a washing powder she put into her unplugged and unplumbed washing machine magically removes stubborn stains, do we believe her to the point that we’re willing to buy the washing powder in question? It’s a fair question, and whatever’s the answer, it is behind the growth of one of the most pervasive and depraved forms of televised entertainment: ‘reality TV’.

Skim through the offering of a premium DStv package, and you’ll be struck not only by the overwhelming plethora of so-called reality TV programmes, but how the bottom of is genre is most definitely being mined. The documentary channels – those with a traditionally strong male audience – are pumped full of variants of muscular American career stories. Beyond the normal fare of axmen, ice road truckers, pawn stars and crab fishermen, there are men in shooting duals, men racing with front-end loaders, men trying to outbid each other for the contents of shipping containers, and even men battling each other to build the biggest fish-tanks.

But it’s in the women’s lifestyle channels that the true horror unfolds: programmes glamourising swinging wives, wives of polygamists, fashion contests for drag queens, and brides-to-be fighting each other to secure the prize of a nose job. Is this really what women want to see?

Because these programmes have all been dressed up as ‘reality TV’ they suggest, unlike typical TV entertainment, that you don’t suspend disbelief, but actually believe that it’s real. However, just like the actors in TV movies, the characters are well aware of the cameras, and perform for them; they are purposefully directed to encourage desired content; and, importantly; their performances are later edited for maximum effect – what you’re not supposed to see is ‘left on the cutting room floor’.

So next time you see a programme about plastic surgeons who give boob jobs to cheating soldiers’ wives competing with each other to see who’s got the most realistic spray-on tan, look for the unplugged washing machine, and don’t buy into it.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 2 December 2012.