Harsh 'Reality': Bachelor's Emotional Impact?

Is the worst part about being dumped on national television the humiliation -- or the contractual obligation to keep it quiet for several weeks?

In a series finale that drew outrage from viewers, "The Bachelor," Jason Mesnick, broke off his engagement with Melissa Rycroft and rekindled his relationship with Molly Malaney.

In a surprise, in the early moments of the "After The Final Rose" show, which took place weeks after the show ended, Mesnick announced that his relationship with Rycroft had fizzled, and so he dumped her, and attempted to restart a romance with Malaney, a proposal she accepted.

It's a move that did not sit well with Gillian Sheldon, managing editor of momlogic.com -- an online community targeted toward a female audience.

"Picking one person and proposing to her, and then six weeks later having this change of heart, is a little questionable," she said.

Sheldon's reaction was considerably less harsh than those of many commenters on her site, a large number of whom compared Mesnick to a certain feminine cleansing product.

But while most of the sympathy seems directed at the jilted Rycroft, at least one psychology expert said that perhaps more of it should be directed toward Malaney, even if she did ultimately win Mesnick's affection (for now, anyway).

Malaney faced rejection in the final days of taping in late November, when Mesnick dropped to a knee and proposed to Rycroft shortly after he sent Malaney packing. In the ensuing weeks, she was contractually bound to remain silent about the outcome and her feelings, until the first half of the "After The Final Rose" segment taped in mid-January. On the show, she described it as the hardest part of the experience.

"That's bad news," said C. Nathan DeWall, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. "That -- emotional suppression -- is a very, very poor strategy."

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Women who are not on reality shows, if told by the man they love that he is breaking off their relationship, can speak immediately to family and friends. Malaney effectively had a gag order and could not speak to anyone about coming down to the final two women -- and not being chosen.

'Reality' TV, Real Emotions

So what might be the effect of rejection, even in a contrived setting? DeWall said the feeling of exclusion -- the emotion that would overtake a contestant rejected on a show like "The Bachelor" -- was a feeling to which most could relate. And while it seems implausible that spending time together in front of cameras and a production crew for a few weeks would generate real emotions from the participants in a reality show, psychology has shown that people can bond quite quickly, and rejection can hurt from any source.

The need to "belong" in a relationship, DeWall said, is "so strong, that at a very basic level, this higher order logical reasoning -- that this probably isn't 'real' -- doesn't necessarily matter."

DeWall noted that studies have shown that when people are excluded, it does not matter as much who is excluding them; one piece of research even showed that people are as offended when excluded by a member of the KKK as by a random stranger.

In his own work, DeWall has seen students who meet for as little as 15 minutes feel hurt when they are suddenly excluded from a group.

So for the contestants on the reality show, for whom the experience lasts for many weeks, the psychological impact of rejection may be even more profound.

"Six weeks of getting to know someone and then getting excluded, I would say that would have lots of serious consequences," said DeWall.

And while some might question whether one man could impact the emotions of so many women, studies have shown it to be entirely plausible.

Kip Williams, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, noted that in his own studies, people will display emotional pain in a variety of settings. Some people have been offended when a computer excludes them, and African-American students have been offended when other students -- whom they are led to believe are members of the Ku Klux Klan -- won't pass them the basketball during a game.

"We don't mind saying 'no' to them, but we don't want to be said 'no' to by anybody," said Williams.

A Cause for Concern?

Compound this exclusion with the participants' obligation to remain mum about it, and it may be a formula for disaster. In the lab, DeWall said, researchers have found that suppressing emotion for even as little as 15 minutes is related to all sorts of negative consequences -- both emotional and physical.

He doesn't know the effect of emotional suppression for several weeks, which the women on "The Bachelor" were contractually obligated to endure.

"I don't think actually that my university would let me do that, for a variety of different reasons," said DeWall.

Williams agrees that reality TV sometimes gets away with questionable activities.

"Most of these TV shows, we could never do in an experiment in a university. None of them would get approval," said Williams.

Both of the finalists had to endure some period of suppression -- Malaney between her initial rejection and the first taping for the finale in January (where she reconciled with Mesnick, but still had to keep quiet), and Rycroft between the January taping and the airing of the episode on Monday.

Williams speculated that given the difficulty in bottling up emotions, some contestants might swear a friend to secrecy to help themselves but avoid legal troubles.

Even the person doing the rejecting -- in this case, Mesnick -- might be hurting himself emotionally. While most data are on people being excluded, DeWall noted that some people who are rejectors show less of a desire to connect with other people.

Mesnick's previous experience on the show may have played a role as well. Mesnick was among the final two suitors for DeAnna Pappas on a prior season of "The Bachelor," But she rejected him in the finale. Having been rejected previously may have made Mesnick, who is also divorced, less sensitive to rejecting someone else, as exposure to painful events may make someone react less to negative ones in the future.

"He [Mesnick] wasn't that concerned with another person's pain," DeWall noted.

"If I were making a show like this, I think it would be very important to keep this in mind, because it does pose such a threat to well-being -- you're really hurting people."

Reality TV's Real Consequences

Emotional pain has dogged reality television shows since their introduction. In 1997, Sinisa Savija, a participant on the Swedish show "Expedition Robinson," was voted off first and committed suicide shortly thereafter. In 2005, Najai Turpin, the first contestant to lose on the boxing reality show "The Contender," also committed suicide.

In both cases, producers denied any connection between the show and the death of the participant.

Reality shows have long been accused of scripting, but those accusations are usually denied. The producers of "The Bachelor," which airs on ABC, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

But reality TV producers do have the responsibility of cutting and editing what makes it on the air. And more often than not, raw emotion, whether real or contrived, makes the most compelling television -- as millions of viewers witnessed "After the Final Rose."

"These people are not actors," said Sheldon. "Obviously the next day -- six weeks later [in real-time] -- those emotions were raw and real. It's very hard to take real people and put them in these scripted positions."

"You can't create emotion -- you can coax it in editing, but ... it's extremely hard to manipulate it," she added.

On her site, Sheldon also posted an interview with Trista Sutter, a former "Bachelorette" (then Trista Rehn) and the only participant on either incarnation of the "Bachelor" franchise thus far to marry the person she selected, firefighter Ryan Sutter.

Of "The Bachelor" season finale, Sutter said, "I don't know what Jason's contract says, but I don't believe the producers could manipulate the ending to this extent. I think Jason definitely had a choice in how he broke off the engagement -- either publicly or in private. Ryan and I don't think the producers could force him into something like that."

While reality shows may create situations that are removed from reality, there still may be lessons to glean for real life. To Sheldon, that lesson is in how careful and considerate of the other person's feeling be when ending a relationship.

"Treat every relationship as though it was on national television," she said.

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