The Osbornes are clearly not a typical family. Getting a job as a chef does not usually involve living with a bunch of other candidates to be picked off one by one over a period of weeks, all while being yelled at nightly, and forced to consume various innards or chase pigs as the Hell's Kitchen contestants do. And I seriously doubt that The Bachelor just forgot the camera was there when he was on a 'date'. If the cameras do not catch humans in their natural habitats, what can we learn from them? A lot, I think.

Most research into human behavior involves unnatural settings and manipulations. Research is goal-driven and studies are designed to answer specific questions, but sometimes the most valuable knowledge is completely unexpected and unplanned. After all, Pavlov set out to study the gastric function of dogs, not classical conditioning, and Fleming's Nobel Prize winning discovery of penicillin was the result of a contaminated sample. There are also a few shows (e.g., Cops), which capture relatively natural behavior in specific contexts. Many everyday experiences and observations spark hypotheses or provide examples of well-known principles which can be used in the classroom.    

Of course, I have some specific examples in mind.


The Naturalistic Observation of Candid Camera

 Allen Funt is a bit of a hero among introductory and social psychology teachers. The 'experiments' conducted on the original show demonstrate some of the most fundamental principles of human behavior.    

In what is arguably the most famous clip, three Candid Camera staff enter an elevator separately, appearing to be strangers. They face the back of the elevator as we watch a subject enter and struggle with conflict between the norm of facing forward and draw to conform and face the back. The funniest subject is persuaded to turn sideways, remove his hat, replace his hat, and ignore the fact that the elevator doors open repeatedly on the same floor - all simply because everyone else is doing these things. There is no better demonstration of the power of social influence, including Asch's experiments in the 1950s.

Clips from the classic show which have been compiled for use in psychology classrooms are available for purchase at    


American Idol, the Failed Self-Esteem Movement, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Setting aside that a recent contestant 'knew' she was about to be cut because her horoscope told her...    

Although many people in the 1980s questioned the wisdom of charging parents for uniforms, coaches, and equipment so that they could watch their kids play a game with no apparent goal because nobody kept score, myths about self-esteem are still alive and well today.

By 2004 the evidence clearly refuted the long-held belief that bullies were children with low self-esteem who lashed out to avoid more pain. Although this view allowed us to avoid facing our contempt for these children, avoiding the truth – namely that bullies tend to be narcissistic and that their aggression stems from feelings of entitlement – impedes our ability to develop effective ways to deal with that aggression. In the meantime, victims of bullying suffer from more than simply a blow to their self-esteem.    

The "everybody gets a trophy" approach was well-intentioned, but misguided. Instead of teaching children that everyone is equal, it taught them that everyone is the same. This message seems to contradict the accompanying message that the child is special. When children cannot reconcile their 'specialness' with the idea that others are equally deserving, they fail to develop an understanding of the very real competition for limited resources that we all must face as adults. The product of this failed movement is a narcissist with little knowledge or interest in the needs or abilities of others. It should be of no surprise that narcissism among college students, as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory [NPI], increased 30% between 1985 and 2006.   

So what does this have to do with American Idol?

Well, I find the auditions and "Hollywood Week" the most fascinating. The last segment of this process when the judges inform, personally, the last set of contestants (usually around 50 or so) whether or not they were chosen for the 'main stage' part of the show. Most who make it that far only to be rejected handle it fairly well, but some do not. Last year one contestant begged, claiming that she alone faced a an illness that affected her voice and declaring that she deserved a spot on the show. The famously blunt Simon Cowell was rather gentle when he explained that, since they'd already chosen the contestants, giving her a spot meant taking one from someone else. That seemed to fly right by her as she to chanted again and again, "I deserve it!" She continued this mantra outside, telling Ryan Seacrest about how many of the contestants deserved it. At no time did she appear to understand that there were a limited number of spots, so whether or not she or someone else deserved it was not the issue. One person deserves it more than another, regardless of how slight that lead is; that is the issue.    

Narcissism is highly correlated with entitlement attitudes and external attributions for failures (e.g., "I failed because the grading/judging was unfair."). These, in turn, are correlated with overestimating one's own competency (the Dunning-Kruger effect). Those who overestimate the most are the least competent; those who understand the least are also the least equipped to recognize that they do not understand. We see this in action during the auditions for American Idol. The worst singers seem to be oblivious to the fact that they cannot sing. Many curse and cry after leaving, stating that the judges – usually music industry veterans - do not know what they are talking about. The funniest are those who continue to sing after being told "absolutely not" as if they will somehow hit just the right note, the skies will open up, the angels will join in, and the judges will shout, "Wait! We made a mistake!"


The Goal is the Key on Survivor, in School, and Everywhere

The end of the first Survivor competition was a bit of a shock to many viewers because the man who won, Richard Hatch, was considered one of the least likeable of the cast. Early in the show, contestants tended to vote off the worst performers, the people who contributed the least to the community. Hatch was the first to vote for the expulsion of a strong contributor, citing that she was a threat. He recognized that the goal, in the end, was to be the sole survivor. This meant more than meeting the physical demands of the contest. It meant outlasting one's opponents. Popular contestants were a threat because nobody wants to vote off people that they like.    

Adapting to the goal happened very quickly on this show. The same thing happens whenever goals are placed. For example, outcomes-based education (when funding for schools is tied to student performance on standardized tests) promotes fact-based teaching strategies rather than skill-based. Students study for multiple-choice exams by memorizing definitions using flashcards and associating terms, neither of which involve understanding concepts at any level which would allow application or transfer. When they are given short answer exams, the work of memorizing is more difficult, but many continue to do well by reciting and describing examples that were presented to them. However, given the task of organizing the material themselves or producing original examples of concepts, most are unable to do so because they simply do not understand what they memorized. Thus the programs which were put in place to fix what some thought was a poor education system had the opposite effect. Students do not learn how to think.

Many complain today that the Scholastic Aptitude Test [SAT] and Graduate Record Examination [GRE] do not test what they claim to test: aptitude for success in college (or graduate school). There is some truth to this because preparation programs teach test-taking strategies which are specific to each test. The tests themselves must change dramatically every few years if they are to continue to assess aptitude for success rather than skill at taking that test.    

Discussing the No Child Left Behind Act is opening up a can of worms, but I will say this: the real key to education is accurate assessment. If students cannot earn a passing grade without demonstrating a deep understanding of the material, those who are motivated and capable will change their study strategies to gain that deep understanding. Accurate assessment cannot be achieved without flexibility, frequent adjustments, and a lot of manpower. This is very difficult to achieve on a grand scale.


In conclusion, reality TV may not be real, but…

…neither are laboratory experiments. There are lessons to be learned everywhere; the biggest obstacle to learning is the thought that someone, something, or some experience has nothing to teach us.      



Achacoso, M. (2006). 'What do you mean my grade is not an A?': An investigation of academic entitlement, causal attributions, and self-regulation in college students. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A, 67

Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193(5), 31–35.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.    

Juvonen, J., & Graham, S. (2004). Research-based interventions on bullying. In C. E. Sanders, G. D. Phye, C. E. Sanders, G. D. Phye (Eds.), Bullying: Implications for the classroom (pp. 229-255).

Twenge, J. M., Konrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, W., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality, 76(4), 875-902.


Barbara Drescher teaches research methods, statistics, and cognitive psychology at California State University, Northridge. Her research interests include perception, attention, learning, and reasoning. At, Barbara evaluates claims and research, discusses education, and promotes science and skepticism.