Amongst the sun, sea, and sponsorship deals, lies a villa in the heart of Majorca. A villa adorned with swimwear, sunscreen, and over 70 cameras watching the every move of a conveyor belt of contestants, heading to the summer hottest reality TV show. This ladies and gentlemen, is Love Island.
Love Island has been on our screens since 2015 and now beginning it’s 8th series, with around 36 contestants gracing our screens over the 8 week show. So, is Love Island just Gen Z’s using their time on the daily primetime show to gain media fame and followers - or is there an underlying social experiment behind the love searching singletons than meets the eye - absolutely.
The popularity of Love Island first of all is seen by the daily ritual of a 9pm primetime slots, whereby over 3 million people (ITV, 2022) watched the trials and tribulations, the love and laughter, the heart make and heart break of the opening episode for this years extravaganza. This 8 week reality shows may give the general public viewers an element of escapism from everyday affairs, watching the drama unfold with real people and real lives. So what makes this show so popular, and why do we watch it? What is the drive behind the storylines, is there more to it than just looking for love - and why are we so invested?
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The Psychology behind the Show
For anyone not ‘au fait’ with the reality television, Love Island is centred around a villa in Majorca, with the main ethos of the show finding love, staying until the final, and being in with a chance of winning £50,000. Fundamentally, the main crux of the show is the need to be in a ‘couple’ to continue until the end. If you are classed as ‘single’ in the regular re-coupling or deemed as the weakest couple – either by other couples or the viewers, then you are voted off the show and your time on Love Island is over.
The show itself holds such an interesting phenomenon for psychological understanding of human social interactions and behaviours, unravelling how people react in given situations – especially with regard to friendships and relationships within the villa. Similar to the award winning show of Big Brother which spanned 18 years, both Love Island and Big Brother hold similar concepts of contestants, shut off the real world; the element of time, reality and the outside world become a distant memory – and only what happens in the house - or villa - counts. This temporary new world holds an important understanding around human social behaviour; how we react with others, the friend groups we make, and forming alliances to be able to survive in unravelling drama creating for and by the TV show. Some of the main interesting psychological concepts from Love Island are discussed with the main idea of forming relationships and ‘coupling up’. With tag lines and sayings such as; ‘it is what it is’ stating things may happen out of your control; ‘their type on paper’ being what they look for in a partner; ‘head’s being turned’ suggesting they may have more feelings toward another contestant; and ‘open to getting to know them’ highlighting their intention to communicate with a new potential love interest. Sayings aside, the same notions are clear in every day lives, just expedited within the 24 hours a day 7 days a week filming of the show.
The Psychology behind the Contestants
With over 100,000 applicants to Love Island in 2022 alone, the show is never short of an array of personalities, looks, and singletons looking for love. The lives of these contestants are also drawn out throughout the show, with the good, the bad and the ugly of relationships. One of the main aspects of the social psychology with Love Island is this idea of the development of relationships and seeing them played out with all the world to see. Although one may think that the relationships are for show due to the obvious nature of the camera, former reality TV contestants have discussed how they forget about the cameras after a while and it just became real, everyday life and relationship formation. This element of aspects of real life playing out in front of the camera has its benefits to the psychological understanding of some relationship situations, whether deemed positive or negative.
An interesting phenomenon within the psychology of Love Island is this need to be in a ‘couple’ to stay on the show. Whilst some enter situationships (a relationship of convenience) or friendship couples, the challenge is always there to find the ‘right person’, their ‘type on paper’. This is highlighted within the contestants behaviours and underlying psychological principle of ‘delayed gratification’. Some contestants may couple up with a partner straight away, whereas others continue to follow a long-term strategy to wait to find ‘their type on paper’. This mirrors a well-known psychological experiment known as the ‘Marshmallow test’. Mischel and colleagues (1972) asked students to choose between a single marshmallow now, or wait and have 2 marshmallows in 20 minutes time. Whilst the idea of waiting to potentially have something better, the need for instant gratification is compelling, and led most students to consume the single marshmallow instead of waiting for the larger reward. This idea can be seen in the ‘coupling up’ in Love Island, with people choosing a relationship, yet not seemingly settling each time new arrivals appear.
After the first ‘coupling up’ happens, connections start to shift between contestants, as they begin to find that ‘initial’ physical attraction is overweighed by the need for communication and personality similarities. Although studies (Karandashev & Fata, 2014) highlight the importance of physical attraction within a relationship, the change between physical to emotional attraction is soon evident when establishing a partner. Within Love Island, the challenge is highlighted when a new contestant enters the villa, and ‘the grass may be greener’ creates a potential shift in the current relationships, however solid they may seem. The social comparison between contestants of the same sex may cause a clash between these groups, with the original member of the couple feeling jealousy with their partner ‘getting to know’ a new person, however innocent it may be.
Regarding these groups in more detail, social psychology discusses the importance of these friend groups, cliques that fundamentally appear quickly within a social situation. These are made up of people that share the same characteristics and values, and begin early-on in a given situation when there is a fundamental need to appeal to others, such as a TV show about relationships. Within Love Island this is normally seen within the friend groups of the guys and the girls. Social psychologists can explain this grouping of people as part of the realistic conflict theory. A well known classic study (Sherif et al., 1954) found that dividing up students in to two groups was enough to make some of the students dislike the other group, for no other reason than they are ‘outsiders’ of their group. Mirroring this to Love Island, later arrivals are seen to get a harder time in infiltrating the group dynamic as the group members and their roles have already been established. These close knit friend groups are challenged when new contestants arrive on the show, with the new potential arrival not only looking to partner up with someone already in a couple, but to break the friendship and ‘girl’ or ‘guy-code’ with the dissolution of a relationship for their own potential benefit, whether it be a relationship with that person, or success on the show.
This conflict within relationship has been highlighted over the last few years of Love Island, with ‘reg flags’ and ‘relationship issues’ being aired for the world to watch. Recently, Womens Aid posted on social media regarding the most recent series of Love Island, about the behaviour of particular contestants amid the conduct within some of the relationships. In addition to these potential behaviours being seen and highlighted on a national tv platform, Womens Aid highlighted that the show has a role to play in ending emotional and domestic abuse within relationships. Whereas these situations in such reality shows are played out for the world to watch, many situations of gaslighting and emotional abuse within relationships are not as apparent and can thus go unnoticed and under the radar. Although these situations are not even slightly suggested to be a benefit for anyone, TV show or not, one may suggest by highlighting ‘what types of emotional abuse’ may look like may raise awareness for people who may not see the signs from friends and family and realise the signs to seek help and support from others. This is mirrored not only in reality TV shows with such focus on relationships, but also highlighted within soaps and dramas as a way of discussing sensitive topics and raising awareness for others who may not see the signs in that given situation.
Fact vs Fiction of the Reality TV Contestants
Not too dissimilar to the addiction of soap dramas, whereby people have to be home to watch hours of fictional storylines - feeling that they are ‘one’ with the characters, understanding their problems and living through their stories - this is the storyline of Love Island, but with real people. How we respond to the participants and characters of reality tv and drama has a lot to do with our need to empathise with the person, fictional or not, in that given situation. Our own previous experiences with ‘the situation’ the person may be going through may reflect or highlight our own personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, thus creating an element of empathy and sympathy for that ‘character’. The viewers may then find themselves invested in that situation, thus by-proxy living that experience through the storyline unfolding. This phenomenon is frequently discussed by numerous soap actors, with TV viewers blurring lines between reality and fiction, shouting at actors in the street about their behaviour on a scripted fictional soap or tv show, worlds away from their normal lives.
This involvement in storylines, and blurring of reality vs television, is highlighted significantly with reality TV shows. With regard to Love Island, the ability to communicate in a real-life online forum, with their new sponsorship deal with Reddit, allows the audience to add their viewpoints in real time, to a mass of virtual potential responses. In addition to the hashtags and tweeted opinions live throughout the shows airtime, the addition of the contestants’ Social Media profiles being kept up to date by friends and family has blurred the lines between the contestants lives before during and after their time on the show. Much of the psychological challenges and issues that have been associated with Love Island have stemmed from, or been linked with, the aftermath of the social media barrage directed at the contestants after their time on the show. This convergence of fact vs fiction, how we feel about a character in comparison to how the producers shown their storyline, can have a direct impact on their popularity - positive or negative - once back in the real world. We as readers, and potentially watchers of the show - must remember that the participants are also human. Even though the saying regarding sticks and stones may hold true, words, negative comments and abuse via the direct social media channels can truly hurt us.
So Love Island, it is what it is, or is it?
With the reality TV show beginning its 8th series, the success of the show may still have viewers hooked to the twists and turns of people’s lives. With a day’s filming condensed in to 1 hour episodes (with sponsorship adverts), we must remember the drama is magnified with a summer of singletons finding friendship, love and fame over the prposed 8 weeks, and the show would only be as successful as it is with drama and editing by the producers. The show itself, although not a research experiment in its nature, helps us to understand the challenges faced in many relationships, the difficulties with entering new situations and how to deal with the fear of failure and a popularity game of such magnitude for the world to see. It’s true that the show itself has its lovers as it has its haters, however with the current mental health crisis surrounding the impact of social media on contestants and peoples opinions on individual contestants and their lives, it is important to note that whatever one’s views – this show ‘is what it is’ - a reality TV show of real people with real feeling, living real lives once outside of the villa.
Karandashev, V., & Fata, B. (2014). Change in physical attraction in early romantic relationships. Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships, 8(2).
Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Raskoff Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of personality and social psychology, 21(2), 204.
Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1954). 1961 Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.