For many of us, the ritual of watching reality TV follows a similar pattern. We gather together, we observe and we relish in the commentary of our peers. It's one of the main reasons we enjoy watching shows like Married At First Sight (MAFS) and Love Is Blind, where we get to sit back and indulge in the delightful pastime of people-watching, ramped up for our viewing pleasure. But while these shows are designed to entertain and stimulate the side of us that loves to dissect interpersonal dynamics, where it becomes a problem is when we get into the habit of scrutinising the cast's behaviours and (mis)diagnosing their mental illnesses.
Armchair psychology is essentially when laypeople like us take it upon ourselves to diagnose people with mental health issues and illnesses despite being thoroughly unqualified to do so. Are we always wrong? Maybe not, but it might not be as harmless as we think.
Sure, most people would hardly place much weight on our criticisms (despite seeing some pretty distressing behaviour on this season of MAFS), but the flippancy with which we throw around the language of pathology in relation to the behaviour of strangers on TV is disconcerting, to say the least. Psychology having entered the zeitgeist can be a double-edged sword. On the one end, as we learn more about psychology, it can help us navigate our own mental health, or understand our loved ones more. On the other, it’s led to a surge in these clinical terms being thrown around a little too liberally.
So, why do we do it in the first place?
There’s a certain comfort in being able to label people. Humans are complicated and that can be terrifying, particularly when they’re upsetting us or people we admire in the context of television. It feels easier to write them off as a narcissist or a psychopath where we don't then have to try to understand their alien behaviours, relegating them instead to the 'bad guys' bucket in our heads.
But it’s important that we understand not everyone we dislike has a mental illness. Being rude, self-involved, or unfriendly don't make someone a psychopath — and these traits can be subjective, anyway. As viewers, we certainly witness some horrendous behaviour from reality stars, but we need to be wary of confusing labels like ‘psychopath’ with common, everyday traits or anti-social personalities.
“People can tend to make assumptions based on things they don’t understand and if a person is behaving in a specific way that is unusual, we can often assume they could be suffering from a mental illness," says psychologist Nancy Sokarno.
Any labels we give people carry weight, and Sokarno explains, using them in the context of reality television can be futile. “Armchair psychology ignores context, particularly when it comes to reality TV,” she explains. “Viewers are not privy to the editing process and therefore we do not know what has been cut out, blended together or edited in a way that it can be misconstrued.”
Another issue with casual diagnoses is that it perpetuates the stigma that neurodivergence or mental illness is 'unhealthy' when it's actually a lot more common than people might think.
“Approximately one in every five Australians (that’s 20% of the population) experience a mental illness each year and a staggering 45% of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, so mental health concerns are fairly common,” Sokarno says. “What’s not as common, is our understanding of these various mental illnesses.”
Not everyone you dislike has a mental illness.
For some viewers, though, seeing these kinds of situations play out on screen, and hearing the subsequent commentary, can actually help them to address trauma in their own lives.
Meghan, 27, shares that watching Bryce Ruthven on last year’s season of MAFS helped her realise that she and her ex-partner didn’t just ‘clash’ but that they were both demonstrating behaviours that she could finally put a label on.
“I was watching this d**khead on television treat his partner horrifically and it was really setting me off,” she tells Refinery29 Australia. At some point, when she was stewing in her anger, she realised that the behaviour felt familiar, because it hit close to home.
“I started to draw parallels between the guy on TV and my ex-partner. The way [Bryce] would make [Melissa] feel — small, overly-sensitive, not good enough — was one thing, but it was also confronting to see how she took it, too... I remember watching and wanting to shake her because she wasn’t listening to the experts and she wasn’t listening to her friends, who were all telling her the same thing: run!” Meghan says.
“Scrolling through the comments on social media, I noticed something come up a lot with this couple and this was the term ‘gaslighting’. I had heard it thrown around here and there but never really looked into it so much. And when I did, I felt an overwhelming sense of understanding. Yes, it’s exactly what we were seeing unfold on TV, and it was exactly what I had been experiencing in my previous relationship.”
Meghan tells me that it also helped her to empathise with the characters more. “I don’t believe it falls on the victim of a gaslighter to step up and stand up for themselves. I know it’s not that easy — if it was, there wouldn’t be a name for it — but it was helpful for me to feel like I could almost get a bird’s eye perspective on my situation, and my place in it,” she says. “I too didn’t listen to my loved ones and they probably wanted to shake me the way I wanted to shake [Melissa Rawson]. It was a real lightbulb moment.”
Psychologists don’t tend to dwell on a diagnosis (or label) during sessions, instead, we are trying to focus on resolving specific concerns and helping clients become emotionally healthier.
nancy sokarno, PSYCHOLOGIST
Sokarno, who works with the mental health service Lysn, warns that misdiagnosing people — even if you don't know them — can be extremely harmful. “Mental health concerns affect a huge portion of the population and misdiagnosing or participating in armchair psychology only isolates those who might be genuinely struggling,” she says, adding that even professionals avoid diagnoses.
“In therapy, psychologists don’t tend to typically dwell on a diagnosis (or label) during sessions,” she says. “Instead, we try to focus on resolving specific concerns and helping clients become emotionally healthier.
The thing about mental illnesses is that it can take years to understand one, and even then, we are still learning more about these conditions every day. As Sokarno explains, rushing to diagnose people when we have a basic — or even completely incorrect — understanding of psychology, discourages meaningful learning about mental health and can even inhibit someone from seeking the help of an expert.
Genuine diagnoses require time and analysis by a licensed professional, and it's not helpful to take that into our own hands. It's natural to want to understand human behaviour, but no matter how much introspection and thought we place on the matter, armchair psychology, even when just hurled at the screen, can be a slippery slope — one that can cause real-life harm.