Friday 23 August 2019

Marie Murray: 'Attraction of 'Love Island'? The power to watch, unobserved'

Love Island winners Amber and Greg. Photo: PA
Love Island winners Amber and Greg. Photo: PA

Marie Murray

The viewing figures for 'Love Island' inexplicably soared this year as much of Ireland became obsessed with this "reality" programme. Even our Taoiseach admitted watching "snippets".

But why would a programme ostensibly so trivial and contrived capture nightly viewers for almost two months? What makes a programme such as 'Love Island' an irresistible magnet in our current times? Is it the sex and voyeurism it easily affords or does it speak to something deeper or something missing in the national psyche?

Because whatever it is 'Love Island' triggered - whether it was watched with mesmerised horror, prurient curiosity, romantic fantasy or to experience vicarious 'love' - Irish viewing figures reached tens of thousands as the show progressed this year. Surely the fever pitch of grand finale parties held in various locations throughout the country has to say something sociological about life in Ireland today?

Apart from the young demographic at whom it was targeted, plus three Irish contestants this year, there are a number of psychological explanations why a reality programme of this kind attracts.

One addictive quality 'Love Island' has is the unfolding of the stories of diverse, real live people who seem to be engaging in that most essential and primitive human activity, the search for someone to love who will love them in return - perfectly, romantically, faithfully and forever.

Or, if it is not love they seek but celebrity notoriety, lucrative spin-offs and the possibility of winning £50,000, how can the viewer spot those for whom money, not love, is the incentive?

This is what makes people-watching riveting despite the tack, the triviality, the synthetic world in which the islanders are incarcerated. We want to see what happens and how they will respond to the psychological stresses to which they are exposed.

But there is more to it than this. People watch because they want to learn. They want to know how relationships begin, what sustains them, what disrupts them and if true love is possible. How much can you believe of what is said to you? What are the 'mistakes' people make? When is behaviour too clingy, too wary, too pushy and OTT?

To be invisible but observe people is a primitive desire. The fly-on-the-wall format of reality TV gives power: to see what is going to happen; to watch people misunderstand each other; to observe characters defend the indefensible; to see the manner in which people plot and plan, reject those who no longer attract them and justify their actions to themselves and others. This is the chance to compare what you would do or say in similar situations.

It is not just women who run to each other to recount the details of dates, to talk about feelings, to vent their anger, seek advice or learn to strategise. 'Love Island' shows how much men need time together too, to be part of the pack, to converse and confide and care for each other.

Watching 'Love Island' means observing facial expression, the flicker of anger, angst or regret which crosses the face before it is disguised. It is a chance to people-watch because 'Love Island' is not scripted, the couples do not repeat lines they have learned, the ending is not pre-determined so anything can happen - like life.

We Irish are natural story-tellers. Love of stories is in our psyche: who, what, where, when and if things will end happily ever after or in disaster. As natural nosy parkers, nightly viewing means we get to 'know' the characters, to understand their modus operandi, to predict their reactions, to relate to them, to sympathise, empathise, envy or despise them and to imagine we are there.

And for anyone who was ever cast aside, humiliated, abandoned, rejected or betrayed, 'Love Island' shows that they are not alone. It can happen to anyone.

  • Dr Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist

Irish Independent

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