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Penn Jillette: How Reality TV is Making Us All Bugnutty Crazy

"We celebrities are desperate pigs" confesses Penn Jillette in his recent book Every Day is an Atheist Holiday. Jillette is referring specifically to his participation on The Celebrity Apprentice, a show that involves showbiz folks who are so desperate to stay famous that they agree to "suck up to Donald Trump" and participate in "pointless fake corporate tasks outside one’s skill set with Clay Aiken."

We appreciate the honesty. But there's more. According to Jillette, The Celebrity Apprentice is indeed an honest show -- honest, that is, "in that creepy kind of way that the guy who admits he’s a racist is more honest." As Jillette's co-star Annie Duke likes to put it, The Celebrity Apprentice is "a pretend game, about pretend business, where you get pretend fired." So what exactly is the honest part? Jillette's answer: It's magic. "It’s Schrödinger’s showbiz: it’s all fake and it’s all real at the same time."

What's the Big Idea?

After his first "tour of duty" on The Celebrity Apprentice (apparently a glutton for punishment, Jillette taped a second season for NBC, which recently premiered), Jillette read Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and had a revelation. When he finished the book, Jillettes says he bought copies for all of the producers working on The Celebrity Apprentice and sent it to them, saying "Oh, by the way, this is what you’re doing."

So what is the producers' magic trick?

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explores two competing systems of thought: an intuitive, automatic system of reasoning and a slower, deliberative one that is comparable to "a supporting character who believes herself to be the lead actor and often has little idea of what's going on." As Kahneman demonstrates, our good old reliable System 2 is actually not our dominant mode of thinking. In fact, it often gives way to System 1 and accepts easy explanations to problems. This is a process called "ego depletion."

Penn Jillette says Kahneman's book was both "an explanation of what I’d gone through on The Celebrity Apprentice and the best magic book I ever read." According to Jillette, the tasks assigned to contestants on The Celebrity Apprentice are easy, as in junior high easy. But here's the complicating factor:

All the arithmetic, the creative writing and the history are super simple, but like junior high, you do that easy work surrounded by people who are full-tilt hormone-raging bugnutty. Everyone is panicked, desperate, yelling, swearing, attacking, backstabbing, failing to get laid and acting crazy.

In other words, the producers were able to get the show's participants to lose "the thoughtful part of us that controls us," Jillette says. Normally when you subject people to video surveillance they try to be at their best. This is known as the Hawthorne Effect. And yet, that only lasts for so long. As Jillette describes in the video below, The Celebrity Apprentice contestants were broken down over time, as their willpower became exhausted, giving way to the "bugnutty" tendencies that made the show "junior high with a better brand of acne cover-up."

Watch the video here: 

What's the Significance?

Viewers of ABC's The Bachelor this season (we were not among them, but we read the trades) apparently experienced cognitive dissonance when they witnessed the bachelor Sean Lowe fall for a contestant named Tierra. How could a good guy like Sean like a bugnutty (to borrow one of Jillette's favorite words) girl like Tierra? Maybe they weren't seeing the same version of Tierra. 

While the cameras may have been on the young romancers 24/7, the benign moments didn't make the cut. The salacious moments, on the other hand, were played over and over again for their most deliciously (and promotable) dramatic effect. Is that to say that this Tierra character is not, in fact, bugnutty crazy? Not at all. However, it is not surprising to see why so many reality show contestants fall for the same trap. 

Reality show contestants are the subjects of a half-baked social anthropology experiment designed to evoke a bizarre combination of schadenfreude and tragic catharsis. And yet, what we all have in common with these people is a highly evolved system of thought that is also much more primitive than we would like to imagine. We would like to think that we have a heightened ability to think (and behave) rationally if we were to be subjected to similar pressures as the contestants of The Bachelor or The Celebrity Apprentice.  

Sorry. We're all ostensibly (although not clinically) as crazy as Tierra and Gary Busey and the lot, and that's also evidently why so many of us continue to find this all so fascinating.  

Images courtesy of Shutterstock

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