Is “Married at First Sight” a Legitimate Science Experiment?
I have to come clean: I genuinely enjoy the show Married at First Sight.
I know, I know. I started watching it because I thought it looked terrible, and bad TV is something I love. The first few episodes, I watched and mocked. But I found myself compelled to continue watching. I realized I was sympathizing with the characters and I was actually interested in seeing how their relationships developed. Married at First Sight (or as I like to call it, “Science Marriage”) hooked me.
In case you haven’t heard of this show, the premise is exactly what the title says: six people get married to someone they’ve never met before. There is a team of four “experts” who look at the personality profiles of these six people and “scientifically” match them up with their “perfect partner.” At the end of the experiment, the couples will decide whether to break up or stay married. I put all those words in quotes because a lot of the things they’re saying don’t really have actual meanings. For example, the “experts” who paired up the couples– why are they experts on marriage? We’re told that each expert has a different specialty– one is a psychologist, one is a sociologist, one is a sexologist, and the other is a spiritualist (curiously, the spiritualist is an atheist), but it is unclear if any of them specifically focus on marriage in what they do. The clinical psychologist is certainly licensed, but his website makes him look more like a pop psychologist that you’d see quoted in Us Weekly, discussing the mental health of celebrities he’s never met, rather than a doctor I would want to trust with my most intimate details. (I wrote that before I found that link, seriously.)
Unfortunately for people who haven’t seen any episodes of Science Marriage, only the most recent two episodes are available on Hulu Plus. (According to CanIStreamIt, you can purchase every episode on Vudu, but I’ve never used that service before and cannot attest to its legitimacy.) This may be changed once the entire season airs, but I haven’t been able to find anything definitive, other than the fact that it’s been renewed for a second season. This is frustrating because I remember hearing some odd and/or problematic comments during the decision-making process by the four experts, but I can’t remember them exactly and don’t want to misquote someone. Still, it felt a little weird it seemed to immediately be the consensus of the four experts that of course the two black people should be together (which is ironic considering almost all the ads for the show feature a black man and a white woman holding hands in wedding attire). [EDIT: I have been informed that you can watch all the episodes on FYI’s website, as well as downloading them on iTunes.]
While I love reality TV, I also studied Communications in college, and one of the topics I enjoyed most was critically analyzing media. Jenn Pozner is a media commentator and lecturer (who I was fortunate enough to see speak), has written a book called Reality Bites Back that addresses many of the problems in reality TV and other forms of media. If you like to watch reality TV, I highly suggest you read some of her work to help become more savvy in learning how to recognize some of the issues and tricks in reality TV. Jenn is quoted in this article by Maryanne Haggerty as saying:
In scripted entertainment, there are some shows that are incredibly stereotypical, and some that are incredibly nuanced. There’s a range. In reality TV, they do have writers, they do have editors — but they never have nuance. There are always the same stock characters: the bitch, the slut, the douchebag, the prince charming, the
angry black woman.
Unfortunately, this holds true in Science Marriage. In my opinion, every participant in the show is incredibly level-headed, calm, and genuinely trying to do their best in this experiment. But that’s not what the editors want! You can clearly see them trying to force these complicated individuals into certain molds. Jamie is a bitch because she doesn’t trust Doug! (Don’t worry, there’s no shortage of people saying awful things about Jamie online.) Cortney does burlesque– will that make her husband think she’s a slut? Vaughn expects his wife to cook for him, what a jerk! (Okay, to be fair, I think that is a pretty jerky move, but he does listen to feedback on why that’s not okay to expect.) Doug is so funny and sweet, and Jason is an EMT who takes care of his terminally ill mother, they’re both in the Prince Charming role. And of course, Monet is portrayed as the angry black woman, because she speaks up for herself when her partner tells her contradictory things (even though she’s clearly a very bubbly and cheerful person).
While Science Marriage is one of the better (read as: slightly less focused on intense fights and drama) reality shows out there, it is still a show whose primary function is to make money. For example, at the beginning of every episode, it shows clips of things that happen in the upcoming episode to interest people. In one episode, the couples were speaking to one of the experts. The expert asks, “Vaughn [the husband], what do you like about Monet [the wife]?” It cuts to Vaughn coughing slightly, and then he says, “Could I get a drink of water?” (paraphrased) and gets up to go get a drink. Then it cuts to Monet’s disappointed face. Dramatic!
Except…that’s not what happened. When the expert asked Vaughn what he liked about Monet, he immediately replied with a list of things he likes about his wife, to which she replied that she was pleasantly surprised, because he normally does not give compliments freely (again, paraphrased, since I can’t go back and watch that episode). It was only later that he got up for water.
The show also keeps billing itself as an “extreme social experiment,” but doesn’t really follow any experiment conventions or rules. For example, in the very first episode, they’re discussing the surveys each participant took so they could match them up. It’s a bit unclear, but it seemed like there was a bigger pool of contestants, and they narrowed it down to the six individuals on the show (if someone has insider knowledge or has seen an article that goes more into depth on this process, please share it in the comments!). One survey was asking the participants to rate the attractiveness of other people. I took it to mean that they were rating the attractiveness of the other potential participants in the study, but it could have been just rating the attractiveness of people from stock photos. In any case, it’s preeeeetty unethical to share someone’s confidential survey data on national television (both for the woman answering the questions and the guy pictured– sorry, dude). [The image linked is of a computer screen, with a man’s face at the top and “Rate: 1-5” beneath him. You can clearly see the cursor is highlighted on “1,” the lowest rating.]
The experts also like to state things about relationships, but due to the nature of the show, it’s impossible to know whether they’re quoting actual studies, or just saying pop psychology that sounds good. In an early episode, the spiritualist (Greg Epstein) says, “I think that arranged marriages work. Through dating, people choose one another for the wrong reasons all the time! And what we’re trying to do is bring people together for the right reasons.” Okay, but what ARE those “right” reasons? Do we have actual data to support this? In the second to last episode (“Last Chance at Romance”), the clinical psychologist says, “I know for sure [Vaughn and Monet] are compatible in a relationship. It doesn’t seem like it at this juncture, and they’re engaged in so much conflict, but it’s there.” Are you sure about that? How do you know they’re compatible?
This show both proclaims that it’s the first ever experiment like this (which it probably is), but at the same time, seems 100% sure that they have completely figured out the “science” of relationships and marriage. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of experimenting to test a hypothesis? You can’t go ahead and state that your methods are perfect when the experiment isn’t even over yet. Granted, they could have filmed some of the interviews with the experts once the experiment did end (when the couples announce whether they want to stay together or get divorced), but a case study of three couples does not a thesis make. Further, what is the hypothesis? That setting up these couples through the use of surveys will…what, cause a marriage to last for a month? A lifetime? How happy do they have to be in order for it to be considered a success, or is it just if they stay together at all? Further, even if the couples are a success, is it really their scientific matchmaking skills that made the couples succeed, or is it the fact that they had access to marriage counselors the entire time and (probably) a stipend to help them afford to move in together that helped their relationship to succeed? (If they didn’t receive a stipend, then the fact that most of them could afford to pay for the apartment they lived in previous to the show as well as the apartment they moved into with their spouse could also be a factor in the relationship’s success.)
Is Married at First Sight an interesting concept and compelling television? I think so. But if you do decide to watch it, please apply skepticism liberally– toward the editing, the roles they’re trying to squeeze the participants into, and even the things the experts say.
In any case, I’ll be tuning in next week to see what all of the couples decide.