It's that time of year again, where Bachelor Nation fans are captivated by the latest season of The Bachelor, which has heartache, heartbreak, and a heartthrob by the name of Matt James, who has already captured our hearts with his grace, charm, and chiseled physique. The 28-year-old former professional football player, real estate broker, and entrepreneur has solidified his role within The Bachelor franchise as both the first African American lead and the first to be granted the coveted leading role status without having been a prior contestant on the show. In episode 1, we were shown a glimpse of a deeper, more spiritual side to his nature as he closed the rose ceremony with a prayer, which captivated the girl's hearts and made them swoon even more. The Season 25 opener did not disappoint, with 5 million watching 32 gorgeous females of various ages, ethnicities, and professions vie for Matt's heart. So, what is going on in our brain to keep us glued to our television sets week after week to watch the bachelor on his quest for reality tv love? What might be going on in the mind of Matt James and the lovely ladies pining for his affection? Neuroscience can illuminate the answers to some of the most pressing questions on our fascination with reality tv and how it engages our brain.
The Power of Instant Attraction and the First Impression Rose
Is it our brain that selects our mate? An article published in The Journal of Neuroscience demonstrates what happens in the brain when making quick romantic judgments. Research on speed dating reveals that this spark of love can occur within milliseconds.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging of participants making rapid evaluations of potential romantic partners from their photos reveals activation within two regions of the prefrontal cortex that were predictive of pursuing or rejecting a romantic relationship before meeting socially.
These regions of the brain are involved in assessing both physical attractiveness and perceived compatibility.
This scenario is similar to what Matt James had to do on the first night of The Bachelor, having to quickly evaluate who he wanted to pursue a romantic relationship with while sending eight potential love interests home. He had the opportunity to see the contestant's photos before meeting them in person, followed by a short conversation with each as they emerged from the limo. With only a brief interaction to go on, Matt handed out this season's coveted first impression rose to the lovely Abigail Heringer.
Fans and contestants on The Bachelor are keenly aware that whoever receives the first impression rose has a considerable advantage in the competition. Several recipients have gone on to win the season, including Catherine Giudici (married to Season 17 Bachelor Sean Lowe), Bryan Abasolo (married to Season 13 Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay), and Jordan Rodgers (engaged to Season 12 Bachelorette Jojo Fletcher).
The Bachelor, From Attraction to Attachment to Engagement
When Matt begins his journey on The Bachelor, he is initially in the attraction phase of love, with a surge of testosterone driving the more physical aspects of love. There is also the release of dopamine in the pleasure centers of his brain. These neurochemicals provide the energy, focused attention, excitement, hope, motivation, goal-directed behavior, craving, and longing that drives the early stages of love and gives him the stamina required to court the ladies. Other neurochemicals related to stress and excitement are also released (i.e., norepinephrine and cortisol) while some of the more calming neurotransmitters (i.e., serotonin) are lower.
Over time these neurotransmitter levels stabilize, allowing Matt to transition from the attraction phase to the attachment phase of love.
This is when the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin are released, which are involved in bonding, attachment, and fidelity. These hormones help to promote more relaxed physiological states, which is why choosing the right partner can help reduce our anxiety and support our emotional health and wellbeing.
These neurochemical shifts can become challenging to the bachelor, as he must manage the emotions that come from forming deeper attachments with the contestants. We see this culminate in the show's finale, where the bachelor breaks someone's heart and gets engaged in front of millions of viewers on the same day. If you want to see how these emotional episodes play out on tv, you can check out the video clip of The Bachelor's most memorable man cries. Top billing goes to the bachelor Jason Mesnick, who, despite breaking up with Molly Malaney on the final episode of Season 13 of The Bachelor, is now celebrating ten years of wedded bliss with her.
What Is Going On in the Brain of the Female Contestants?
While Matt is navigating the complex emotional landscape of courting multiple women with the hope of finding one to form a lasting relationship with, the women are in an entirely different scenario. Their focus is on falling in love with Matt while competing for his affection with the women they live with.
From a neurobiological perspective, the female brain has a greater tendency towards empathy, bonding, and social connection, which is why we see some of the women developing friendships on the show. They are also competing for the affections of the same man who they hope to be engaged to by the end of the show. Competition increases testosterone and cortisol, increasing aggressive behavior, fueling the on-set drama we have come to expect. We saw an example of this in episode 3, where Sarah Trott decided to leave the show because the women were, in her words, "cruel and malicious."
It was clear that she had a connection with Matt, but given the relentless attacks she had to endure in the house, she decided to leave the show on her own accord to preserve her sanity.
What Keeps Us Engaged in Watching the Bachelor?
The producers of The Bachelor franchise are masterful in their ability to create an emotionally captivating "reality" show. One journalist went as far as to have functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) done while watching the show. When viewing a clip of the season's villain stirring up trouble, her brain activity was elevated in areas associated with emotional regulation, reward, and feelings of dislike. Conversely, while watching a clip of the bachelor opining on his hopes and dreams, these regions were relatively quiet. The immediate gratification from watching the entertaining, engaging drama keeps people glued to their television sets and is the fuel that drives binge-worthy tv.
In addition to the weekly drama, we also connect with the contestants we relate to, we get swept up in the show's fast pace, and we know every episode will end with a cliffhanger, enticing us to return for more.
One example of the way our brain gets drawn into the show is through the intermittent distribution of the rewards (i.e., the rose ceremony). We have come to expect the rose ceremony at the end of the show.
Yet the producers cleverly switch things up so that shows end mid-rose ceremony (i.e., Sarah Trott fainted on episode two of the current season) or even before the rose ceremony, leaving us to wonder who will remain in the running for the bachelor's heart.
A Final Thought on Television as a Means of Regulating Our Emotions
Research on television viewing reveals that our addiction to certain shows may be due to the reliance on the arousal that occurs in the brain, as noted in the fMRI example above. The instant gratification from the activation of our brain's emotional centers produced by The Bachelor's ongoing drama keeps many tuning in week after week.
Others may watch it as a form of entertainment or escape from their daily lives or for the social connection to the contestants. Given that the pandemic has us spending more time at home separated from our friends and loved ones, television has become a welcome form of connection for those who are feeling lonely. Whatever your rationale for watching, you are not alone as the millions of loyal Bachelor Nation fans are with you, watching Matt James on his quest for love.