Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist who has counseled reality participants and appeared on VH1's "Celebrity Rehab," says: "Such attention-seeking behaviors are not good -- they allow themselves to be exploited and don't care what people will think of them.
"Being on TV allows them to be at arm's length to their true selves, which is either someone they don't like or don't know. It's a way for them never to deal with themselves.."
Omarosa adds, "Participants have figured out the formula -- the more conflict, the higher the ratings. So, some shows are saturated with conflicts -- there's no differentiation between the highs and the lows."
(When a network anticipates queries such as "Why so many sociopaths on your shows?" it demurs, so Oxygen did not make executives available for this interview. And Bravo's been operating under radio silence since the Salahi scandal.)
E! has trucked in several reality series featuring women nominally famous before their shows premiered.
"The Girls Next Door" focuses on Hugh Hefner's girlfriends, who clearly don't read Playboy for its articles. The least neurotic cast member of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" is, counter-intuitively enough, the one with the most obvious plastic surgery (househusband Bruce Jenner).
Series such as Bravo's "NYC Prep" and "Miami Social" expose young women and men alike as superficial ninnies. As does MTV's latest provocation, "Jersey Shore," which introduced us to a demure woman named Jenni proclaiming, "After I have sex with a guy, I will rip their heads off," and Snooki, who passed out within hours of joining the production, then woke up vomiting.
"I don't think they would cast people if they were mentally healthy -- they'd be too dull," Sternheimer deadpans.
Oxygen also offered "Pretty Wicked," which at least purportedly tried to reform its participants, and "Addicted to Beauty." (Interesting how a cable network aimed at women chooses to depict its target demographic.)
On cable's reality shows, dancing like a stripper and decking costars are the encouraged routes to landing one's dream guy.
Once that's accomplished, the cast could move on to WEtv's "Bridezillas," featuring harpies only masochists would marry.
MTV's "My Super Sweet 16" and "16 and Pregnant" demonstrate that our young, spoiled harridans are getting their starts earlier these days. And mothers prepare the next generation of girls to embrace their neuroses in the kid-beauty-pageant shows "Toddlers & Tiaras" (TLC) and "Little Miss Perfect" (WEtv) as well as the Style Network's "Dallas Divas & Daughters" and TLC's upcoming "Daycare Divas."
"It says not great stuff about where our culture is heading," Sophy says. "They send a message that bad behavior is OK and it's funny to put someone down."
These shows and their eager participants aren't going away.
"With this recession, more people are under stress, and there are far less opportunities for conventional success," says Sternheimer.
"People have to be more angry to get on these shows, and they have more to be angry about."
Perhaps Austen had the right idea when she wrote, in "Pride and Prejudice," "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?"