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Is reality TV making Americans even dumber?

Kim Kardashian and her clan are American royalty. This oft-mentioned thought may be incredibly disgusting, but it is also incredibly true. Twenty bucks says bunches of folks can name 10 reality-TV stars quicker than they can name 10 American presidents.

No wonder the country is going to hell in a handbasket.

Reality TV, with its flunky cast of characters, is not the main reason for America's demise—there are too many other fun causes to attribute to that—but it is certainly hastening the process. Think of the reality shebang as, say, the grease on the pig chute that creates a seamless, speedy ride to the depths of a murky slop pit.

And many American viewers are sure game for getting muddy.

Perhaps reality-TV viewers should not carry the brunt of the blame for becoming addicted to such programming. It can be quite compelling to watch fat people dancing to lose weight, only to get fat again when they leave the show.

Nielsen ratings show the average American watched nearly five hours of television per day during the 2008-2009 season. The amount has been steadily increasing and is up a full 20 percent from a decade ago.

Keep in mind that a decade ago, the TV landscape wasn't littered with the reality shows that now dominate the airwaves in the way Jessica Simpson has dominated the handbags, high-heels and too-tight-jeans markets. Mix in the copious amount of unemployed folks who don't have much to do other than find a way to fill the giant void left by Oprah's end, and you've got a potent recipe for widespread reality-TV addiction.

Television has long been used to flee the dreariness of daily life for the fanciful and fantastic. Except in the case of reality TV, folks are typically trading down. Sure, there's glitz and glamour—but there's also rampant dysfunction, with cat fights, screaming matches, mockery and rejection.

Viewers enjoy feeling superior to such stupidity, which is what really hooks them. But stupidity can be a double-edged sword, because it's contagious.

An experiment published in the journal Media Psychology gives credence to that. The experiment was entitled "A Story About a Stupid Person Can Make You Act Stupid (or Smart): Behavioral Assimilation (and Contrast) as Narrative Impact" and had a group of Australian college students read a story in which the main character was a total idiot.

A subgroup of the students was asked to merely summarize the story, while another subgroup was asked to underline the parts that showed how the idiotic man was different than they were. Those who did not consciously distance themselves from the idiot character by underlining the differences scored quite poorly on a test given after reading the story. Those who underlined the differences scored higher on the post-reading test.

This same concept can apply to reality TV if viewers become so wrapped up in the idiot behavior and characters they see on the tube that they start to assimilate their own behavior to match. In other words, they become idiotic themselves.

While this little study may not be the end-all for concluding that reality TV's stupidity is contagious, the theory can be supplemented by the fact that Simpson's handbags, high-heels and too-tight-jeans enterprises are worth at least $1 billion.

Anyone up for another episode of Jersey Shore?

It's not only the stupidity of such shows that is contagious. So is the pain. A Psychology Today article points out that emotional pain and physical pain activate the same area in the brain, and that severe emotional duress can actually cause the same symptoms as a physical injury.

The emotional-pain factor is quite high on reality TV, especially with the constant rejection on competitive shows that kick the lowly losers back into oblivion—with or without a blubbering Paula Abdul.

Viewers who continuously subject themselves to the agony of others can end up feeling their own pain.

Thus, America is stuck with a large portion of its public writhing on couches with self-inflicted lobotomies.

It's surprising that any of us have the strength to vote, let alone care what this country is coming to.

Perhaps our country's royals have the ability to fix it. Just give them time to come up with another clothing line for Sears, a new guy to humiliate or divorce, or a new perfume to sprinkle on our slop heap. America still has a chance to end up smelling like a rose—or at least the latest Kardashian fragrance.

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