THURSDAY, Aug. 9, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Reality TV shows focused on plastic surgery can boost viewers' own interest in these types of procedures, a new study finds.
Shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan also make those who watch them frequently feel more knowledgeable about plastic surgery, compared to those who don't watch as much of this reality fare.
"The more they watched the shows, the more interested" they became in plastic surgery, said Dr. John Persing, the senior author and a plastic surgeon at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.
His team published its findings in the July issue of the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
In the study, Persing and his colleagues surveyed 42 cosmetic plastic surgery patients who were seeking plastic surgery for the first time at the Yale Plastic Surgery Clinic. Most of the survey participants were women. The average age was about 36 years.
In all, 57 percent were classified as "high-intensity" viewers who regularly watched at least one of the shows. The rest were "low-intensity," because they watched occasionally or not at all. Only 12 percent, however, said they had never seen one of the shows. Among the plastic surgery-oriented shows included in the study were Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210, The Swan, I Want a Famous Face, Plastic Surgery: Before and After and Miami Slice.
The survey questions were given in two parts: before the patient had met with the plastic surgeon and right after their consultation.
Patients in the high-intensity viewing group said they felt they were more strongly influenced by the media to seek out plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons, and they said they felt more knowledgeable about the procedures in general.
Frequent viewers also were more likely to believe that reality shows focused on plastic surgery were more similar to real life than the more infrequent viewers believed.
Overall, four out of every five patients said TV had influenced them to seek out cosmetic surgery. Nearly a third said they felt that the shows had "very much" or "moderately" influenced their views on plastic surgery.
No significant differences were found between the groups, however, when the researchers asked particpants if they intended to go ahead with a particular surgery. While 54 percent of the high-intensity viewers said they did intend to proceed, 39 percent of the low-intensity viewer said they intended to undergo a procedure.
While the researchers could not confirm a cause and effect relationship, Persing's group wrote that their results "lend strong support to the idea that plastic surgery reality television shows influence both the expectations and choices of potential cosmetic surgery patients."
In 2006, nearly 11 million cosmetic surgery procedures were done in the United States, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons -- up 7 percent from 2005.
In an interview, Persing said potential patients should be aware that situations that crop up in these reality TV shows are there for entertainment purposes and do not reflect actual practice.
For instance, he says, some shows include a discussion of the doctor's personal life. In real life, that is almost never the case, he said.
On some episodes of reality television, the made-over person has a party with friends and family to unveil their new self. In real life, notes Persing, people "should not expect their own personal 'reveal.' "
Besides the complicated logistics of persuading dozens of your closest friends and family members to come see the new you (as is done on some of the shows), he said, many people still want to keep their cosmetic work private.
Stuart Fischoff, an expert on how media influences consumer behavior, had mixed feelings about the study.
"It's a sexy study, it will get play," said Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and a senior editor at the Journal of Media Psychology.
Some of the findings are no surprise, he added. "People who watch a lot of these plastic surgery shows are going to come in with a set of expectations," he said. "And they may be unrealistic."
The findings about frequent viewers feeling more knowledgeable aren't unique to plastic surgery shows, he said. "People who watch crime shows or medical shows think they have more information on how that works," Fischoff said. "They may or may not be accurate."
When patients get inaccurate information from television reality shows, there can be a downside, he added.
"In the early days of psychotherapy, movies about dream analysis were popular," he said. "Most therapists are not Freudian," Fischoff noted, and so they do not offer dream analysis. However, patients who watched those movies "would come in to a therapist and say, 'If you won't listen to my dreams, you aren't a real therapist,' " he said.
But Fischoff believes the study still does not go far enough in examining the relationship between TV viewing and cosmetic surgery decisions.
"It would be interesting to correlate the amount of show viewing with what they have done," he said. For example, determining whether those who view the shows are any more or less happy with the results.
In future research, Persing said, his team does hope to examine some of those questions. He also wants to continue the research to see if those prospective patients who thought their real life plastic surgery experience was anything like what they saw on "reality" TV, especially in terms of longer-term outcomes.
To learn more about cosmetic surgery, visit the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.