Simon, the Supportive?

During this week’s premiere of “American Idol,” viewers cringed as Simon, Randy and Paula doled out harsh criticisms to many of the less-than-worthy contestants. And as contestants cried, screamed and argued with the judges over their cruel remarks, viewers may have asked themselves if the insults had gone too far. Dr. Jennifer Crocker, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who focuses on self-esteem issues, says it may have seemed cruel, but at least it was honest. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, she says that in reality, Simon’s harsh advice may actually have been more compassionate than unconditionally positive reinforcement. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Many people are saying that this season’s premiere was crueler than previous seasons. What did you think about the first episode of Season 6?

Dr. Jennifer Crocker: If I were in the contestants’ shoes I would have felt the criticisms were harsh. They didn’t feel very compassionate, but another interpretation you could make is that it really is a gift. Simon Cowell, more than Paula Abdul, is really trying to tell them the truth about their chances, if they are really trying to sing, and what they could do to improve. He is the only one who takes the risk and he gets in a lot of trouble for that. It’s very hard to hear it as constructive feedback that helps you to improve or to make constructive choices in life. It is really more valuable than the unconditional love Paula Abdul gives. She wants to be encouraging, but some of these people shouldn’t be encouraged to become pop idols.

So do you think that Simon really wants to help the contestants do well?

I think he probably feels compassion in many cases, but that doesn’t come through very much. But it must be incredibly tedious to hear audition after audition of people who have no business trying to have careers in singing. My overall sense is that Simon is more supportive of people because he is willing to tell them the truth.

But could the harsh criticisms be permanently damaging to the contestants’ self-esteem?

There’s some evidence that depression results when goals that are essential to people become blocked, but I think that most of the contestants probably rebound fairly quickly. In some ways I think the more insulting comments hurt less, because Simon’s obviously being a jerk, but when it’s just, “You can’t sing,” that would be harder. However, to say [there is] no major damage is too strong because there are probably a lot of people who come in with a lot of vulnerability. But by and large people are quite resilient and I really do think you can construe the criticism as a gift and as really very valuable for people even if it’s hard to hear.

How badly could such negative feedback affect a contestant’s self-esteem?

For sure it can hurt people’s self-esteem temporarily and the more invested they are, the more they’ve attached their self-worth to being a great singer, the more it’s going to hurt. The healthiest kind of resilience is people who say, “OK, this guy is helping me and giving me more useful information,” and you could see that with the better singers. He was trying to tell them what they had to do to get further on the show.

Is it risky for “American Idol” to be so critical of people? Could contestants become violent or suicidal because of the comments from the judges?

I think there’s probably a small risk of violence or suicide. There’s research that people who are narcissistic respond to insults by becoming aggressive so I think that’s a concern. Then I think there are other people who will really internalize it and become depressed, some of whom might have some preexisting vulnerability, so it’s not impossible they may become suicidal, but it would be unfair to say the criticism itself would cause that. The fact that some people really personalize it is not the fault of the show.

Should parents support their children going on the show, whether or not they have the talent to win?

It’s important for parents to be unconditionally loving—regardless of whether or not their kids are talented—but it’s important to be realistic. I don’t think it’s positive for parents to encourage their kids in the belief that they will be America’s next idol if there’s no chance. Telling your kid they’re great can create more vulnerability. Some people think kids can’t stand to hear anything negative so they only give them praise, but research shows that those are the kids who are the most vulnerable when they experience a setback.

What makes “American Idol” so popular? Do we enjoy seeing other people fail?

To some degree we like to see other people fail and feel superior to them. I think there is something interesting about the people who look like they have no talent, get up there and just don’t do well, but who really think they’re going to go all the way to the end of the show. At some level you identify with them and have compassion and wish them success when you get to know the characters a little bit because you start rooting for people and that is what gets viewers hooked on the show. But there is something sort of shocking and entertaining about the people who are so bad.

Some of the worst contestants seem to really believe they can win. How can someone be so unrealistic about their own talent that they will go on national television even when they are terrible?

Most of us think we’re better than average. There’s a strong human tendency to have positive illusions about ourselves so maybe that gets carried to an extreme. People tend to avoid direct feedback when they are heavily invested in those positive views so they’re able to sustain that illusion.

Does the show ever seem exploitive to you?

It did seem like there were a few of them with [mental disabilities], and when there are people like that it’s a little exploitive, but that’s partly why people watch the show before the competition gets under way to see how bad people are. But it’s not kind.