The Judge Judy Effect |

4 min read

Remembering Sigmund Freud’s classic, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life [1], it is interesting to think about the absurd, the petty, and the satirical in human behaviour. But it is also curious to think about who tells the bad guys they are being unfair. The popular Judge Judy programme shows the amazing witty woman—former Manhattan (NY) Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin—listening to people who have often behaved unreasonably, absurdly, or downright unfairly to others. Judge Judy tells off the people who are in the wrong, and her shows are watched by millions across the world, probably because she vindicates the victims. We can call the catharsis that people feel watching her resolve cases The Judge Judy Effect, because people like to watch television or films which have good endings, where justice is served in the end.

The tough but fair approach

The villains in television and film almost always get their comeuppance, but in the real world, people navigate lives in which bullies often get off lightly. Many people are dealing with childhood trauma, as memories of bullies in the school playground or at home haunt them. The sense of injustice adds to the trauma, leaving psychological wounds unhealed. Others deal with the trauma of workplace bullies whom no one tackles. In contrast, justice prevails in Judge Judy’s world. She shouts at the bad guys and embarrasses the unscrupulous college roommates who refused to pay rent owed and the tenants who absconded with their landlord’s refrigerator. She tells people who should get told to stop being ridiculous, “Don’t be ridiculous” in her trademark shout. She sends the baddies into a blush of shame, and the innocent victims are vindicated.

Calling out the absurd and petty

One reason why Judge Judy’s programmes are so popular may be that people love watching stories which show absurd and petty people being told to stop behaving that way. When people watch those who come before Judge Judy, their absurd pettiness is curious to watch, but interesting because it shows common behaviours rarely represented in film or television but still prevalent. People like Judge Judy because she calls out people for ridiculous behaviour, and that is probably something that people enjoy watching.

Judge Judy’s shows are popular for reasons similar to those that drive the success of shows like The Office, The Royle Family, Keeping Up Appearances, and the film Office Space. On Judge Judy’s shows, there are often outrageous characters whose sense of entitlement or lack of self-awareness about having wronged others is almost satirical. The characters that she calls out are similar to the fictional social-climbing Hyacinth in Keeping up Appearances who made her husband wear a bandage and pretend to have gout because it might make people think they’re upper class. Or Jim in The Royle Family who wears the same shirt for weeks but calls his son lazy. Or the bosses in Office Space who are hilarious but make viewers cringe with embarrassment. Judge Judy’s shows are probably popular because those sorts of characters appear in the cases that she solves. They are often people who have inflicted wrong on others but pointedly refuse to admit being in the wrong. Sometimes they are hilariously wrong, other times they are indignantly wrong. Viewers love that Jude Judy tells people who behaved unfairly that they are wrong. She’s funny, clever, and can see through people who tried to gaslight victims, making viewers burst out laughing in the process.

In short, viewers love that Judge Judy helps victims and tells off the baddies, helping the world feel that wrong has been put to right. People get a sense of catharsis watching television when good prevails.

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