Why do so many otherwise healthy Americans willingly - even eagerly - expose themselves to humiliation, ridicule, and rejection before millions of viewers to make it on reality TV?

Survivor, American Idol, and Extreme Makeover promise to transform us from anonymous drones stuck forever in an episode of The Office into one of the celebrities whose bright, shiny lives we study in the tabloids.

Social critic Chris Hedges, speaking from his home in Princeton, says the transparent message in reality shows and consumer ads alike is that attaining wealth, beauty, and social standing heals all problems.

"Troubled marriages, abusive relationships, unemployment, crushing self-esteem problems - all will vanish along with the excess fat of their thighs," he writes in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009).

And all that contestants are asked to do is whatever it takes to win: Eat bugs; bungee-jump from tall buildings; endure Donald Trump's presence; betray friends and lovers. When it comes to winning, the ends always justify the means.

For Hedges, the true cost of Fear Factor or The Apprentice isn't indigestion or the frightening sight of Trump's comb-over, but one's very morality.

"All virtues and values that we share through our education - self-sacrifice, honesty . . . instantly disappear on a reality show," he says.

Survivor contestants, he says, profess to have formed real friendships, even to have found true love on the show, but don't hesitate to manipulate and betray their compatriots.

Hedges asserts that reality shows encourage the same narcissistic individualism and predatory behavior valued by Wall Street.

"There is a direct link between the qualities celebrated on these shows and at Goldman Sachs," Hedges says. Both share the "idea that everything, including human beings, are commodities you exploit for your own" ends.

Surely, the folks on Bachelorette or Top Chef don't think of themselves as Machiavellian strategists?

They don't have to, says Arizona State University criminologist Gray Cavender, coauthor of Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs (1998). Reality TV, he says, often pays lip service to ethical ideals.

Cavender says show producers frequently add a moral veneer by manufacturing a conflict between "the nice guys" and "the bad guy . . . [who is] manipulative, full of guile and envy."

Cavender says he's struck by how Survivor "constantly talks about cooperation and teamwork and basic American values."

But human decency doesn't produce a winner. "Of course, all this 'we' talk is just TV crap," he says, laughing.

Laura Grindstaff, author of The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows (2002), says criticism about the ethics of reality TV is exaggerated. "Television is the space where you can watch people engaged in raw competition without the niceties," says Grindstaff, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis.

She says reality shows are like moral vacations, where people do things "you would never contemplate in your real life."

Grindstaff adds that reality TV - like Facebook, Twitter and other new media - has opened up access to the public sphere: "There are all sorts of platforms . . . for putting yourself out there and commodifying yourself. . . . Is that a bad thing?"

It's certainly pervasive.

From job interviews to dating websites, we're told that to succeed, you must market yourself. According to Cavender, this consumerist logic is so pervasive that identity and dignity can become commodities for sale.

"What TV does is to commodify everything," including the real people cast on reality shows, he says. "The winners win commodities like cars, cruises, and kitchen equipment.

"The audience watches the show, which generates good ratings, so networks can charge more for corporations to advertise their commodities."

And who gets to be in those ads? Reality TV stars.

Contact Inquirer staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.