June 14th, 2009
Following my blog about Big Brother 10 last week, I found this very interesting account of participating in the programme from fellow psychologist Ceri Parsons. Ceri and I took part in an event for television journalists a few years back where we talked about psychologists, ethics and what we could/couldn’t do for the media. Ceri draws on this experience as well as her work on Big Brother On the Couch in 2007 in the extract below (obtained from here).
Amongst the array of Big Brother programming for 2007, Channel 4 premiered ‘Big Brother on the Couch’ (BBOTC), a once weekly prime-time programme (Sunday 8pm) whose remit was to deal with the psychology of the Big Brother house. It was billed as offering observations from some of ‘Britain’s leading psychologists’, and in early June I was invited to participate.
Before you reach for the ‘remote control’, my intention here is not to regale you with highlights from series 8. Rather, my aim as a media psychologist – and, more significantly, as a critical psychologist involved with Big Brother – is to consider the gatekeeping of psychological ideas that exists within the media and the implications this has for both psychology and society more broadly.
As a member of the Society’s Press Committee and someone who contributes frequently to the media, my goal has always been to get psychology out into the public arena with both professionalism and legitimacy. Specifically as a critical psychologist, my aim has been to publicise largely marginalised psychological ideas as widely as possible and present a critical psychological slant when making sense of human behaviour. In November last year I was invited by the BPS, along with Dr Petra Boynton, to deliver training entitled Psychologists and Production companies in Partnership to television production company personnel who wished to engage psychologists in television production. Together Petra and I took the opportunity, based on our experiences, to unpack some of the common misconceptions about what psychologists can and can’t do.
Then came my turn to work in partnership with television production personnel like those I presented to in November. My job was to watch Big Brother daily (I contained my viewing to the one hour programme at the end of each day) and noted my observations, drawing upon conceptual and theoretical ideas from within psychology. As a critical and discursive psychologist my observations were data driven and typically centred on the language used by the housemates. I was also asked to contribute my observations on a range of other topics including gender and sexuality, and to talk about which housemate held the most power in the house. All of these topics were within my remit of research expertise and I felt professionally able to offer insights.
At the time I grabbed the opportunity of presenting critical psychology theory to understand these topics, recognising that such interpretations would offer something novel to the psychology of the Big Brother house to date and would enable me to pursue my goal of publicising critical psychological ideas. To offer some examples, I drew upon Foucauldian theory to explain how housemates exerted power not in a top-down way, but through their language use in the dominant discourses they drew upon and through their ability to define others in the house. For example, Leslie refers to ‘the girls’ marking herself out as different from several of the younger housemates with the the category working as a subtle put down, constructing them as more frivolous; less experienced. Laura also presents several similar careful, subtle put downs when she refers to the twins as ‘the dollies’ and the pretty minxes’. I also focused on the housemates’ use of rhetorical devices to manage their accountability in talk. For example, Extreme Case Formulations allow the speaker to make a strong case for something in anticipation of unsympathetic hearings. For example when Jonathon was talking about the twins to other housemates and passed judgment on them for being so ‘pink’ and uncomplicated, he simultaneously has to manage how this is heard. So he presents his views by using an extreme case formulation and saying he ‘really, really’ likes the twins and that they are ‘really’ nice, but goes onto present them as banal. Another device used is Stake Inoculation. This is a way for a speaker to disguise self-interest in the account they offer, and it is evident when people say I don’t know /‘I dunno’ after making a claim. By doing this they can disclaim the consequences of their talk, so when Charley nominates Nicki but uses ‘I don’t know’ before asserting her choice of housemate she effectively reduces the force of her self-interest in nominating.
By week three I was in full swing and was identifying with ease the range of metaphors housemates drew upon to make sense of their developing relationships (these included relationship development as work; as a voyage of discovery; and as danger: see Baxter, 1992). However, each Tuesday my contributions were met with uncertainty by the production team and each Sunday I watched BBOTC defeated, acknowledging yet again that my brand of psychological insight hadn’t made the grade.
I did receive a ‘reassuring’ phone call from a member of the production team to say that they were working hard pushing what they saw as my ‘original’ ideas, but were struggling to work them into the executive’s agenda (an agenda which didn’t seem to gel with my data driven observations). In light of this I was asked whether I would be willing to comment on topics selected by the executive production team, such as which housemates wanted fame and who was the most narcissistic – I declined.
It became clear as the weeks progressed that what was being presented as detailed psychological insight was being guided very clearly by the very same assumptions that Petra and I had unpacked in our training about psychology and psychologists (that we are all clinical psychologists and we can read minds; we have an obsessive interest in shrugs/nods and all manner of gesticulations; and that all human behaviour can in someway be traced to evolutionary origins). This meant that the country’s ‘leading’ psychologists were more often than not, ambiguously titled ‘behaviour experts’. When psychological theory was presented (by psychologists), it tended to be watered down traditional social psychology (in group/out group behaviour), very diluted evolutionary theory (alpha males) or insights from the field of non-verbal communication, and sometimes a combination of all three.
Whilst interesting, these areas fail to fully account for the extensive range of theories/issues that psychologists are engaged with, and do not altogether reflect the academic commitments of the psychologists appearing on Big Brother. I personally refused to comment on questions which had an individualistic focus and which veered away from my critical psychology sympathies. However, this had serious implications for my subsequent involvement, and was treated by the production team as a significant impediment to any chance I had of ever appearing on BBOTC.
Two years ago, criminologist Professor David Wilson admitted that the glitz surrounding the programme and the flattery of being asked to participate resulted in him overlooking ‘the more hardnosed questions about the show’s ethics’ (The Guardian, 12 Aug 2005). Perhaps psychologists, like the housemates (who are publicly derided for their thirst for C-list celebrity), are not immune from the celebrity culture/hype that surrounds reality game shows. However, unlike the housemates, we have a huge professional responsibility for the messages we communicate publicly. Big Brother on the Couch might be treated by psychologists as a light-hearted take on housemates’ behaviour, but the fact remains that this primetime programme is billed as offering in depth psychological insight and is one of the most watched programmes on television. In my mind, perpetuating explanations that rely solely on theories of non-verbal communication and evolution presents both a partial and reduced picture of psychology. It also results in uncritically reinforcing dominant explanations of human behaviour which are at the very least reductionist and individualistic, and more often than not unhelpful.
As the weeks passed, I began to reflect that the failure to present my own area of psychology on BBOTC therefore had nothing to do with its theoretical merit or novelty value, or with my own ability to communicate complex conceptual ideas for that matter, but rather with the dominant ideology surrounding what psychology is taken for granted as being. This ideology is supported by the psychologists who are favouring celebrity identity and the opportunity to present psychological theory which is ‘expected’, over their own professional identity, obligations and interesting theoretical and research commitments.
As a critical psychologist I am concerned with the ways in which ‘realities’ such as identities, experiences and everyday practices of living are constructed through discourse and are presented by psychology as ‘truth’, which ultimately regulates us in certain ways. As such there needs to be greater reflection about the kinds of message we are sending out in our interpretations as psychologists and how these impact upon (a) the discipline and professional community as a whole – for example how it continues to perpetuate an unacceptable intellectual status quo, confining certain theories ever to the margins, and (b) how it impacts more broadly on society.
To sum up Psychology’s position in reality TV I draw on the words of Dr Jane Roscoe, Programme Executive at SBS Television in Australia, who argues (see here) that programmes like BBOTC ‘over analyse every move in a bid to learn a life lesson. The camera watches and records 24/7 in a bid to capture the moment of self-realisation, of self-actualisation. And here lies the forms conservativism. The turn inwards is an escape from the messiness of our lives, an attempt to control our worlds and moderate our expectations and actions. Talk it all through, conform to group norm, smooth over the cracks. This is not a time or space for radical thinking, for breaking out or breaking down. Looking inwards keeps us within the boundaries of our own experiences and therefore our own limitations. Ideologically this is a return to the closed world where morality and ethics seek to preserve the status quo rather than challenge it’.
Psychologist Gary Wood, who has also appeared on Big Brother on the Couch has also blogged his ongoing concerns about the programme and whether it offers us any psychology. His take is well worth a read.Tweet