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A tale of two psychologists

August 2nd, 2009

Dr Petra

Martin Robbins has written an excellent piece for Guardian Science outlining the ongoing problem of psychologists offering ‘celebrity analysis’ and based on media speculation following the recent death of Michael Jackson. As regular readers will know, this is one of my main bugbears and something I’ve been complaining about and campaigning against for years.

I’m glad Martin’s piece has been published. Hopefully it may encourage wider debate on the ethical practice of psychologists who work in the media.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the main response to Martin’s article has been negative judgements of psychologists who apparently breach ethical guidelines by doing celebrity analysis. But let’s not lose sight of the problem. You would expect those who flout ethical codes of conduct to be sanctioned for this behaviour, not rewarded for their actions as currently appears to be the case.

To understand why, we need to go back in time and hear the tale of two psychologists. I’ve created these characters (let’s call them A and B) by using a composite case study approach. This involves taking common features present in psychologists who adhere to and breach existing BPS guidelines for working with the media and presenting them as two distinct characters. A and B are not individual people, but are based on the actions, values and behaviours of several psychologists working in very different ways.

It’s 1999. A and B decide to start working with the media. Their reasons for doing so range from wanting to share psychology with the public to offering help to people via the media. Both believe working with the media may help them build their profile publicly and academically. Neither is averse to having their name mentioned in the press.

Like many other psychologists A and B may undertake media training. They sign up to the British Psychological Society’s (BPS’s) database of psychologists willing to talk to journalists. It’s assumed at this point they agree to adhere to the BPS’s ethical code of conduct for psychologists who want to talk to the media. This includes not commenting on case studies, celebrities, or speaking outside one’s area. But neither A and B are ever asked to formally sign any agreement about ethical practice.

At first A and B’s careers run along similar lines. They’re occasionally called by journalists from mostly print and sometimes broadcast media. They give short quotes about different issues relating to psychology.

Then things begin to change. Whether it’s driven by the media or public interest, there’s a resurgence of celebrity worship with several new magazine titles launching that solely discuss the lives of A-Z list celebs. At the same time reality programmes like Big Brother showcase, not to mention television magazine shows about the lives of the rich and famous – their fashions, relationships, homes, style and weight. Meanwhile PR companies have caught on to the idea of using psychologists and other ‘experts’ to front surveys and other activity designed to promote products but presented as ‘research’.

All of which provide opportunities for psychologists.

A and B are still operating in fairly similar ways at this time. The requests for their services increase each time they appear within the media. Both may provide quotes about issues relating to celebrities (rather than celebs themselves). Both may be invited to front PR-funded ‘research’. Both are asked to appear on Big Brother and as talking heads on reality shows or celeb-based documentaries.

And now we see the career paths of psychologist A and B diverge. Psychologist A accepts the offer to appear on reality programmes. They begin to comment directly on celebrities and case studies and work for PR funded projects. Psychologist A sometimes seems to make comments on issues outside their stated area of expertise.

Psychologist B keeps their comments to their area of speciality and they follow ethical guidelines. They become anxious about reality programmes and PR-based ‘research’ and speak out publicly against such practices.

Journalists find both A and B to be enthusiastic, charismatic and motivated by a stated desire to help the public. But while psychologist A can always be relied upon to say what a journalist wants (in return for a mention of their latest book, website or commercial sponsor), psychologist B often raises issues about ethics, process, or accuracy. As a result journalists know if they want an easy ride they need to work with psychologist A. Not just for stories relating to celebs and case studies, but for any piece or programme they’re working on.

When asked to comment directly on case studies or celebrities Psychologist B always refuses and refers journalists to the BPS’s code of conduct. But journalists rarely check this and do not alert their editors to the issue for fear of looking bad or possibly losing future work. Busy journalists also don’t want the extra work caused by having to find someone else for comment. Indeed, if it’s confirmed qualified professionals aren’t allowed to comment in this way it potentially could cause problems in running judgemental features which are highly popular and profitable.

Journalists are further confused by mixed messages by professionals. Here’s B giving a lecture in ethics, while A is happy to be quoted directly judging celebrities and case studies.

Over time psychologists A and B both increase their media profile. But by now psychologist A has become so well known they are becoming a celebrity in their own right. They may be noticed in public places, asked for an autograph, appear on game shows or other programmes as themselves rather than in an advice/education giving capacity.

Their work with PR campaigns are listed as part of their research activity. They have an extensive list of clients they’ve worked with – in both commercial and media sectors. While within the academic community this raises concerns about their academic qualifications and professional conduct, for journalists and the public this is a major endorsement. In fact, the press and public appear a lot more impressed with psychologist A’s corporate links than psychologist B’s peer reviewed publications.

Fast forward to 2009. Psychologist A is now synonymous with psychology in Britain. They are frequently approached by charities, NGOs and even the government to host campaigns. Psychologist B may also be involved in advising on psychological issues, but their profile is far lower. Students applying for a degree in psychology are motivated to be a celebrity psychologist like A.

A has built a high profile and arguably profitable career by not following ethical guidelines set out by their professional organisation. Why they have done this is unclear. What is clear is nobody seems to have complained about their conduct. The organisation itself seems not to have raised concerns with A (or if they have A has ignored them and suffered no reprimand). Psychologist A has undoubtedly raised the profile of psychology within the UK.

This leaves us with a number of difficult questions that we need to consider:
- What’s the point of guidelines if they’re not enforced?
- What good are guidelines if those who don’t follow them seemingly do better than those who do?
- Are there any reasons why these guidelines haven’t been enforced?
- Why has so little been done to tackle psychologists like A and support those like B?
- Why don’t more psychologists speak out on this issue?
- Should psychologists like B continue to work ethically and follow the rules – or should they follow A’s example?
- Have the activities of psychologists like A helped or hindered the reputation of psychology within the public’s understanding?
- Are psychologists like A just better at dealing with the media than those like B?
- Would psychology as a discipline improve if ethical guidance for working with the media were more stringently enforced?

We can’t simply have a discussion on this where we all turn on the “celebrity psychologists” (as some now like to be known). A bigger organisation has seemingly failed to uphold its own regulations and have allowed them to benefit from acting outside the rules. Further investigations need to identify why that is.

This is not an argument for preventing scientists from engaging with the media, more a case of enabling those who do to offer the best evidence they can to the public in an entertaining, accurate and ethical way.

In the meantime A and B will continue to work as they have done for the past decade. And both remain convinced they fulfil a vital role in bringing psychology to society.

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