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Big Brother 10 – here we go again. This time with ‘the psychologist who doesn’t believe in social behaviour’

June 8th, 2009

Dr Petra

It’s June, summer’s just around the corner, and it’s time for Big Brother 2009. The 10th time we’ll be watching housemates in the Big Brother house.

As you may remember I’ve been critical of Big Brother in the past. My concerns have centred on the following issues:
- the ethics of the programme – particularly how housemates may be misled; subjected to stressful situations; and denied food, sleep and other necessities.
- the wellbeing of participants – particularly around how people are selected to be on the show; whether their psychological wellbeing is adequately monitored whilst in the programme; and how they are supported after their time in the house is up
- the suggestion by programme makers that the show’s concept has a basis within psychology (with little or no attempt to follow basic ethical guidance, plus restrictions on what ‘psychology’ can be discussed in relation to the series)
- the involvement of psychologists on the programme – given Big Brother is based around activities that would not be permissible in social research
- the representation of psychology on the programme – often involving people described as ‘psychologists’ but who have no qualifications in this area at all

As a result I’ve had numerous calls over the past weeks from journalists wanting to hear from ‘the psychologist who hates Big Brother’ or my personal favourite ‘the psychologist who doesn’t believe in social behaviour’ (as one journalist wanted to describe me).

Let’s be clear about a few things. For a start, as a social psychologist I obviously believe in social behaviour :-) However, as a social psychologist I do feel the Big Brother concept, which began with a lot of promise to discuss social behaviour, has degenerated into a series that now exploits and manipulates both housemate and viewer.

Over the years I’ve changed my take on the Big Brother concept. When it first launched I was fascinated by it, but while I thought the psychologists involved in the first series were okay I didn’t feel they represented the best social psychology (or any kind of psychology had to offer). Over time it seemed the number of psychologists on the show reduced while the number of counsellors, flirt coaches, astrologers and body language experts increased. Often with these professionals incorrectly described as psychologists or psychiatrists.

While I was approached to be a psychologist for series 2 to 8 (and even screen tested for one of them) I was unable to participate because I did not feel there was enough opportunity to genuinely share psychological theories in an entertaining way. Instead I felt my role would be to gossip, judge and commentate.

Other psychologists who have featured on the spin off shows related to the programme tell me their experiences have ranged from a positive chance to share psychological ideas, to a difficult situation where they were not able to mention any theories which might be critical of the series.

As the series has become more extreme with fighting, bullying and deprivation activities becoming the norm, I have shifted from thinking it was just an issue of personal choice for psychologists to be involved, to believing that it was unethical for psychologists to back a concept that potentially could cause harm. Either during a person’s stay in the house or afterwards (particularly if the promise of fame was not delivered upon).

While I’ve been banging on about this for the past nine years, it seems other psychologists are finally also willing to speak out. For example David Wilson did participate in the show but resigned due to fears over the treatment of participants. (He also discussed this decision in an interview in 2005).

Some psychologists and journalists have challenged my criticisms of the show, claiming people knowingly consent to participate and it’s authoritarian to suggest people can’t decide for themselves if they want to join in. However, watching a programme on TV does not equate to undergoing the experience in real life. It is impossible to consent to something you don’t know enough about, where the whole premise of the programme is to put you in unanticipated and stressful situations, and where you are required to put up with increasing levels of degradation to have a chance of winning.

There’s the additional concern that potentially vulnerable participants (for example those with disabilities or who are gay, bi or transgender) could be adversely affected. Although again there’s the counter argument that this might be the opportunity for the public to become more accepting of minority groups.

I suspect part of the problem with a critical discussion of shows like Big Brother is that just as contestants see the series as a chance to get famous, so do some psychologists. Meaning attention to ethics may be ignored for the opportunity to be seen on screen. It may also explain that while the British Psychological Society has on occasion expressed concern about the series it has never (to my knowledge) formally stood against it. Perhaps because the series does publicise psychology. Even if what it does showcase has very little to do with what you’d learn in a psychology degree or what you might do in a career as a psychologist.

It’s interesting that Big Brother 10 is launching amid another media debate over the treatment of people in reality programmes, with the recent coverage of Britain’s Got Talent Susan Boyle and her admission to The Priory psychiatric hospital following the final of the show.

Some journalists have begun to speak publicly about the pressures put on people in such programmes, and my colleague Gary Wood has an excellent blog on this very topic.

So it’s not just Big Brother that’s the problem programme. It’s joined by the recent resurgence in the popularity of talent contests (with the modern twist of intense media scrutiny), the shows where forgotten stars compete to become popular celebrities again, and the endless ‘chat/self-help’ shows where vulnerable people are encouraged to thrash out their personal problems in front of a baying mob/audience.

Psychologists don’t feature obviously in all these programmes but are involved in the vetting of potential participants, the assessment of them during (but seemingly not after) participation, and in some cases providing them on or off screen with support/counselling. We have little idea of who these psychologists are, whether they are psychologists at all, what training/support/supervision they have, and in the case of those offering ‘therapy’ what kind of ideation they are following, or whether there’s any evidence what they are offering is effective.

You can add to that the additional cohort of psychologists or people pretending to be psychologists who are all happy to speculate, judge, ‘analyse’ and commentate on the misfortunes of the famous or those who’re not famous but find themselves pushed into the public eye.

There are ethical regulations over what psychologists can and can’t do, but these only apply to psychologists who are members of the British Psychological Society. Non members and those claiming to be something they’re not are not regulated. And even those who are supposedly governed by ethical standards frequently breach these with no apparent sanctions.

I’ve got tired of saying the same kind of things every year. Of being the killjoy at the party. Of putting a downer over a highly popular television concept. But the longer psychologists, journalists and the public ignore the wider ramifications of taking part in highly manipulated ‘reality’ shows, the likelihood of more extreme and damaging programming will result.

There are research questions to be answered about the impact of appearing on such programmes, and what they may do to help or hinder someone’s future. Rumours abound that support post-series on many of these shows is not forthcoming and celebrities or members of the public who participate may struggle afterwards. It would be helpful to have some evidence on this issue.

I’m sure we’ll all be tuning in to Big Brother, but just remember that with this series as with the last nine, not all the psychologists you see featured are psychologists, not all you hear described as psychology is psychology.

And if you’re interested, here’s everything I’ve previously blogged on the subject:

Big Brother Nine – launch blog and critique of bullying on that series

Big Brother Eight – launch blog and what to do if you have any concerns about the series

Celebrity Big Brother and concerns over racism allegations

Psychology, ethics and Big Brother
talks about the role of the British Psychological Society in relation to the series

Justifying Jacuzzi Sex
describes the difficulty of trying to share evidence through the show

Big Brother’s Watching You
details the approach taken by the company who make the series

Big Brother Six – concerns over the appearance of a psychologist who is not a psychologist

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