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Big Brother – back again

June 6th, 2008

Dr Petra

Big Brother 9 has now officially launched in the UK with a variety of contestants (including a couple, a blind man, and the seemingly prerequisite camp guy).

I’ll probably post more about BB9 during the series, but you may want to see my blog from last year which raised some questions – and concerns – about the show.

Last year I had a number of emails from psychologists asking if they thought they should go on the programme as experts. This followed me raising concerns about the ethics of the programme and whether psychologists should be involved. Some of the psychologists who contacted me felt the show allowed the opportunity to bring psychology to the public, which is a fine goal. Whether they found they were able to do this I never discovered, although talking to other friends/colleagues who have appeared on Big Brother and related shows in the past the opportunity to do much more than the director/producer tells you seems fairly limited.

There were some who contacted me who felt that I was wrong to complain about the programme, since they saw it as ironic, postmodern and ultimately ‘just a game show’. They felt I was authoritarian to suggest people couldn’t knowingly consent to being on the show (my view is that people do know what the show looks like from seeing it on TV, but these are edited programmes and not the same as truly living the experience).

In either case, if someone feels they can make a difference to psychology by being on the programme, or feels participants are not harmed in any way by being on the show, then it’s probably easier to decide to take part than if you have concerns over whether people can truly consent to the process, whether the show is ethical, and whether you can really convey much about contemporary psychology. As ever, I’m interested to hear from any qualified psychologist who has participated in the programme as an expert and how they felt that went.

One thing that I think is worth clarifying about Big Brother for anyone considering going on the show (or related programmes) as an expert is about the possibility of becoming famous as a result. Contestants going on the show – as we’ve seen in the pre-programme teasers – are all told that they will be at their most famous during the time they are in the BB house, and are unlikely to remain a household name after they leave. There have been a few contestants who’ve become household names as a result of the programme, but most do not become particularly rich or famous from being in the BB house.

The same applies to psychologists. Last year I had several emails from psychologists asking about how much you get paid to be on BB (ask the producers, don’t ask me!). And also how the programme could be a good route to ‘enhancing their public persona’, some had already engaged an agent to help with this process.

In fairness, who’s to say there’s anything wrong with wanting a bit of fame, glamour and money? Why not take advantage of a media opportunity if you think it will benefit you?

My concern this year is there’s a growing number of psychologists, and potential psychologists (in the form of graduates, postgraduates and A level psychology students) all of whom believe, just as many potential housemates do, that being on the show will make them rich and famous.

We’ve already seen that the experts on the programme are as disposable as the housemates. Being on Big Brother as an expert might get you some publicity, it might earn you some pocket money (not mega bucks) and it might get you some more media work in related areas. Unfortunately it could easily harm your professional reputation (see previous blogs on BB for why) or reduce the opportunities in other areas of media that look down on reality TV.

The decision for a psychologist or any expert to take part in the show is really one of personal and professional ethics. It’s not for me, and I wouldn’t encourage other professionals to be on the show in its current form, but I can appreciate why many folk want to do it.

Let’s wait and see what happens this season to find out if it’s become something psychology should be getting involved in, or steering well clear of.

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