Skip to content

Why psychologists must take a stand against bullying and racism

January 17th, 2007

Dr Petra

Channel 4′s ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ is currently in hot water over accusations of bullying and racism by housemates. A number of housemates have been targetting one contestant Shilpa Shetty with bullying remarks, imitating her voice and mannerisms, refusing to pronounce her name correctly (or at all), referring to her as ‘the Indian’ and in some cases more extreme racist name-calling.

Clearly this is unreasonable pressure for an individual to face – even if they are part of a television game show. Although the focus has been on the danger towards Shilpa there are additional problems with the stress caused to other housemates witnessing hostile behaviour and also those who are acting in a negative way may face damage to their careers and safety because limits have not been set over their actions. In short all housemates are sacrificial lambs in this unpleasant and distressing atmosphere.

Many organisations, individuals and media outlets in the UK have complained to media watchdog Ofcom. Whilst in the press and on countless internet messageboards debates have rumbled on over whether the bullying Shilpa is experiencing is racist or not. Most people seem to be in agreement that Shilpa is being bullied, but not all can agree whether the bullying is meant to be racist.

Ignorance is not an answer where bullying is concerned. Whether or not a person intended to be racist their actions may well be interpreted as such and that is the problem we have to deal with.

However, I think there’s a wider issue of media ethics here which is not being given enough attention. It’s no secret I have concerns both about the programme and the use of psychologists in the show. In particular I’m concerned that the programme puts unreasonable demands and stresses on participants and even though they are supposedly vetted before going into the Big Brother house they do not appear to be treated as ethically as they could be. At any sign of distress they should be given support or removed from the programme as appropriate. One famous psychology study ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ designed to examine issues of conformity, leadership and prison life was discontinued after six days for fears of the damage being done to participants in the form of bullying and abuse. Such a study can no longer be run for obvious ethical reasons. If this applies to psychological research it should also apply to television.

Last year the British Psychological Society did complain last year about the ethics of Big Brother but only went as far as raising their concerns – not taking an active stance against the programme or Channel 4. We need to do more. The BPS should come out against the programme and refuse to back it or to supply psychologists for it, they should make it clear anyone appearing on the show in the role of psychologist or expert is not backed by their colleagues or professional organisation and are not qualified to speak as a psychologist.

Unfortunately such a stance doesn’t seem to have happened to date because whilst the BPS may have concerns about the programme, it does attract a lot of interest in psychology and so benefits the organisation with new students signing up for degree courses every year in the hope that they too can become a ‘Big Brother Psychologist’. At a recent careers fair I attended virtually every young person asking about psychology as a degree told me they were inspired to be a psychologist because of the ones they’d seen on the telly – they believed a psychology degree was a passport to fame and wealth. They were wrong. And we need to start making it clear the majority of ‘psychologists off the telly’ are neither psychologists or particularly ethical professionals.

It’s not good enough for those of us who’ve had ethical concerns about the programme to simply not go on it when we are invited. We need to make it clear we oppose any programme that allows participants to be placed in situations of distress, discomfort or upset. Whether that’s exposing them to bullying, racism, humiliation or anxiety producing situations – none of it is okay.

We’ve heard a lot from celebrities, journalists, politicians and the public on this topic. It’s time that psychologists took a stand and showed that we also do not agree with any situation where someone can be harmed just for our viewing pleasure.

Comments are closed.