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Big Brother is back – and here are the questions we should be asking about the show

June 4th, 2007

Dr Petra

It’s that time of year again – strawberries, tennis and Big Brother on the telly. Oh, and me sounding like a cracked record raising questions we ought to be asking about the show.

Big Brother is now in its eighth series in the UK and for anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s a reality programme where contestants live in a small house, are filmed 24/7 and over a 13 week period are voted out by the public. The person left in the house at the end of the programme wins a cash prize and has the chance of their 15 minutes of fame.

Although the programme is presented as entertainment, and nowadays most people who go on the show to an extent have an idea about what they’re letting themselves in for, there are still wider issues about the programme that have never been answered during the UK show’s seven year history.

These include:

How are contestants vetted and monitored?
We might assume that those taking part in the programme are carefully vetted to ensure they are physically and psychologically healthy enough to be in the programme. In previous years concerns have been expressed over the mental health of would-be participants given the strain being in the programme could cause. Earlier this year, following the bullying/racism scandal that haunted the Celebrity Big Brother series it was alleged by some contestants that they only saw a psychologist for ten minutes before going on the show and they were not adequately assessed before or after being on the programme. Broadcast ethics as well as the ethics of psychologists all require participants to be assessed and monitored at all times, but it does not seem that this is appropriately enforced on Big Brother. Questions need to be asked about the calibre and qualifications of those being used to vet participants, as well as the wider ethics of Endemol who make the programme but may not always put the needs of contestants first.

What support is given to contestants post-show?

Again, it has been alleged by some contestants that they were not offered post-programme support and had to face public hostility or ridicule without assistance after appearing on the show. Whilst some participants may not have a negative public reaction, adjusting to life outside the house does require support, and it may be particularly important to assist those who believe being on the show is a route to stardom if such opportunities do not arise.

Are the experts who appear on the show really qualified?

One of the major problems with Big Brother is its use of psychologists. In the first series some attempt was made to use people who at least had a degree in psychology (even if they weren’t really qualified to comment on social behaviour) but over the years the standards of ‘experts’ being used has dropped. This is partly because Endemol operate an ‘any quack will do’ policy when finding ‘experts’ to be on the show, perhaps because they don’t know (or more likely don’t care) how to spot a genuinely qualified person. Last night I tuned in to Big Brother’s ‘On the couch’ programme which was supposed to provide cutting edge analysis by some of the ‘leading experts in the field of psychology’ who turned out to be someone described as being a ‘behavioural expert’ (but who has no formal qualifications) and a psychologist who didn’t seem to know much about psychology at all.

Why hasn’t the British Psychological Society spoken out against the programme?

Although the British Psychological Society has occasionally expressed concerns about the involvement of some participants on the programme, they have never spoken out against Big Brother or refused to endorse the show. Even when poorly qualified psychologists or those falsely claiming psychology credentials have been used the organisation has said nothing. They have also not spoken out about fighting and violence on the programme, bullying and racism, or taken a stand against the manipulation of contestants that would not be permitted were the programme a psychology experiment. Whether it’s because the BPS still views the programme as good advertising for the discipline, or just due to apathy on the part of the organisation isn’t clear. What is clear is that with every season of the show the standard of experts drops as the unethical treatment of participants increases. Questions should be asked of the BPS why it isn’t taking a more robust stand against Endemol and Big Brother, and also what damage is being done to the discipline of psychology by the programme.

Does participating in the programme cause any harm?

Big Brother is a game show, and you can argue people going on it know what they’re letting themselves in for. However we really don’t know the long term effect of being on the programme, it’s impact on people’s psychological wellbeing, or how it affects people when they leave the house in terms of their personal relationships and future careers. The show is presented as benign, but we don’t really know if this is the case.

No doubt the programme will be as popular as ever, and if it isn’t contestants will be manipulated to ensure we stay tuned. But while we’re enjoying the show we should also be asking questions about it – and also asking questions of organisations like Endemol and the British Psychological Society about the role they play in the programme and how fair Big Brother truly is.

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