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Psychology, ethics and Big Brother

August 24th, 2006

Dr Petra

According to BBC news the British Psychological Society (BPS) have spoken out against the reality show Big Brother.
It seems the BPS had spoken to Endemol (the production company who make Big Brother) about concerns around distressing potential show participants. However, that didn’t seem to have gone as planned with a BPS society member quoted as saying: “It didn’t appear that some of the areas we discussed were necessarily being applied this year”.

The main areas of concern for the BPS were that “vulnerable people” were included in this series, such as Pete who has Tourettes syndrome and Nikki who is recovering from an eating disorder. The second concern was psychologists may have been involved in the “deliberate stressing” of individuals which runs counter to global ethical guidelines as well as BPS ethical rules.

Big Brother could potentially have been a great opportunity for psychologists to get involved in discussing the programme and sharing psychology with society. However over the years the number of qualified psychologists participating has reduced, as has the amount of psychology being discussed.

There are specific concerns amongst psychologists that those representing the profession on Big Brother aren’t always who they seem, and that the production company behind Big Brother tells psychologists what they want them to say rather than relying on their expertise.

That’s not to say that all psychologists who appear on the programme aren’t qualified, just that many who appear either are not psychologists, or are psychologists but are speaking outside their area of speciality.
Other concerns with the programme are it relies on manipulation, coercion and misinformation to get responses from participants. In many cases the activities that happen in the Big Brother house would not be permitted within a contemporary psychological study. Where you would mislead a participant you always need to fully debrief them after and there has to be a valid reason why you would manipulate them. So for psychologists getting involved with Big Brother there’s the added problem of can you seemingly endorse something that happens on a television programme that you shouldn’t be doing in a laboratory experiment.

It’s not to say that psychology experiments of the past haven’t involved deception or manipulation, but with our increasingly litigious culture and greater awareness of research ethics such research is rarely permitted nowadays.

I think the British Psychological Society isn’t doing enough here. Every year they agree the programme could be unethical, but that doesn’t lead to any action. If the society really wanted to make a difference it should come out against the programme, inform its members they should not participate, and remove the membership of those who do join in. They should also inform the public of those who pass themselves off as psychologists but aren’t qualified. Such an approach would either mean psychology wouldn’t be linked with an unethical programme, or it could be a lever to ensure if psychologists were involved then the programme was ethical.

Currently the BPS operates a curious system where they won’t endorse a programme but they won’t stop their members participating – a really toothless approach that leaves members and the public confused about the role of psychologists.

Could it be that Big Brother acts as an advertisement for psychology? Many new graduates are attracted to the discipline having seen the Big Brother ‘Psychs’ and believing that psychology is just like being on Big Brother (not to mention the promise of getting rich which they wrongly think is the case for those who appear on the show).

Big Brother is such a huge money spinner for Channel 4 it is not going to be canned just yet – no matter what concerns are raised about the programme. So the BPS really has no choice but to take a stronger stand on behalf of its members to make it clear we do not see the manipulation of people for entertainment as ethically acceptable.

The show will still continue, and will still be entertaining, but to pretend it’s got anything to do with psychology is just a joke.

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