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When is a psychologist not a psychologist?

May 30th, 2005

Dr Petra

When they appear on Big Brother.

That’s how it appeared in the listings for last night’s roundup of Big Brother Six on Channel Four, that proclaimed how ‘psychology experts’ would give analysis of the housemates.

Now what’s a psychology expert if not a psychologist?

Possibly not a psychologist at all.

With every year that passes, Big Brother (and it’s spin off shows) have made less and less use of psychologists and psychology, and more and more use of those who come under their cover all term of ‘psychology expert’. The life coach, ‘social commentator’, celebrity magazine editor, and ‘flirt coach’.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those careers. But they are not psychologists.

There’s a real dilemma for psychologists about Big Brother. Even though participants are given some indication of what will happen on the show, it’s main thrust is to confuse, manipulate, and mislead. At the same time, the ethical guidelines for psychological research are very clear – participants cannot be coerced, misinformed, or caused any form of distress. So as a psychologist it’s very difficult to endorse a television programme that permits things that you’d be forbidden to do in your research.

Which is why many psychologists refuse to be part of the programme. Well, that and the fact that they’d be appearing alongside people who’re not psychologists but claim that title nevertheless. Not to mention how the programme makers demand that ‘experts’ commentate on the programme rather than applying any actual psychology to it.

It’s a real shame since Big Brother technically could have provided an excellent opportunity for social psychologists (those who study individual and group behaviour) to evaluate and discuss the activities in the Big Brother house. Unfortunately most ‘experts’ who end up on the show do not have this background.

Many new undergraduates are now attracted to psychology because they see ‘psychologists’ on Big Brother. They presume appearing on the show will bring fame and wealth, career opportunities, or status amongst colleagues. None of those things are very likely.

It would be great if psychologists who appear on Big Brother or similar are the best of the best. For that we’d expect them to be either appropriately qualified therapists, or if they’re academic psychologists, that they’d have a proven track record in social research – along with a list of academic publications to go with it.

Sadly those who feature on the show rarely fit this bill.

The public sees these ‘experts’ as the best psychology has to offer, and that they’re offering psychology.

Sorry to disappoint, but as we reach BB6, neither of these are true.

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