Media (including ONLINE-ONLY in html)

Idiot box or window on the world?

ON Panorama (Monday 18 July), Jeremy Vine presented ‘Is TV bad for my kids?’, the results of a media ‘experiment’. In what was described as the longest TV deprivation study, half a class of primary school children were deprived of television for two weeks. This involved all televisions and computer games in the household being removed, or fitted with locking devices. Since it was claimed that 84 per cent of children over the age of five in the UK have televisions in their bedrooms, this is indeed quite a drastic intervention.
For the two weeks of the study the families kept records of what went on in the home, and filming took place in the classroom. The expectation of the programme makers was that there would be improvements in children’s performance at school rather than at home. However, interviews with both teachers and parents suggested that the opposite was the case. Assuming the programme showed a representative sample of reactions, the change in behaviour of the children at home was dramatic and unexpectedly positive. Rather than moaning and arguing, the children shown seemed to happily settle down to play traditional games with their siblings. However, in general, there was no significant evidence of change in concentration or application at school.
One little girl, Natasha, was an exception to this result and therefore a particular focus of attention. Before her enforced cold turkey she watched television zombie-like, apparently difficult to distract even to come for meals. After watching television all evening she and her sister were in the habit of going to bed and watching a DVD in bed until they fell asleep. To her parents’ surprise, the children went to sleep perfectly well without television. Before the study Natasha was described as a ‘daydreamer and chatterbox at school’; afterwards her teacher reported that her concentration and participation had improved.
Professor Barrie Gunter from the Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester provided the psychology input into this programme. He commented: ‘The study was never intended to be an examination of harmful effects of specific kinds of TV programmes or content. It was concerned with what happens when you take these technologies away. The results of what was an exploratory and short-run study, conducted on a small scale, suggested that people felt they were now behaving as a family unit again, and the kids felt they were getting more and better attention from Mum and Dad. In many ways that calmed them down, because one of the reasons why kids often get excited is because they’re attention seeking. If they’re getting the attention they want they calm down.’
A particularly interesting result of the study was that once the televisions were returned, the children did not completely revert to their previous behaviour. In fact in the week following the study, the average viewing was down by 50 per cent. It was unclear whether this is attributable to a change in the children’s own attitudes or to parental restrictions.
The programme ended with an invitation to the viewers to participate in a week-long ‘TV switch off’ study (see This aims to see how families find life without televisions, computers and video games, and will form the basis for a follow-up programme.
It is questionable whether this could be described as a serious experiment – no claim of random allocation to the deprivation group was made. Furthermore, it was hard to believe the overwhelmingly positive picture presented. The only truly negative reaction came from a TV-deprived boy who was incensed to find his father had locked himself in the bedroom to secretly watch the football on a computer.
The BBC has been accused of dumbing down and focusing on entertainment at the expense of information and education (see Panorama seems to have changed in tone since its move to an earlier and shorter slot, and could perhaps be seen as part of that trend. However, the programme was also engaging and thought-provoking and was perhaps more likely to reach the parents of young children than a more serious documentary approach would have been. The psychological input was authoritative and useful. However, the opportunity to consider existing psychological research evidence was missed – perhaps a downside of the new style Panorama.
    Fiona Jones

NOTE: What follows is the full version of an edited box which appears in the print version.

Amongst the array of Big Brother programming for 2007, Channel 4 premiered ‘Big Brother on the Couch’ (BBOTC), a once weekly prime-time programme (Sunday 8pm) whose remit was to deal with the psychology of the Big Brother house. It was billed as offering observations from some of ‘Britain’s leading psychologists’, and in early June I was invited to participate.

Before you reach for the ‘remote control’, my intention here is not to regale you with highlights from series 8. Rather, my aim as a media psychologist – and, more significantly, as a critical psychologist involved with Big Brother – is to consider the gatekeeping of psychological ideas that exists within the media and the implications this has for both psychology and society more broadly.

As a member of the Society’s Press Committee and someone who contributes frequently to the media, my goal has always been to get psychology out into the public arena with both professionalism and legitimacy. Specifically as a critical psychologist, my aim has been to publicise largely marginalised psychological ideas as widely as possible and present a critical psychological slant when making sense of human behaviour. In November last year I was invited by the BPS, along with Dr Petra Boynton, to deliver training entitled Psychologists and Production companies in Partnership to television production company personnel who wished to engage psychologists in television production. Together Petra and I took the opportunity, based on our experiences, to unpack some of the common misconceptions about what psychologists can and can’t do.

Then came my turn to work in partnership with television production personnel like those I presented to in November. My job was to watch Big Brother daily (I contained my viewing to the one hour programme at the end of each day) and noted my observations, drawing upon conceptual and theoretical ideas from within psychology. As a critical and discursive psychologist my observations were data driven and typically centred on the language used by the housemates. I was also asked to contribute my observations on a range of other topics including gender and sexuality, and to talk about which housemate held the most power in the house. All of these topics were within my remit of research expertise and I felt professionally able to offer insights.

At the time I grabbed the opportunity of presenting critical psychology theory to understand these topics, recognising that such interpretations would offer something novel to the psychology of the Big Brother house to date and would enable me to pursue my goal of publicising critical psychological ideas. To offer some examples, I drew upon Foucauldian theory to explain how housemates exerted power not in a top-down way, but through their language use in the dominant discourses they drew upon and through their ability to define others in the house. For example, Leslie refers to 'the girls' marking herself out as different from several of the younger housemates with the the category working as a subtle put down, constructing them as more frivolous; less experienced. Laura also presents several similar careful, subtle put downs when she refers to the twins as 'the dollies' and the pretty minxes'. I also focused on the housemates’ use of rhetorical devices to manage their accountability in talk. For example, Extreme Case Formulations allow the speaker to make a strong case for something in anticipation of unsympathetic hearings. For example when Jonathon was talking about the twins to other housemates and passed judgment on them for being so ‘pink’ and uncomplicated, he simultaneously has to manage how this is heard. So he presents his views by using an extreme case formulation and saying he ‘really, really’ likes the twins and that they are ‘really’ nice, but goes onto present them as banal. Another device used is Stake Inoculation. This is a way for a speaker to disguise self-interest in the account they offer, and it is evident when people say I don’t know /‘I dunno’ after making a claim. By doing this they can disclaim the consequences of their talk, so when Charley nominates Nicki but uses ‘I don’t know’ before asserting her choice of housemate she effectively reduces the force of her self-interest in nominating.

By week three I was in full swing and was identifying with ease the range of metaphors housemates drew upon to make sense of their developing relationships (these included relationship development as work; as a voyage of discovery; and as danger: see Baxter, 1992). However, each Tuesday my contributions were met with uncertainty by the production team and each Sunday I watched BBOTC defeated, acknowledging yet again that my brand of psychological insight hadn’t made the grade.

I did receive a ‘reassuring’ phone call from a member of the production team to say that they were working hard pushing what they saw as my ‘original’ ideas, but were struggling to work them into the executive’s agenda (an agenda which didn’t seem to gel with my data driven observations). In light of this I was asked whether I would be willing to comment on topics selected by the executive production team, such as which housemates wanted fame and who was the most narcissistic – I declined.

It became clear as the weeks progressed that what was being presented as detailed psychological insight was being guided very clearly by the very same assumptions that Petra and I had unpacked in our training about psychology and psychologists (that we are all clinical psychologists and we can read minds; we have an obsessive interest in shrugs/nods and all manner of gesticulations; and that all human behaviour can in someway be traced to evolutionary origins). This meant that the country’s ‘leading’ psychologists were more often than not, ambiguously titled ‘behaviour experts’. When psychological theory was presented (by psychologists), it tended to be watered down traditional social psychology (in group/out group behaviour), very diluted evolutionary theory (alpha males) or insights from the field of non-verbal communication, and sometimes a combination of all three.

Whilst interesting, these areas fail to fully account for the extensive range of theories/issues that psychologists are engaged with, and do not altogether reflect the academic commitments of the psychologists appearing on Big Brother. I personally refused to comment on questions which had an individualistic focus and which veered away from my critical psychology sympathies. However, this had serious implications for my subsequent involvement, and was treated by the production team as a significant impediment to any chance I had of ever appearing on BBOTC.

Two years ago, criminologist Professor David Wilson admitted that the glitz surrounding the programme and the flattery of being asked to participate resulted in him overlooking ‘the more hardnosed questions about the show’s ethics’ (The Guardian, 12 Aug 2005). Perhaps psychologists, like the housemates (who are publicly derided for their thirst for C-list celebrity), are not immune from the celebrity culture/hype that surrounds reality game shows. However, unlike the housemates, we have a huge professional responsibility for the messages we communicate publicly. Big Brother on the Couch might be treated by psychologists as a light-hearted take on housemates’ behaviour, but the fact remains that this primetime programme is billed as offering in depth psychological insight and is one of the most watched  programmes on television. In my mind, perpetuating explanations that rely solely on theories of non-verbal communication and evolution presents both a partial and reduced picture of psychology. It also results in uncritically reinforcing dominant explanations of human behaviour which are at the very least reductionist and individualistic, and more often than not unhelpful.

As the weeks passed, I began to reflect that the failure to present my own area of psychology on BBOTC therefore had nothing to do with its theoretical merit or novelty value, or with my own ability to communicate complex conceptual ideas for that matter, but rather with the dominant ideology surrounding what psychology is taken for granted as being. This ideology is supported by the psychologists who are favouring celebrity identity and the opportunity to present psychological theory which is ‘expected’, over their own professional identity, obligations and interesting theoretical and research commitments.

As a critical psychologist I am concerned with the ways in which ‘realities’ such as identities, experiences and everyday practices of living are constructed through discourse and are presented by psychology as ‘truth’, which ultimately regulates us in certain ways. As such there needs to be greater reflection about the kinds of message we are sending out in our interpretations as psychologists and how these impact upon (a) the discipline and professional community as a whole – for example how it continues to perpetuate an unacceptable intellectual status quo, confining certain theories ever to the margins, and (b) how it impacts more broadly on society.

To sum up Psychology’s position in reality TV I draw on the words of Dr Jane Roscoe, Programme Executive at SBS Television in Australia, who argues (see that programmes like BBOTC ‘over analyse every move in a bid to learn a life lesson. The camera watches and records 24/7 in a bid to capture the moment of self-realisation, of self-actualisation. And here lies the forms conservativism. The turn inwards is an escape from the messiness of our lives, an attempt to control our worlds and moderate our expectations and actions. Talk it all through, conform to group norm, smooth over the cracks. This is not a time or space for radical thinking, for breaking out or breaking down. Looking inwards keeps us within the boundaries of our own experiences and therefore our own limitations. Ideologically this is a return to the closed world where morality and ethics seek to preserve the status quo rather than challenge it’.

Ceri Parsons

Baxter, L.A. (1992). Root Metaphors in accounts of developing romantic relationships, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 9, 253-275.

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