Psychology VS. The Entertainment Industry
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, there are ethical principles and guidelines which researchers have to stick to when planning and conducting research, and because of these, sometimes the most interesting research can’t be carried out. When the costs are too great for the expected gains, researchers look for alternative measures of their experimental design –usually by using animals.
However, the entertainment industry doesn’t impose such limitations on programming, regardless of costs or gains, and in recent years, the growth of interest in the field of psychology by the entertainment industry (and subsequent sensationalism) has become something of a double-edged sword to researchers, doctors and everyday people.
People like you.
(or maybe not, if you’re a doctor or researcher)
Round 1 – The Contenders & Good Intentions
Big Brother, Supernanny , Tool Academy, Derren Brown. To name but a few.
You will recognise (however unwillingly) at least one of these programs shame on you. All of these shows, to varying degrees, are based on psychological theories and practice.
Big Brother –A modern social psychology experiment (maybe not so much the later seasons) about group interactions when isolated from the world, and put in competition.
Supernanny – behavioural psychology is the basis of this show. This format is mirrored in a lot of similar programs concerning child management techniques.
Tool Academy – horrific. I mean, counselling psychology and healthy doses of screaming and crying, humiliation, with chances of the occasional door being kicked in. Essentially, adult supernanny for relationships.
Derren Brown – I know, I know many eminent psychologists loathe the man. But he employs many tricks of the mind in his shows (and no doubt, willing plants in the audience), exploiting natural visual illusions, attentional weaknesses, the power of auto-suggestion, and statistical patterns/choices in behaviour.
The rise in interest in the field of psychology can’t be solely attributed to these programs (give the field some credit, guys), but there’s no doubt that they raise awareness of psychology for the general population. In recent years, the number of students studying psychology in the UK has risen dramatically by 2000 students between 1997 and 2002 (Williams, 2002), and is still growing. This means more funding for psychology departments across Britain (case in point, Bangor University) and therefore better resources for students and funding for research (see: http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/popular/#one). Money = good.
The increase in awareness of psychological problems and behavioural problems has also meant that they are likely to be identified more quickly by both family and sufferer. This understanding is likely to generate more support and tolerance, which can never be a bad thing.
In this trailer of Supernanny, you can see how the support and advice from Jo Frost helps the Newton family develop strategies for reducing problem behaviour and thereby increase desirable behaviour.
Round 2 – Pitfalls
The downside to these shows is that, in order for them to be entertaining, they have to cut out the long, laborious parts of psychology –in the case of Supernanny and Tool Academy, they give the misapprehension that behaviour modification and therapy are short, easily implemented processes (they only have a thirty minute- hour timeslot after-all).
More worryingly, the simplicity of the explanations behind behaviour is likely to encourage armchair psychology, in other words ‘Psychology? It’s just common sense, innit? I could do that.’ This is the more dangerous side of the aforementioned double-edged sword: people forget that Jo Frost is a trained behavioural psychologist, that Derren Brown has no psychology qualifications whatsoever (see: Derren Brown interview), and so on. This may mean they’re less likely to seek help from actual professionals, and try to manage serious problems by themselves, which is a cause for concern.
This raises the question of whether creating entertainment of this format is entirely ethical –not to mention the fact that if a researcher wished to conduct an experiment mimicking the format of Big Brother (or Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment) they would be denied ethical approval, while a tv show can get away with it (see: BBC Zimbardo Prison re-enactment). People may give their consent to appear on television, but does that still make it right to observe someone (however morally dubious –I’m looking at you Tool Academy) as they take part in couples therapy and tackle deeply personal issues? Difficult enough, without the whole country watching at home.
Relegating topics like this to mindless entertainment harms the credibility of psychology as whole –it’s hard to take psychology seriously (and consider it a science) when the things that spring most readily to mind are stage tricks (Derren Brown), people behaving like idiots (Tool Academy, Big Brother) and Modern-Day Mary Poppins (Supernanny).
Case in point:
Round 3 – K.O.
As a psychology student/researcher/trained practitioner I would be willing to bet you’ve heard a variation of the phrase ‘…psychology, so you read minds, right?’ at some point (with varying degree of seriousness).
You can’t lay the blame solely at the doors of these types of programs, but the underlying trivialising and misapprehensions the general public harbour towards the field of psychology should give some cause for caution in how much free reign these shows have. Psychology isn’t as exact a science as say, physics (don’t worry, physicists won’t let us forget it), but having the most publicised faces of it being such dramatic formats, may not be the best thing, despite the positives such as attracting more students and funding, and raising awareness.
The issue of ethics is an interesting bone of contention between research and entertainment, too. Should the restrictions on research be slackened- or those on television be tightened? Should the BPS have more jurisdiction over the content of certain television shows? It seems strange that television is able to get away with more tricky content, and for less noble goals, as opposed to research. And finally, if psychologists clue in on this entertainment loophole, should it be ethical for researchers to utilise television shows as a way of carrying out experiments and data collection they might not otherwise?
Williams, E. (2002, February 20). From shopkeepers to Woody Allens. The Age (Education section), p 5.