Big Brother – Unethical Psychology On Our TV Screens?by Daisy Sunderalingam - 22nd July, 2016
Inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in short Big Brother is a game show in which strangers live with each other, isolated from the outside world, instructed by Big Brother in various tasks and assignments for the entertainment of the public and nominate one another each week for eviction by public vote – eventually leaving one housemate to win a cash prize. Over the years the contestants have become privy to the structure of the show, many attempt to foresee the day’s events and so ensues paranoia, speculation and heated arguments which then dominate the hour of footage we see each night.
Arguments often seem trivial, for instance this series we have seen a heated dispute between two housemates over the correct way to cook a pancake. Whilst this might not seem to have been directly manipulated by the producers of Big Brother, the show controls the food the housemates are given and food rations play a huge part in the disagreements that occur. Unsurprisingly, research has shown that food deprivation causes many adverse physiological and psychological effects, including increased emotional sensitivity and dysphoria (a mood or state of uneasiness or discontentment). It is therefore easier to understand why such eruptions occur over food. Big Brother is in essence knowingly causing psychological harm to its contestants, if it were part of a psychological research study it would most certainly be unethical and unapproved.
In this series, there is one house with ‘real housemates’ and another housing ‘the others’, which somewhat emulates the famous research study, the Stanford Prison Experiment, led by Philip Zimbardo in the 70’s before strict ethical guidelines were developed. The experiment investigated the psychological effects and behavioural outcomes of participants acting as prisoners and others performing as prison guards. One example of how Big Brother has mirrored negative reactions found during Zimbardo’s 6-day experiment, is through their exploitation of power by enforcing boiler suit uniforms on ‘the others’. This measure has dehumanised contestants and subsequently initiated aggressive outbursts. In addition, they have been made to feel inferior to the ‘real’ housemates, not having access to their personal belongings, living within a smaller compound and consistently being referred to as ‘the others’, such actions can induce feelings of segregation.
Big Brother is also responsible for habitually manipulating information and deceiving the inhabitants of the house with half-truths. For example, in this series a conversation between three individuals surrounding nominations was used by Big Brother to inform the rest of the housemates that these three had been ‘conspiring’ over nominations. The use of this word resonated with the other contestants leading them to mistrust and turn on those they now saw as conspirators, whereas, others involved in similar acts were not judged quite so harshly, due in part to the words used to describe their actions being less disapproving and leading by Big Brother. Further to this, many of the ‘tasks’ assigned to the housemates have hidden meanings or outcomes for certain individuals. The deceitfulness behind these actions would most certainly be regarded as dishonest in any real psychological study. So, with a variety of actions that would be considered highly unethical – how is it Big Brother is acceptable as a TV programme?