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Babies and Circuses – Should Psychology Be Given Away?

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In 1969, the President of the American Psychological Association, George Miller proposed that psychologists should aim to publicly ‘give psychology away’, commenting that all human beings should be involved in the endeavour to discover ‘what is humanly possible, and what is humanly desirable… advance[ing] psychology as a means of promoting human welfare’.

However, events in the early 21st century indicate that we may currently be taking a very dangerous detour away from the promotion of human welfare. Since the advent of the ‘Big Brother’ concept in the early 2000s, television viewers have been inundated with a flood of ‘reality’ TV in which competitors are crudely manipulated for entertainment purposes, sometimes aided by ‘consultants’ with psychology credentials, in a form of entertainment resembling a Roman circus.

While ancient Romans got their entertainment from physically torturing people, it seems that we are fast becoming a society that gets its entertainment from what in its mildest form can be described as a form of psychological manipulation, and in its most extreme incarnation, psychological torture. 

Twelve years ago, I wrote to the British Psychological Society’s journal, The Psychologist as follows: ‘In June [2007] viewers were invited by Channel 4 to tune in to watch “Britain’s top psychologists” discussing the “action” (sic) in the Big Brother house…. George Miller would have been unable to envision the… celebrity-obsessed societies of the 21st century Western world when he spoke so passionately about “giving psychology away” in 1969. Surely it is time to consider whether what we are doing now is not so much “giving psychology away” as selling it to the masses for 30 pieces of silver?’

It seems that the issues raised have not only not been dealt with in the intervening time but have escalated to alarming proportions. In May this year, the Jeremy Kyle Show, in which participants were engaged to angrily debate their family problems had all future broadcast cancelled, following the death of a participant. Love Island, a dating reality show has also been the source of press stories relating to the suicides of two participants. However, the producers are currently refusing to drop  the franchise. Worldwide, reality TV has been pinpointed as a catalyst in the death of 38 people since 1986.

The issues created do not just impact on the participants concerned, but also on the general publicboth through the programme itself and the social media discussions that follow.  As such, as psychologist Dr James Huysman reflects: ‘We are doing ourselves no favours, turning the internet into a world version of the Roman coliseum.’ And most recently, the UK public broadcasting channel Channel 4 moved into even more extreme territory, using children under five and their parents as reality participants in a programme entitled Train Your Baby Like a Dog in which a dog trainer used a training ‘clicker’ and chocolate rewards to train a toddler and a baby into compliance with adult commands. Alarmingly, this included coping with difficult emotions alone without demanding adult attention, thereby raising the risk of developing avoidant attachment patterns.

A range of critical comments from experts were ignored by both the programme producers and broadcasters, who refused to reflect upon their ethical and moral responsibilities as public broadcasters. Their failure to consider the possibility of imitation behaviour was of particular concern. Television programmes have too frequently become just the filler between commercials;  activating an ‘arms race’ where producers aim to develop more sensational programmes to attract more viewers, and to thereby make more money. This is surely not the world to which Miller envisioned that psychology would be ‘given away’.

Dr Pam Jarvis is a Reader at the Institute of Childhood and Education at Leeds Trinity University. Pam’s expertise encompasses psychological well-being in childhood. 

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