Big Brother – the Ultimate Psychology Experiment

Psychology is the ‘science of mind and behaviour’ - that is what the standard grey drab academic textbook will state in the opening chapter. What has psychology got to do with a TV show ? In the case of BB, psychology is everything. A group of young people (certainly no over 40’s) are thrown together in a cramped and secure compound, with millions of people following each and every moment of their daily existence.

The ultimate Psy experiment

Big Brother is surely the ultimate (if somewhat unofficial) in psychological experiments. BB is literally one great lab cage, and instead of cute white rats we get a group of humans (although sometimes I have found it hard to tell the difference). If any psychologist proposed such an experiment, most ethics boards would decline it.

Why would they decline it ?

One of the rules any experimenter must adhere to is to prevent any ‘un-necessary psychological/physical distress’ to the participants.  In BB3 we all saw the utter distress in various housemates during the course of the show. Notably, the depression of Johnny (I’ve been up me’ 3 times) Regan, and the utter bizarre childhood ‘babba’ regression of Jade (am I minging?) Goody* .There is no way in hell that an ethics board would allow such an experiment be started, never mind let it continue once some of the ‘negative/upsetting’ behaviour had been observed.  

* I am still surprised Jade was’nt pulled out of the show midway. I recall many others saying the same thing back then “How could she be allowed to ‘be like that’ on TV !” You remember the Jade, sitting on the couch, sucking her thumb, and making baby talk, and then getting drunk outta her head night after night.


Such an experiment in human behaviour/ social interaction would not be sanctioned. But hey, since it is for TV, what the hell, bring it on ! There are no real hard line enforceable rules for BB. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it. The people who enter the house should be well aware of the ‘rat-cage’ they are walking into (or are they aware?).

The days of researchers being able to do any experiment they wished, ended in the 1960’s/70’s. People still cite the classic Stanley Milgram (1961/2) obedience to authority experiment, but the trend was already in place. Anyone who has done any psychology course will have come to realise that there are some strict limitations on the type of experiment that can be done. There are simple so many ethical rules in place the psy researcher will often find they are not allowed to carry out their planned project.

Today, it is extremely hard to do research which might involve ‘psychological upset’ to the subjects taking part. Even your average A-level student has to get ethics board approval, and have participants sign legal disclaimers.

This all makes BB particularly interesting for any viewing psychologist. For the psychologist BB is something they never even dare dream about doing.

Here is a thought that has just come to mind. How about putting these groups of people together in a BB house.

 6 Jades and 6 Sandys

6 Allisons and 6 Tim Culleys

 Q. Aren’t you curious as to how such scenarios would work out ?

How hard would it be to find 6 jades ? I don’t really think it would be that hard to find 6 people similar to missy. Sure there would be some noticeable differences in character, but you could still get 6 people broadly the same style as ‘missy’ Jade. If you were to interview a few thousand people, do you think you would be able to find 6 people of a certain character, surely you’d say yes ?

Anyway, the point remains that such an experiment would not get passed. Yet for BB, that is exactly what happens. The producers (from the way I believe it is done) have a list of desirable types they want and how they want them to interact.


Housemate selection

Last summer, one thing really struck me from the TV production perspective. The selection of housemates was in my view quite superb. Of all the people auditioned, the producers took hold of miss goody the minute they saw her. This may sound absurdly obvious, but those final 12 housemates don’t get into the house by chance.

In the case of Jade Goody, they knew exactly what they were getting. The producers of the show found a relatively ill-educated young woman, someone who would be ‘up for a laugh’ – in Jade’s case this would mean a great deal of alcohol.

 I suggest that the social dynamics in the Big brother house are quite predictable between people of a various type. Put people of a Jade and Tim culley nature together and what do you think will happen ? Neither will like each other, some things are indeed all too predictable.

 I do wonder how the producers come to make their decisions. Do they simple say, “we want someone to annoy Ben, which of Tracey or Sarah will work best ?”.

 Do I sound arrogant in saying that people are ‘somewhat predictable’ ?  Really, do I ? If last May you were to have met Sandy and Kate, would you honestly say that you couldn’t have predicted the ‘broad dynamic’ that would occur between these two people ? Surely you are now starting to see my overall point. I agree you can’t predict precise times, or exact events out in advance, but you can certainly select certain characters and know (almost for certain) that they will/won’t get on.

 The Big Brother world can be seen as a board of chess. You pick 12 pieces, design a board type, lock them in, and then provoke/manipulate the pieces as and when you desire. Oh how it must feel to be the producer, to have such power over people…if only for just 9 weeks.

Who is this ‘Calrissian’ anyway ?

Since this is my first ‘official’ thing here on <b>DS:BB</b>, I thought I’d say a few things about who I am.
I started my own psychology development a decade ago. Read a few ‘pop’ psy. books, went to college, within a few years went on to do a standard science degree in psychology. I have lectured in psychology to groups of undergraduate students, and have tutored many small groups in research skills.

My specialism is in mental health/illness. For you academics out there, I follow the gestalt school of psychology, I remain a big follower of Carl Rogers. 
I certainly don’t claim to be a professional psychologist, and am certainly not a ‘Sandra Scott’ (bless her ;), but I do have a passion for social observation and finding out ‘why people do the things they do’.

Big Brother’s Psychologists

I read today that once more we are going to have the pleasure of the Sunday night BB psy show, with Peter Colett, Geoffrey Beattie, and the infamous Sandra Scott. Well, I have a great deal to say on these commentators (esp. Missy Scott , but it can wait. ;)

Love em, or not, they are returning.

In case you are wondering, I did apply for BB4 (why not huh ?), but clearly I was either too crazy or too saintly for the show (it’s one of those two extremes, I’m not sure which). I guess I should be thankful. I never wanted to be slated by the press anyway. The tabloid headline would surely have been something like ‘Psycho Phil, leaves the asylum after Day 4’. I’m a very homely person, I’ve done the shared housing thing – and it really is not for me. Were someone of my nature to have been in the BB house, it would have got messy, real messy. 

Over the next 3 months I hope to discuss some of the key behaviour observed in the big brother house. I’ll try to keep a balance between mind-numbing dry academia and the tacky pop-psychology which you’ll probably be seeing on your screens each sunday evening.

This year then, you have a psychologist and an astrologer as added columnists for <b>DS:BB.</b> I will understand though if you decide to put more faith in the astrologer’s analysis/predictions, rather than my moody rantings.

Even so, it should be a good ride this coming 9 weeks. Hopefully there will be some surprises (ohh please, we need some surprises !), some great arguments (who really doesn’t want that ?), and some light hearted fun.

Calrissian : Turn on, tune in, and keep watching.


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© 2003 Philip Calrissian
Last Updated : 25/03/04