TV psychologists. When experts become celebs.

17 Mar

Lucy ponders whether TV psychologists are the kind of experts we want to inform policy.

Lucy Jackson

We’ve seen celebrity gardeners, chefs and even dance studio managers reach the staggering heights of the C-list, but the TV psychologist has yet to follow the same career trajectory. The psychologist’s TV appearance is often presented as that of an ‘expert’, in contrast to the ‘celebrity’, who is often synonymous with ‘amateur’.

It was announced this week that Big Brother psychologist Professor Tanya Byron will be part of a review group to advise Labour on its schools policy, which aims to rectify the inequality it currently recognises in the education system. The idea is that all children may be equipped with ‘the knowledge and skills they need to get on in the modern world.’ Marvellous. Very worthy.

The selling point for Professor Byron’s involvement in this review is her Big Brother credentials. Surely her contribution to Big Brother was to provide a ‘now for the science’ moment, for narrative effect? Having watched the way housemate relationship dynamics were broken down into tiny segments, taken out of context and subjected to lazy manipulation – can we really classify this as “expert”? Are we so used to seeing celebrities become famous for an inability (to cope/behave/keep ‘that tape’ under wraps) that any ounce of capability is deemed genius?

Or is it a marked decision by these psychologists to reject the cultural capital of celebrity? Is the very nature of ‘celebrity’ something that those in the field of psychology shy away from due to disconcerting research findings? A study by Maltby et al (2001) utilising the Celebrity Worship Scale (CWS) found higher levels of depression and anxiety among those classified in the ‘intense-personal celebrity worship’ category. Reported feelings of empathy towards the celebrity, who is also the source of worship, and feelings of social dissatisfaction at one’s own life are common within this CWS dimension.

Admittedly, linking depression, anxiety and general social dysfunction to celebrity obsession is hardly going to get magazines flying off the shelves. However, Heat magazine does feature Judi James’ body language expertise in order to provide “insightful investigation” into papped celebs, but obviously this visual critique only works to justify their invasive journalistic style – which in turn breeds the celebrity obsession.

I found it interesting that the term ‘celebrity worship scale’ was misinterpreted by journalists, who took CWS to be an acronym for Celebrity Worship Syndrome. This locates feelings of social dissatisfaction as innate to the reader, with no implications for cause located within the celebrity entrenched reporting.  This is heightened in the context of Big Brother, where Channel 4 itself was seen as the guardian of its contestant in their assertion that careful prior psychometric testing has ensured all housemates are fit to participate alongside the ongoing monitoring of psychologists.

The British Psychological Society guidelines demand that psychologists “hold the interest and welfare of those in receipt of their services to be paramount at all times and ensure that the interests of participants in research are safeguarded”. In the current climate of reality television (did you see Tool Academy?!) this has proved difficult. Big Brother always relished its controversial standing, with housemates performing tasks loosely based on Milgram’s notorious prisoner/prison warden experiment, which psychologists themselves would not replicate due to the potentially damaging consequences. Is the context of reality television in which ‘they put themselves up for it so we can tear them down’ so ingrained in this culture that the rules for the real world no longer apply in telly land?

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