Psychology and the Material World

We live in material times even more so than when Madonna sang her eponymous hit song ‘Material Girl’ in the 80’s  Now, with the growth and ever increasing sophistication of new technology, it seems all our most complex processes and personal aspects are fair game for someone making money.  Parenting, sex, relationships, death, mental health are but a few examples of such complex processes.  

In a way I blame my own profession as much as anything else. After all, ever since 1969 when the phrase ‘giving psychology away’ came into vogue following the use of this term by George A. Miller in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association there have been issues.  For many years Psychologists have ‘given away’ psychology as a means to de-mystifying their profession in order to be more transparent and accessible and also as a means of skilling-up lay people.  The problem is that in doing so they may have gone too far in simplifying the subject and led non-psychologists to believe that they only have to read a few psychology-based books or on-line pieces and they’re ready to apply it any way they wish, with no safeguards and the main motivation is nearly always making money. In the case of the ‘Love Island’ reality show I understand that ITV earns over £80,000,000 a year from its trading of the psychological material of young people’s identity, emotions and relationships. It’s all very well but giving away psychology to people who operate without any  overt code of practice or ethical standards, let alone training, regulation or supervision has, sadly, been a huge part of the tidal wave of self-professed experts, more often than not celebrities, business, especially marketing people, politicians and/or journalists. 

A couple of days ago two things happened that made me think and triggered this post: Firstly I read my copy of the Psychologist, the official monthly publication of The British Psychological Society, which is read by more than 50,000 Society members as well as non-members in print and also on-line. The Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa, a non-psychologist with organisational/executive management experience wrote in his regular column about a recent practical application of psychological understanding, that of the BPS Media Ethics Advisory Group’s new Guidelines for production companies and television producers*.

I knew a lot about this guidance document as I had actually contributed during the long process of its production from my own experience as a professional psychologist working with television and film productions. Sarb Bajwa referred to the recent tragedies associated with reality TV productions: ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’ and ‘Love Island’ and wrote:

“Human Interest stories have been popular since long before reality television, but the format has grown in an era when we also have a far more developed understanding of mental health, and how exposure to the court of public opinion can affect people, particularly when they are not sufficiently briefed, and not given appropriate care from companies which earn a significant amount of money from their appearances.”

The second incident was when I was driving and happened to tune in to a BBC Radio 4 ‘You and Yours’ phone-in about reality TV and the dangers highlighted by the suicides of participants in the programmes I mentioned earlier. Although I am no longer actively involved in the BPS Media and Ethis advisory group I was keen to make sure that their guidance be acknowledged during the show so I pulled over and called the number given for listeners to call in. I duly gave the the telephone operator the details, explained I couldn’t actually speak on air at that time and continued on my journey, listening to the various contributions from listeners, an ‘expert’ psychologist who runs her own television and media consultancy and of course, the programme’s presenter, whose questions seemed to be mainly about the reasons reality TV appealed to and/or abhored viewers. The listeners seemed to be fairly evenly divided between those who saw it as entertaining fair game for anyone wanting that kind of personal exposure and those who were censorious, considering that it appealed to and promoted the worst kinds of behaviour. The anti-reality TV folk were clear that it was not for them, either as a viewer or participant. The expert psychologist was obviously supportive of the programmes but with the proviso that expert psychologists were involved as a means of fulfilling some kind of duty of care. However, she bemoaned the fact that few productions gave psychologists any kind of editorial control.

Returning to George A. Miller’s presidential address of 1969, his closing words make salutary reading saying that he could imagine nothing “that would be more relevant to human welfare, and nothing that could pose a greater challenge to the next generation of psychologists, than to discover how best to give psychology away.”

I am probably a few steps removed from his “next generation” but I would say that my profession has worked hard to give a lot of psychology away and there have obviously been some great benefits but we have a long way to go in communicating what every applied psychologist learns about the need for careful timing, the complexity of real life human psychology and the need for safeguarding measures that are ethical and not driven by financial gain.

*Download a copy of Psychology and Media Productions: Guidance for Commissioners and Producers

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