Putting Big Brother to the test

TV theorists say BB is more than mere entertainment - so why didn't it have to conform to the strict ethical guidelines for experiments on humans, ask two pyschologists?

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Topics Culture

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Shouting, screaming, posturing, physical violence and sex, all on live TV…oh, how we miss Big Brother!

Viewer ratings suggest we loved it, but is it acceptable to treat people this way in the name of entertainment? It is often argued that housemates fully understood what they were subjecting themselves to. But now the hype has subsided, perhaps we can consider the issue more clearly and without fear of reprisal (after all, would we honestly have wanted to jeopardise our evening viewing?)

So did the participants really fully understand the potential consequences of participation in Big Brother? Ever since participants were asked to administer electric shocks to fellow participants, albeit simulated (1), and prisoner/guard scenarios were recreated in a controlled environment (2), researchers have been prompted to ask whether it is ethical to deceive, coerce and harm people in the name of science.

We wonder whether BB would conform to the current ethical guidelines (see below for some sample questions from the research ethics committee application form which BB may have difficulty answering). Although it could be argued that obtaining ethical approval for scientific studies is now an overly bureaucratic process (reliant upon excessively long and complex forms (3)), it is still important to ensure participants properly consent to a study and are protected from harm.

Examples of questions posed in NHS central office for research ethics committees (COREC) application form:

  1. What is the scientific justification for the research? Why is this an area of importance?
  2. Will individual or group interviews discuss any topics or issues that might be sensitive, embarrassing or upsetting, or is it possible that criminal or other disclosures requiring action could take place during the study? [Give details of procedures in place to deal with these issues]
  3. What is the potential for pain, discomfort, distress, inconvenience or changes to lifestyle for research participants?
  4. Will informed consent be obtained from the research participants? [Give details of steps to provide information and how consent will be done]
  5. What arrangements are in place to ensure participants receive any information that becomes available during the course of the research that may be relevant to their continued participation?
  6. Will individual participants receive any payments for taking part in this research? [Indicate how much and on what basis this has been decided]
  7. How has the scientific quality of the research been assessed? [peer review process]
  8. Will the research department receive any payment or benefits in excess of the costs of undertaking the research?

The decision to participate in a research study should be based on sufficient information (risks, hazards and benefits) and be made voluntarily. This constitutes ‘informed consent’. The deliberate withholding of critical information without just cause, is deception. The British Psychological Society (BPS) guidelines state deception is unacceptable if ‘it leads to discomfort, anger or objections’ (4). When this year’s BB participants were informed that they had been deceived, indeed they had been secretly observed for a number of days by fellow housemates, several appeared distressed. Furthermore, BPS guidelines state that participants should never be misled without ‘extremely strong scientific or medical justification’.

Similarly, informed consent cannot occur in the presence of coercion. That cultural and religious considerations can influence voluntary decision-making in this context has been previously highlighted (5). Thus, was it not coercion when BB offered to increase the prize money by £15,000 if a vegetarian participant (Michelle) drank a fish milkshake? Some may also consider this to be a breach of human rights. Indeed, offering monetary reward for research participation can compromise the ‘voluntariness’ of informed consent (6). So how did BB justify £70,000 prize money, plus all the extra financial incentives? Scientists are only granted permission to recruit participants for even simple questionnaire studies, once they have fully justified the minimal expenses paid (£5 to £10).

The BPS guidelines also state that ‘payment should not be used to induce [participants] to risk harm beyond that which they risk without payment in their normal lifestyle’. The principle of ‘doing no harm’ means that the mental and physical health of the participant should be put above all other considerations. For medical human experimentation research this is clearly stated in the Declaration of Helsinki (7).

In contrast, BB audience members have expressed the wish to avoid a housemate’s eviction, hoping to observe further emotional outbursts. Emotional abuse, in the form of verbal attacks from fellow housemates, may be inevitable but could result in high stress levels in such an environment and may constitute mental harm.

Similarly, throwing a flip flop at a housemate (as Michelle did to Ahmed this year) could cause physical harm. Should BB (aka the principal investigator) have intervened and taken stronger action? The real question is, ‘Does Big Brother care enough?’ According to BPS guidelines, the amount of acceptable risk that people are subjected to is dependent on whether there is an ‘increased probability that they would come to any sort of harm’. The benchmark is the type and degree of risk encountered by the participant in normal life.

Big Brother also appears to compromise the ethical principle that participants have a right to withdraw from the study at any stage. In a situation where the environment is manipulated in order to provoke a response, the possibility of continually providing information for informed consent is compromised. Thus reaffirming consent during the course of the study is advocated. Indeed, real-world scientists have to make a concerted effort to ensure that consent is and remains ‘real’. We have to reiterate that participants are free to withdraw at any time ‘without giving a reason’.

Yet on many occasions, we have heard BB housemates insist that they want to leave immediately, whereby they are subjected to ‘diary room style’ probing. Usually, the participant is encouraged to remain in the BB house or asked to consider his or her wish further (over a defined period of time). While this may be acceptable to some, for others it is compromising civil rights.

So if Big Brother is a social scientist, he could and, perhaps, should be guided by ethical guidelines. The fundamental issue here is whether the BB concept is social experimentation (as is often portrayed in the media) or mere entertainment? Has the time come for BB to submit an application to an ethics committee?

Some may argue that ethics committees are not the custodians of people’s civil rights. Others would say that where social experimentation occurs over a significant duration of time and is funded by a body with a vested interest, ethical monitoring is required. Although, we must admit, after spending many hours completing the long and complex ethics application forms (rather than watching Big Brother Live), a severe case of sour grapes on our part is highly likely!

Dr Emma J Lawrence is a postdoctoral research psychologist and Dr Maxine Patel is a clinical research fellow in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

Read on:

Big Brother gets therapeutic, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) S Milgram, ‘Behavioral study of obedience’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1963; 67: 371-8

(2) C Haney, C Banks, and P Zimbardo, ‘Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison’, International Journal of Criminology and Penology 1973; 1: 69-97

(3) DS Wald, ‘Bureaucracy of ethics applications’, British Medical Journal 2004;329: 282-4

(4) British Psychological Society Code of Conduct, Ethical Principles and Guidelines 2000

(5) LW Roberts, ‘Informed consent and the capacity for voluntarism’, American Journal of Psychiatry 2000; 159: 705-12

(6) C Grady, ‘Money for research participation: does in jeopardize informed consent?’, American Journal of Bioethics 2001; 1: 40-4

(7) World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki 1964

(8) A Bowling, Research Methods in Health, Buckingham: Open University Press; 2002: p 156-8, 362-3

(9) Central Office for Research Ethics Committees, NHS Research Ethics Committee Application Form, 2004

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Topics Culture


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