Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University

I am excited about the return of Big Brother tonight, as it is an excellent opportunity to observe behavioural manipulation and the lengths to which the great British public will go in order to pursue fame, despite there being very few (other than Jade Goody) who have actually remained famous for any length of time once they leave our screens.

Indeed, just the other day I was watching an interview with Pete Bennett who won Big Brother 5 and is currently homeless and battling drug addiction. I will admit that I encourage all of my students to watch Big Brother as a means of examining why people choose to behave in extreme ways (which they would not ordinarily do) and how, over time their “true” behavioural repertoire and personality come to the fore.

But have we learned anything?

Yes, we have learned that ordinary people will go to extreme lengths to be famous. They don’t care what they have to do, or how foolish they look. Many appear to follow the instructions of Big Brother even if by doing so they are acting immorally, a phenomenon identified by Stanley Milgram as underlying the destructive obedience that emerges in atrocities such as the holocaust.

I am not saying that Big Brother has the same ethos as the Nazis, nor am I saying that Big Brother contestants are likely to commit atrocious crimes against humanity. I am simply making an observation that the obedience elicited from contestants is comparable with Milgram’s early experimental work. There are, however, some contestants who either overstep the mark, or who show signs of psychological trauma within the “game” and my focus is always on how Big Brother will manage such outcomes – to date the responses have been fairly adequate and mostly prior to any serious damage.

What we must all bear in mind is that Big Brother is a TV show for entertainment and psychologists have a great input to the goings on within the show. But we, the viewing public, just want to see real people making fools of themselves. We want to watch relationships grow and break down, and we want to see division and hostility between the contestants. We want to vicariously experience extreme human behaviour, to see the outcomes without any likelihood of personal harm.

Dr Elle Boag is a senior lecturer in Social Psychology here at Birmingham City University. If you’re interested in learning more about understanding behaviour and exploring the mind then our Psychology courses are for you. View our range of courses here.

(Pictured: Glyn Wise & Imogen Thomas, Big Brother 7)

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