Being Happy: Psychology, Champagne and the World of PR

I received a telephone call from a PR company promoting a well-known champagne brand about a campaign they are about to run. Essentially they wanted suggestions for visual images that evoke happiness. These images are going to be used on TV screens in the back of a limousine. The idea being to associate happiness-evoking images with drinking this particular brand of champagne.

Now I routinely offer psychological insights and coaching tips for news stories and magazine features. The rule is that the journalist will have a couple of questions and would take up about 15 minutes of time and they then mention me in a magazine. I’ll do brief radio and television interviews too on a similar basis.  I’m listed on the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) media-friendly psychologist list. Most of the time I am. The main rule is that it has to be an opportunity to offer real psychology not gimmicks and syndromes made up by editors and producers.

So back to the ‘champagne campaign’. In this case it’s just a PR company taking liberties. I ask if they would like to consult with me on the project. She says ‘No we just want some suggestions’. I reply ‘I’m sure you do’ explain the ‘quotes for credit rule’ and then asked  bluntly ‘What do I get out of this?’ I was told that they would mention my name on the screen in the back of a limo. I politely declined as it sounded too much like advertising without the scope to inject any evidence-based psychology. I told her I would have to pass on this one. However she continued ‘Well we don’t have to credit you. We just want your suggestions’. Clearly, she was not getting the point. I asked if the PR company randomly telephones other professionals for free advice. I didn’t get a response to that one.

Now I’m assuming that the PR company will be paid handsomely for its services. I assume the person wasting my time on the phone was also being paid, so why is it acceptable to expect me to give up my time for nothing? If it had been for a charity or something of public value then I wouldn’t have even quibbled. The issue is how in PR companies’ eyes, the psychologist skill-set and expertise has become so devalued. Unfortunately this is in part down to some hack-psychologists who’ll comment on just about anything.

Back to the story. Aside from the waste of my time there is a more serious issue here. Essentially, the psychologist who will eventually agree to help with this campaign will be sending out the message that ‘drinking expensive champagne in the back of a limo’ will make you happy. I wouldn’t promote alcohol as a substitute for psychological well-being. Champagne does not make people happy. It temporarily alters mood as does all alcohol, but that is not happiness, no matter how prettily you wrap it up.

If nothing else, it has given me the opportunity to offer suggestions for what will make you happy, check out the following posts.

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Should the British Psychological Society’s Blogpost Read Like a Lads’ Mag?

I was shocked to see a post on The British Psychological Society‘s Research Digest Blog Post and as a member I have complained. The post claims to offer ‘evidence-based’ instructions, but appears more as a list of sexist, blokey tips that might you’re more likely to see in a very old magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. One might easily miss the links to research on account of the arcane language. I know I did on first reading.

However, what one cannot miss is the heteronormative bias and generalizations about what men and woman do and prefer. Which men? Which woman? The answer is ‘lady’ women and ‘gentle men’. The language used in the post sounds like something from the 1950s, not from a professional body. I appreciate the importance of communicating psychological insights to a lay audience. However I do not expect it to read like an article from a lad’s mag! The post concludes with: “Apologies for male, heterosexual bias”. Should a blog on the BPS’s official site, be offering a biased article that waves aside diversity with an apology.  I cannot imagine an article ending with ‘apologies for the racial bias’. Don’t apologise, just don’t do it! It simply is not what a professional organization should be doing. It’s clear the author needs a lesson in appropriate terminology (that is, 21st Century) and a lesson in diversity before being let loose as the friendly face of The British Psychological Society for relationship issues.

Read the blog post and form your own conclusions:

http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2010/02/evidence-based-tips-for-valentines.html

Vegetarians Don’t Eat Meat and Proper Psychologists Don’t Gossip About Celebrities!

To many non-vegetarians the concept of what constitutes meat is a bit of a grey area.  Many moons ago, not long after becoming a vegetarian I visited a friend’s house. His ever-hospitable mother offered me a ‘lovely chicken sandwich’ and I had to tell her that I no longer ate meat. Unperturbed, she offered corned beef on the assumption, I guess, that I could just focus on the corn. After I respectfully declined that I was offered wafer thin smoked turkey. Presumably the thinness and the smoking process eliminated the meatiness. We eventually settled on a cheese sandwich which she dressed with a little salad on the side and some crisps (potato chips). . . roast chicken flavour. Ironically, they are one of the flavours that actually don’t contain meat. However, I’m not sure that she knew that.

Ultimately I suppose the meat non-meat thing is a values clash. I remember watching a discussion on a chat show talking about vegetarians. A meat-eater stood up and said ‘How dare vegetarians force their values on their children’. It hadn’t occurred to him that meat-eaters do exactly this!

So what’s all of this got to do with celebrities. Well, as a psychologist I’m often called upon to offer some insight on media stories, whether news stories or general discussions on social issues. Over the past couple of weeks, surprise, surprise, I’ve had a lot of calls to discuss ‘infidelity’. When I ask, what’s inspired the story (as if I don’t know), of course, it’s the alleged extra marital affairs of a well-known sporting personality.  .  . okay you know it’s Tiger Woods so I may as well type it.  Now I tell them that I don’t talk about celebrities lives as it’s unethical.  I don’t know what’s going on in the minds of celebrities and neither do the two-bit hacks who cough up pithy insights for self-aggrandisement. My refusal comes as a shock, even for the producers I routinely work with. It’s become so normal to gossip about celebrities that it’s difficult to get the point across! Psychologists should not be gossiping and speculating on the inners workings of people’s minds! If they are clients then it’s confidential, and if they are not clients then they have no insight anyway. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with fellow psychologist Dr Petra Boynton who shares my view and endures the same nonsense. Basically it brings the name of psychology into disrepute and it’s against the British Psychological Society (BPS) guidelines. Programme producers will complain ‘Well Dr ‘Pops-up-a-lot’ discusses celebrities all the time. I reply ‘Yes I know ‘it’ does and being a member of the BPS ‘it’ should no know better’! What invariably follows are a series of ‘what ifs’ of the ‘wafer thin smoked turkey, corned beef’ variety. Each time I decline until they run out menu choices. If it’s got celebrity in it. . I’m not going to bite, get it? They only time I make an exception is when everyone jumps on the bandwagon and bullies a celebrity, as in the over-night fame of Susan Boyle and subsequent press intrusion and ‘expert’ (fakexpert) speculation. . . even then it’s only to counter the BS.

I’ve read of so-called reputable psychologists (read ‘gossipologists’) offering mental health diagnoses of celebrities. I’ve also seem them discussing the mental states of celebrities’ young children. Nothing they say is ever meaningful and it’s certainly unethical. It’s gossip, plain and simple! The fact that someone has a degree in psychology or a PhD in ‘the social impact of jogger’s nipple’ does not mean they have any valid insight into the mental state or deepest motivations of any celebrity.

Psychologists should abide by a common set of values that shouldn’t be prostituted for a one-liner in ‘Celebrity Life’ magazine. Surely these values should be higher than picking over the bones of skeletons in celebrities’ closets. Where juicy, meaty titbits of gossip are concerned, shouldn’t psychologists be ‘vegetarian’?

Links:

Celebrity Body Language

Therapists Boasting of  Celebrity Clients

Can only an expert deal with a problem?

According to a man I worked with in a former life, in an insurance company,  the definition of an expert is:

  • ‘X’ is the unknown quantity, and
  • A ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure

Oh how we laughed. . . the first time! No so, for what seemed like the million repeats.

Repetition is at the heart Laurie Anderson’s song ‘Only an expert can deal with a problem’. So I guess an expert may just be someone who spends a lifetime saying the same things over and over again. When a bit of research was carried out on Oprah viewers, one of most popular definitions of ‘expert’ was ‘some one who has written a book’. This didn’t necessarily mean a well-researched, evidence-based book, but more a personal account of  their problems.

It’s also worth pointing out that when we see or hear an expert on TV or in the media that the selection process is not so stringent as one might think. I once asked a radio producer why he favoured one particular self-appointed media analysist (with a religious emphasis) over the official regulating bodies such as Ofcom or the BBFC? The answer came: because they are easier to get hold off and more willing to talk on local radio. So the expert may not be the best one for the job,  just the closest and most amenable.

(There’s also a lot of truth in Anderson’s song, that only an expert knows how to create a problem too).

Evidence-based psychology has so much to say about the human endeavour but is often not see so ‘sexy’ as pop psychology and ‘experts’ without any ethical code, who can say and do just about anything that makes good TV. It’s wise to be wary of ‘experts’  (X-spurts) who invent syndromes that can be cured by buying a particular product, or experts that claim that they can ‘reprogram’ your mind. Also, beware of experts who claim they can read a celebrities mind just be looking an an intrusive pap-snap. They can’t. Body language needs to be viewed in context and if they are a member of The British Psychological Society (BPS), they are not supposed to be doing it anyway.

Each of us has the answers to our own problems, and it sometimes need a qualified professional to provide the strategies to draw those solutions out of us.  If you decide you need an expert to assist you, make sure you check out their credentials. Do they actually have any qualifications? Where did they get them? If someone has a PhD from some obscure, Internet-based organization, it might not be worth a damn. For instance, in Britain, all PhD theses have to be filed with The British Library. However, that is only from accredited Universities. Also, beware of how experts refer to themselves. A qualification in NLP or hypnotherapy no more entitles them to call them psychologists as owning a steak knife entitles anyone to call themselves a surgeon. (There’s little or no evidence that NLP lives up to the bold claims of it’s more enthusiastic practitioners).

The upshot is, if you need an expert to help you solve your problems, make sure your experts have the qualifications, the tools and the skills for the job, not that they are just the first in the phone book or the closest to you. Don’t be afraid to check them out and ask questions. If you don’t get satisfactory answers, then move on!

Here’s a video of Laurie Anderson performing the hypnotic ‘Only An Expert’ (sung in English with French subtitles):