Look Out! Look Out! Psychobabble Blue Monday is About! The Most Gullible Day of the Year

Every year I get asked by journalists and producers to comment on ‘Blue Monday’. . .the supposed most depressing day of the year based on a cod-equation. Every year I tell them that it’s just a PR exercise dreamed up by a PR company to promote a travel company to encourage us to cheer ourselves up by ‘booking a holiday’. One factor in the equation includes the longest gap between paydays. . which means ‘blue monday’ always falls in January, since most people are paid earlier in December so they can spend, spend, spend at Christmas.

So isn’t it just a harmless bit of fun? Well apart from bringing the subject of psychology into disrepute and trivializing depression. . . surely it’s just an innocent bit of trivia to fill a few column inches or tag onto the end of a news programme.  I hoping that the story would have gone away by now, but every year it re-appears like a  kind of journalistic herpes!

So why does it matter to me? Well, I was one of the psychologists originally approached , 22 December 2004, by a PR company with a pre-written equation that they were going to ‘validate’ by ‘research’. They wanted a male psychologist as it would carry more weight.  I turned it down explaining that “I don’t support ‘made-up’ psychology”. The PR company, of course, went on to find someone who would put their name to it.

I’m not anti-media and have fronted campaigns for the Learning and Skills Council to promote adult learning.  If I can legitimately bring evidenced-based psychology to the campaign and its a worthwhile message and it isn’t for a company with dodgy values then I’ll consider it.

It’s no point in protesting that ‘Blue Monday’ is anything but a PR stunt. It doesn’t tell the general public anything about evidence-based psychology. It just illustrates how psychology can be mis-used and gives the impression of the psychologist as ‘side-show, snake-oil peddler  (in my opinion).

So there you have it. May I urge you all on ‘Psychobable Blue Monday’ to go out and do something nice for someone else. Pay someone a compliment, give a small gift, or just smile and pass on good cheer. . . but whatever you do. . . don’t feel manipulated to book a holiday! And if you do make sure it’s not with the company peddling the cod-psychology! And always, always be aware of ‘psychological formulae’. There’s a quote from systems expert Checkland who said ‘Life’s too quixotic to be modelled’.


Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

If I have to hear another ‘it’s a throwback to cave people’ explanation to explain gender social roles, I’ll scream. In fact I do! Much to the dismay of people sitting in the same room.  It’s all the worse when it comes from people who should know better. I mean, we expect it from stand-up comedians but here’s an example of a  psychologist who should really know better even though s/he is speaking outside of her/his field of expertise (and appears to make a habit of it). The subject is computer games and gender.

Computer games are ideally suited to men we are informed because. . . wait for it. . .

‘[B]ack when they were cavemen, men had to focus on the animal they were trying to kill. If they were distracted by anything from a woman to their own emotions, they’d miss the target. The real appeal for men is escapism though, because they’re not as evolved to deal with emotions which is why they like games more than us’.

(It’s not clear whether the venerable ‘expert’ means that men like computer games more than they like women, or more than women like computer games. However it is clear that the use of the word ‘us’ clearly shows that the person is not speaking as a psychologist but is giving a personal opinion as a ‘not-man’)

It gets ‘better’. . .

‘Competition is important to men because it let’s them work out who’s “the best”, an instinct going back to the days when they had to prove to the cavewoman that they’d be superior providers for them’.

So where is the evidence for these sagely insights? Now I’m not aware that this particular expert has done any research whatsoever on why people enjoy computer games. The person in question doesn’t look quite old enough to be from Palaeolithic times, so it can’t be from personal experience. As for the evidence of gender roles in cave people, this largely arose from the views of a once male-dominated archaeology who often made the cardinal error of using modern-day Western living as a lens by which to view historical and cultural data. It wasn’t until the 1960s when female archaeologists had the opportunity to question the orthodox, androcentric view that an alternative view began to emerge.   The meat content of  cave people is most likely exaggerated. Some sources suggest that it was about 80% gathering (vegetarian), so those archaeological spear-like, in some instances, could just as well be scraping and digging implements. Meat was more likely a ‘special occasion’ thing which is why it appeared as paintings on cave walls. Meat consumption increased with agriculture. Plenty of sources now agree that there weren’t the super-defined gender roles of the 1950s. It’s certainly ridiculous to assume that ‘cave people’ society was based on lots of little semi-detached caves containing nuclear families with mummy sitting at home making apple sauce on the off chance that daddy comes home with a pig. It makes no sense! The societies were probably more cooperative and egalitarian with everyone ‘mucking in’.

The case for gender differences is massively overstated in popular sources (and a few academic ones). When gender differences are scrutinised in meta-analyses, taking into account confounding factors what invariably results are no differences or relatively small (statistically significant) differences. Although these are often reported as ‘significant’ in popular sources there is often a basic misunderstanding of what the word ‘significant’ means in the context of research. It means that it passes a statistical test. However, this does not necessarily translate into a real-world significance.  Furthermore, the differences that do occur can be diminished or eradicated by training. This suggests strongly that even these small gender differences are determined by social factors. Overall, the body of research on gender demonstrates that there is a greater difference within each gender than between them. It also shows that the similarities between the genders are far greater than their differences.

Whenever, ‘experts’ resort to the ‘cave person’ analogy, this is a substitute for considering the evidence. It’s a smokescreen.  It taps into a commonly held myth and therefore, on the surface, appears to ring true. Now we expect the host of ‘fakexperts‘ to resort to  ‘cavepeople’ analogies because many of them may well not be expert at interpreting research data or know where to find evidence-based resources. However, for the seemingly respectable psychologist, there really is no excuse for this kind of slap-dash, ‘say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head’ kind of laziness.  So the next time you hear cave people and gender used, uncritically, in the same sentence, question the credentials and the motives of the speaker (or writer). The same goes for the ‘Mars-Venus’ analogy. It’s just another smokescreen.

More often than not, the appearance of psychologists in the media are missed opportunities to communicate evidence-based psychology. Invariably,  what we have is not even an apology for psychology but  bull-shit based psychobabble and ‘gossipology’. So often the definition of a ‘celebrity’ psychologist is ‘someone who should know better’. We certainly deserve better!

Recommended Books on Gender:


Down the Back of the Couch: The Problem with Big Brother

Poor George Orwell must be turning in his grave. Two concepts from his dystopian novel 1984, have been mauled and distorted beyond recognition to form two of the naffest TV programmes, namely Room 101 and the interminable Big Brother.

So what’s wrong with Big Brother? Well, for starters, doesn’t it now just stink of desperation as the producers  seek to wring every last bit of advertising revenue from a tired old format that never lived up to its promise? Each season the choice of contestants gets  more bizarre and tasks become more degrading in a attempt to boost the flagging ratings. Isn’t it just all a bit sad that this is what passes for entertainment today? Once billed as a ‘social experiment’, yeah right! It’s a delusion to suggest that this so-called ‘reality TV’ programme tells us anything about human social behaviour in real life, except how people behave in the Big Brother house. That’s it!

If you want to find out about social behaviour then get yourself a social psychology book. It’s all in there. You can real about the Obedience to Authority experiments of Stanley Milgram, the Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo and the inspirational work of Jane Elliot with her Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes experiment. And there’s so much more. A great deal of the material to be found in the humble social psychology book gives us real insight into why we behave in the way we do, how we behave in strange situations and why. Big Brother has added nothing apart from  maybe footnote here and there.  Reality TV has never had anything to do with reality.

So what exactly does Big Brother offer? Well, it tells us that people desperate for celebrity status will do almost anything to achieve it. It also tells us, that programme makers can broadcast people sleeping using night vision cameras some members of the audience will stay up into the early hours in the vain hope that someone will snore or better still ‘let one off’ and startle the other house mates! Oh how we’ll laugh! It’s also the modern day equivalent of Bedlam, where the programme makers create insane situations and people behave insanely.What a surprise.  In the past, a ‘gentleman’ would take a lady out for a nice fish supper then off to the lunatic asylum to laugh at the mad people. What foreplay! Nowadays, you can just order a pizza and stay at home and watch the mayhem from the comfort of your own couch. You can also vote on the fate of the inmates, which is a great way for the producers to get the audience involved and make a lot of money. It’s perhaps a sad indictment that many people are more likely to vote for ‘reality TV’ than they are at elections.

Much has been made of the ‘shrinks‘ who advise on the show stringent psychological screening process for contestants, but let’s have a reality check here. ‘Psychologists’ or ‘counsellors’ or ‘therapists’ (we are never clear which) band together to make sure that the contestants are psychological sound enough to undergo psychological distress. Surely that’s a conflict of interest for any psychologist. Maybe there’s a temptation to let a few borderline cases through to spice up the show a little. Watching the predictable meltdowns each and every year, it’s clear that some vulnerable people do ‘slip through the net’. Maybe, the best qualified shrink associated with Big Brother, is the shrink in ratings.

Now hands up, I confess,  I have been involved with a spin-off of the show, appearing on Big Brother’s Little Brother (many moons ago). It was my first live TV appearance and an amazing learning experience. I was treated very well by all involved on the show. They were all very nice people and a pleasure to work with. The mistake I made was believing that the show wanted any real psychological input. The sad fact is that ‘psychobabble and pseudoscience’ just sound a lot sexier, especially as there’s no issue with making up quirky theories to fit the events. And yes, I have to agree with colleague Petra Boynton that the producers have settled on a motley crew of analysts. I just wouldn’t want to be sitting on the same couch with many of them, much in the way that any reputable trades person would want to be seen to endorsing the kind of cowboys who appear on consumer programme Watchdog.

Occasionally a suitably qualified commentator does some manage to fly in below the  radar and offers some  insightful comments and may even, occasionally,  sneak in a bit of psychology. However, they are in the minority, as a number of regulars are have no qualifications whatsoever, although they claim to be psychologists and one even claims to be a psychiatrist. Now a psychiatrist has a medical degree but having checked the website of this particular BBLB regular all I can find that remote applies to anatomy is the ability to walk in high heels!  I suppose the equivalent is saying you are a surgeon, just because you own a craft knife. The sad thing is that instead of any real psychology getting out there, we get to hear utter drivel. It’s dressed up to sound significant but is more often than not just stating the bleedin’ obvious.

If we think about it, there have been ten seasons of Big Brother with what, 12 people per show (120 in all)? Now this tiny sample is in no way selected to represent the general population, just in the likelihood that the people will ‘kick off’ or ‘crack up’. So, in terms of the psychology of social behaviour in general, it tells us virtually nothing. It doesn’t even tell us very much at all about the people on the inside, except how they cope in a particular season in the Big Brother house. Again, not an every day occurrence and in no way generalizable to the real world.

One spin off show, Big Brother on the Couch, offers the kind of detritus usually found stuck down the back of the couch! We are served mainly crumbs of psychobabble largely from a bunch of phonies and quacks who engage in meaningless discussions about manipulated clashes and disputes in a make-believe house full of self-absorbed people, duped in to believing that this could be their big break, and placed under psychological stress for the amusement of others. What does this say about us? Even George Orwell didn’t dream it would get this bad! Karl Marx once described religion as ‘the opium of the masses’ but perhaps today it’s the cult of reality TV.