A Place on The Great Bull – My Crowning Achievement?

Pic: Dr Gary Wood on Big Brother's Little BrotherWhen stand-up comedian, James Cook, sent me a Facebook message that read ‘I think we may have something in common’. I was intrigued. I’d attended James’s Stand-Up comedy course, partly as a bit of research for some courses I was writing about confidence and partly to see if I could stand up and make people laugh. Anyway I digress. I’d kind of assumed that we already had quite a lot in common – apparently not –  so what new revelation might ‘a click of the mouse’ hold?

The Great Bull Map of Birmingham 'Celebrity'

The Great Bull – The Crowning Achievement of Dr Gary Wood

It was a link to the ‘Birmingham it’s not sh*t’ website. This looks promising, I thought. (Not!)

The post entitled The Great Bull mirrors The Great Bear, where celebrities’ names instead of stations are on the London Underground map. This new version does the same for Birmingham. I quickly found James Cook on the map – he was the stop before Stewart Lee. A well deserved accolade. However, I could not see how this meant that we had something (more) in common. Much to my surprise, I did find my name over at ‘the rough end’ on the Reality TV line. I’m so pleased that those appearances on Big Brother’s Little Brother and Trisha  (as a life coach) paid off over my long, hard years of study. However, curiously, I’m flattered. I suppose it’s better than being on there for being a serial killer.

Whereas James Cook is over on the Tony Hancock end (with Lenny Henry), I’m on the Robert Kilroy-Silk end along with Enoch Powell and Bill Oddie. Although over on my side we have William Shakespeare and Bob Carolgees. Being on the Reality TV route I suppose I must clutch at straws.

This bit of nonsense and whimsy has made me think of the importance of ‘just doing something’. Everyone who knows me knows that I take any opportunity to encourage people to continue learning. I also constantly seek out new learning opportunities and new challenges, particular when they scare me. I often make the point:

We live and we learn!

Life will teach you lessons whether you like it or not.

So, why not set your own agenda?

I like to take control of some of my own agenda for my learning. Setting learning goals that stretch us contributes to happiness and builds confidence and esteem. I often say that it doesn’t matter what you learn as long as you actively continue to do so. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a stand-up comedy course but I can heartily recommend it. You might want to learn a different language, learn to play a musical instrument, learn to bake or tap dance or polish up on computer skills or wood whittling. It doesn’t matter that none of these may not gain you a ‘prestigious’ place on the map of your city. It will, however, transform your own internal landscape. Never underestimate the power and knock on effect of learning something new. Don’t let others put you off. Just do something for you. Learning something new. Yes that’s my feedle attempt to get off Reality TV and on to William Shakespeare line. Yes I have a long way to go, but trying will be fun.

Links:

Advertisements

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

Celebrity Schadenfreude. I’m a TV Viewer. . . Get Me Out Of Here!

ITV’s ‘I’m a Celebrity. . .Get Me Out Of Here’ is, mercilessly, the shortest of the reality TV formats, being over in three-weeks. However it’s showing all the signs of its wearied sibling (Big Brother). At first it was all about ‘the jungle’ but with each season, the so-called bush-tucker trials become increasingly further removed from ‘the real world’. What started off as fun show has now become grotesquely masochistic. . .with contestants willing to do almost anything ‘for the team’. Of course, they are all paid handsomely to brave all and resurrect their careers.  Much has been written about bullying on reality TV but what of the people the other side of the camera. – the viewers? In Great British tradition we rejoice in celebrity denigration. We put them on their pedestals and when we decide that they are getting ‘too big for their boots’ we delight in bringing them back to earth. However the bush tucker trials have become nothing more than ritual humiliation. And the public are happy to pay to vote in the hope that their least favourite celebrity is covered in slime, fish guts, locked in a coffin, shat on by rats and nosh down on raw animal genitals. This year the ‘honour’ falls on Katie Price (a.k.a Jordan) for four trials in a row. The Great British public has voted.

Not a stranger to the media spotlight, Price is on record as saying she is returning to the jungle to get away from it all. . .in front of ten cameras, 24 hours a day.  The public have now voted for her to undertake four bush tucker trials in succession and her fear of water induced a panic attack on one trial that seemed genuine enough. And yet the next night, she’s the celebrity in a bottle and the night after voted to dip her face in worms , get bitten by ants and retch after taking a sip of some loathsome cocktail of insects. There’s no doubt that Katie Price is an expert media player. It’s possible that she’s re-entered the jungle (after six years) as a PR exercise and in response to the handsome fee that the producers are paying her to rescue this sorry programme from its death throes. But what of the mob mentality these shows instil? Is it not just a kind of remote-controlled bullying? You pay your money and you watch you celebrity squirm, from the comfort of your own home.

What is reality TV really saying about real life? What does it say about us? TV schedules are swamped with this kind of ‘bedlam’ TV. They are the most popular programmes on TV. Is it just harmless fun or aren’t we just over-dosing on Schadenfreude? Is our pleasure in the misfortune of others becoming our greatest pleasure in life?

Links:

Britain’s Got Some Thinking To Do

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

The Soundtrack of Our Lives and Why We Grieve For People We Have Never Met

As music sales of Michael Jackson‘s music soar following his untimely death (25/06/09) at the age of 50,  I was asked by various radio programmes to comment on why celebrity death affects us the way it does. Why do people leave tributes or rush out to buy CDs? Other media requests have been about Michael Jacksons private life or mental state, which it is unethical for me, as a psychologist, to comment on. However, this is about how it affects our emotions and our mental states.

Emotions and Memories
Music
has a powerful affect on our emotions. We talk about our favourite songs as being ‘the soundtrack to our lives‘.  Some songs evoke happy memories and others help nurse us through heartbreak, such as the break up of a relationship or the loss of a loved one. Couples have ‘our song’, favourite songs are played at weddings and funerals.  We connect with music on a primal level so that we can use it to change our emotions too. Sometimes it just makes us want to dance.

Identity and Relationships
Some  radio presenters have commented that in the case of Michael Jackson, he had followed Jackson’s career and grown up with his music so felt it was like they had lost an old friend.  This is indeed true for many people who usually get really interested in music around puberty. Becoming a fan is also a low-threat way of exploring  emotional connections in virtual relationships. We find out about this person through their music and interviews and assess what we have in common and what we identify with. It is about making important another person in our lives. Music taste and allegiance to particular performers becomes part of personal identity, especially as many artists have very distinct style, such as Michael Jackson, Marilyn Manson, Madonna and so on. Some music can be described as ‘values driven‘, certainly in the case of Marilyn Manson.  The same probably applies to Michael Jackson, for many people. So often, music is not just about what we enjoy to listen to, it is a statement of who we are. Being a fan and enjoying music establishes a common ground for meeting other like-minded souls.

Living Vicariously
With the cult of celebrity and indeed our near obsession with reality TV, it has never been easier to live vicariously through the lives of others. Why bother doing anything ourselves when we can avidly consume the glories, trials, tribulations and mistakes of others?

Some fans are feel devastated at the death of their idol simply because the focus of their own lives has been to follow the life of another. Often people take personally any sleight against their idol and rigorously defend them, in much the same way as people follow sports teams in an almost religious way. The idol (or team) is something we care passionately about. It becomes an achievement in itself to be the best fan one can be. People often refer to themselves as someone’s ‘Number One Fan‘. Thus an idolised person dies, it takes away a life’s focus, leaving the avid fan feeling very empty. However, it’s not just the avid fan who is affected.

Intimations of Mortality
The sudden death of someone famous also strikes a chord for people who are not avid fans. There are undoubtedly people affected across the world in their 40s and 50s who are thinking about their own mortality and probably reviewing what they have achieved in their own lives. ‘It was such a shock, it just goes to show it can happen to anyone, it could happen at any time, it could happen to me’.

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity. . .
Although not strictly true, some forms of publicity can damage a career, there is no doubt that when some of the calibre of Michael Jackson dies, suddenly and prematurely, it is bound to generate an enormous amount of publicity, as indeed it has. Every news channel has led with the story, it has been the headline on front page of every newspaper (across the world), Jackson songs have dominated radio play lists, TV stations have hastily created tribute programmes and in some cases have even suspended normal programming. Music stores have been playing Jackson music and created displays front of store. Online stores have created dedications on homepages and linked to back catalogue. It would be impossible to calculate the value of this free publicity, so of course sales have increased. It would be surprising if they hadn’t. It’s also interesting that prior to his death, Michael Jackson CDs were often seen in sales promotions, and now the prices have increased following the demand. Never underestimate the will of some people to exploit a tragedy (although not on the same scale), just as we saw people selling postcards at Ground Zero (after (11/09/01), so we see hastily printed tee-shirts being hawked outside places of tribute for Michael Jackson. There’s no business like show business, and the show must go on, another day another dollar.

Buying Into The Moment
When faced with a shock or a sense of helplessness we often feel that ‘we should do something’. We see people creating makeshift tributes at the side of the road when total strangers are killed in accidents. It just seems the right thing to do.There’s also the, almost superstitious, thing of showing respect at death so we don’t jinx our own lives, and because maybe that’s what you would want people to do for you. We all want to be remembered, that’s why we make the effort to remember others, in times such as these, even strangers.

When a famous person dies, we may feel like we want to acknowledge the part they have played in our lives. We may be near to a tribute site and so may just want to talk with other people. Fans go because that’s what fans are supposed to do, especially number one fans. Some go along because they caught up in the oceanic feeling and the spirit of the moment. It just feels like the right thing to do. Others maybe turn up that they recognise the significance of the event (as with Princess Diana) and just want to be a part of a history. Yet others just hope that they’ll get on TV.

The death of a major music artist also causes us to review their body of work basically because we have no choice but to listen to it again. We say the same thing happen with Elvis Presley and John Lennon, although probably not on the same scale as Jackson. But then again, communication technologies are more advanced now. Following an artist’s death, we rediscover favourites or realize that we never did buy that classic album, and make an emotional purchase. This is often fuelled by panic buying off the back of the publicity.  So, the CDs lying in the rack only a few days ago, now seem more significant, more rare. They may sell out. It’s now or never. There’s also the fact that buying a CD or downloading at this time helps to create history, as the charts are dominated by Michael Jackson music. With downloading it’s easy to pick and choose favourite songs and you don’t have to leave home to buy into the moment, and relive the memories that those songs evoke.

Pause For Thought
The sudden and premature death of a famous person should also give us pause for thought so that we ask the important questions in life:

How will I be remembered? What  contribution have I made? Have I made the most of my talents? And, perhaps, most importantly, do I let the significant people in my life know what they mean to me?

Finally, if you had to compile a soundtrack of your life, right now, what would it be? What would you like it to be?

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.

Links:

Has Britain Got a Talent for Spite?

Following the aftermath of the Britain’s Got Talent final, I’ve been asked for quotes and analyses of the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon, with the news that she is suffering from exhaustion and allegedly being assessed until the Mental Health Act. Given that one  in four of us will suffer some form of mental health problem, it’s important to put it all into context. An assessment is different from a diagnosis.

I’ve been asked if I thought Susan Boyle’s behaviour was ‘weird’ after the result. Reporters and presenters have commented that she didn’t make eye contact with Ant and Dec and even showed her leg, which apparently was disturbing. Had it been a 28 year old showing a leg, I doubt whether the same comments would be made. Again, let’s put it into context. Looking at the footage, we can see that she smiled and applauded Diversity, and was very gracious. As for her ‘strange behaviour’. It’s important to acknowledge that she has had little or no media training. Ant and Dec make it look effortless but they have been in the spotlight for nigh on 20 years. Again, it seems that the body language brigade and spouting its usual bullshit. Susan’s Boyle’s body language was not different from most people in her situation. And as for the wiggling and leg flashing, well wasn’t that intended as a bit of fun? Do we all do strange things in strange circumstances? Also, reports of her back stage tantrum have more than likely been greatly exaggerated. Even a seasoned professional would not be a model of composure given the same amount of pressure.

It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions and interpret any behaviour as symptoms of ‘mental illness’ once you’ve made up your mind that someone is mad! There’s a classic 1970s study where researchers went undercover and pretended to have mental health problems, and made notes throughout their assessment. The only people who realised they were faking it were the real patients. One of the interesting outcomes was that the phrase ‘patient engages in writing behaviour’. So, the field notes had become a symptom!

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Susan Boyle phenomenon was the run up the final with news reports of her verbally abusing strangers in the hotel lobby at which she was staying. But although they were strange, they weren’t strangers. They were journalists deliberating goading Susan Boyle to lose her temper so they could get a story and spoil her chances in the competition. It seems that sometimes, Britain has a talent for spite. I lose count of the vile text jokes I’ve seen and cruel cartoons. Let’s again put this into context. She entered a talent contest, she’s not war criminal! I think it’s sad that we can’t just be happy that someone is enjoying success.

The question has also been raised as to if Susan Boyle has been looked after properly by the producers of the show. The answer is a qualified no. But who could have predicted the reaction to the original audition with an unprecedented number of hits on YouTube in such a short space of time? Also, we have to recognise that all reality TV is basically exploitative. However, hopefully she will be looked after and supported and given the coaching and training she needs to deal with the media spotlight, as well as carry on with her new career.

I wish her every sucess and I know the well-wishers outnumber the ‘haters’ because although her story has shed a light on the more unseemly side of the British psyche, it also represents what none of us can live without: Hope!

Big Brother’s Job Centre Easter Egg Hunt!

I suspect I’m not the only one who is disgusted by the Easter egg hunt at the JobCentre Plus contractor Skills Training Centre UK (STC)  in Southwark, South London. More than 150 unemployed people have been invited to look for 35 chocolate eggs hidden in the STC offices. Prizes include payment for a licence to work on building sites, vouchers to buy clothes for interview, and the chance to become a security guard.

However, I doubt whether anyone who has been in a job centre will be that surprised. The last time I had to use the service I was sent on a course run by some  private training company to update my CV and show me how to use the phone, and lick a stamp! The best advice I got was to lie on my CV! I was told to ‘play down’ my qualifications as I was likely to put employers off!

And now we have this so called fun and innovative approach to job seeking. It’s  nothing of the sort. It sounds as if some bright spark devoid of any imagination, creativity or respect for human dignity has spent too long watching the reality TV programme Big Brother.  It begs the question of what happens next year, chicken costumes or maybe eating worms or maybe selling a few tickets to have an audience to complete the humiliation? Unemployment can have a devastating effect on self-confidence and self-esteem and I’m hard pressed to see how humiliating people is going to help with this.

It’s all the more worrying the the organiser of this fiasco Catrina Lynch does see there’s a problem with the approach and some jobsworth at the Department for Work and Pensions has said: ‘We encourage providers to develop innovative ways of addressing unemployment. The most important thing is to find ways to get people back into work.’

Clearly, there should be an Easter egg hunt for the idiots who think this is a good way to treat human beings. We could have “choccie-woccie eggy-weggies”  filled with invitations to training courses on ‘how to treat people’ or better still containing their P45s! Maybe this would put these ‘people’ back in touch with values of respect, compassion and professionalism.