Voyeurism gone mad or a uniqueresearch opportunity? As TV series Big Brother begins its round-the-clock surveillance of ten British volunteers, Phil Baty talks to Oxford University's Peter Collet, the show's resident psychologist.
Politicians and pundits across Europe have condemned it as the most tawdry and exploitative example yet of voyeuristic television, heralding a new low in the dumbing down of broadcasting. But for Oxford University psychologist Peter Collet, the launch this week of Channel 4's fly-on-the-wall show, Big Brother, is a hugely exciting opportunity in the field of observational psychology.
The show, in which ten volunteers will be confined to a house in East London and filmed 24 hours a day, promises viewers the ultimate voyeur's dream. Unfettered access to the volunteers' most intimate moments has garnered massive audiences in Germany, Spain and Holland, where the programme has already been broadcast.
Cameras will be placed in the bathroom as well as the bedrooms and the results broadcast via a nightly television show and a round-the-clock internet link. Viewers will be invited to vote in a weekly phone poll on which one of two unfortunate members selected by the community of volunteers must be banished from the house. The eventual survivor wins a cash prize of Pounds 70,000.
But for Collet this is a serious show. "They could dumb it down, but they are not doing that," he says. "They see it as a genuine social experiment. They are not only looking for arguments and fisticuffs. In fact, if there are any fisticuffs, the contestants are out."
The key to Collet's excitement is data. While viewers tune in for a daily dose of the trials, tribulations and ablutions of the volunteers, a team of researchers will be logging every move they make to create what promises to become an incredible research tool for generations of psychologists.
Collet, formally commissioned as the show's resident psychologist by TV production company Bazal, has been given access to the "log" and to all the footage. "Potentially this is hugely valuable," he says. "Take the example of people gossiping - it is very difficult for psychologists to record that. This show could deliver remarkable material."
Data from the log, which Collet helped design, can be used to draw broad-brush conclusions about the underlying structures of relationships and behavioural patterns. "Facts such as: there were 34 arguments and 90 per cent were started by X," Collet says.
As the log is designed to flag up highlights in the footage for the nightly television broadcast, the researchers can "piggy-back" on the production team's efforts and use the log as a pointer to the minutiae of every utterance. "That is the delight of the design," he says. "Psychologists are data hungry, we're greedy."
But there are personal as well as professional elements to his enthusiasm. Collet has always been something of an outsider, describing the much more common survey and questionnaire-based research of his colleagues as "sloth psychology". Growing up in Zambia led to early work about cultural influences on human behaviour, studying how different cultures greet each other and how they touch. Work in the 1970s with zoologist Desmond Morris, investigating the origins and distribution of gestures, helped fuel his passion for observation-based psychology, which draws heavily on techniques used by zoologists to study animals -techniques that are rarely applied to human behaviour.
"Desmond and I had a natural affinity academically. I could talk to him about the tiny little signals pedestrians give off to each other to indicate which way they are going to go. He would find this absolutely fascinating. I'd tell my other colleagues and they'd say I was wasting their time."
But the pressures of modern-day academe militate against such observational work. "Nowadays there are huge pressures to publish," Collet says. "You can't spend weeks mulling over ten seconds of interaction and still carve out a career for yourself.
"What we have is 'normal science' - doing stuff that helps careers. I've always been banging this particular gong that says we should get out there, record what people do and find ways of analysing and making sense of our public and social behaviour."
That is what is so exciting about Big Brother, he says. "I hope they archive the material properly so that people will be able to use it as a resource. With six months and an unlimited budget, you could do remarkable things with this data."
But, surely, the presence of cameras and the contestants' knowledge that they are being judged by the viewing public will distort their behaviour? "They are not going to become completely transformed," Collet says. "They are going to be carrying a lot of baggage into this environment regarding the type of people they are and how they interact."
Besides, his experience suggests that people quickly forget about their audience. "Being filmed in the house will not be very different from everyday life," he says. "The features of self-presentation are ever present, whether on television or at a party. I'm not saying they're not exaggerated by the situation, but how well the volunteers adapt will be one of the interesting elements. As a rule people take about two days to adapt, after which they start behaving naturally."
So how does he expect them to behave? Collet will not make any sweeping predictions, but he does envisage a great deal of old-fashioned bitching and back-stabbing. The show, he thinks, could get to the heart of the human condition far better than more cerebral studies. He expects that the show will reveal humans at their most Machiavellian, because the volunteers have to nominate two potential fall-guys for the audience to vote out. "From the volunteers' point of view, the people you want to eliminate are the people who are most likely to beat you (by being more popular with the public)," he explains. "You have to get the other people in the house on your side to nominate the rival for expulsion. The really interesting thing about this series is that they will be recording that process."
In the German series, contestants were allowed breaks from the cameras because it was declared "against the constitution" to subject people to such extreme scrutiny. "The breaks spoil the purity. People can connive unobserved," Collet says.
In the British version "it's going to be complicity writ large", he enthuses. "That's part of the fascination. We live in a world where we assume that the people we like are particularly nice to us and the way in which they behave towards us is the way they behave towards others. It is always a terrible shock to discover that that is not the case. This will undermine popular perceptions and bring us to the truth of the matter - if people are nice to you to your face they are not necessarily nice to you when talking about you to others.
"It's pure game theory. We are basically a cooperative, team-based species. That's what our evolution is about, and by and large our instinct is to get on with each other. But at the same time we are political animals. The combination of these two things creates the spark. That is what is fascinating for a psychologist."
One thing that Collet, a specialist in national and cultural characteristics, also predicts is that British audiences can expect something even more explosive than the Dutch show, which reached a (literal) climax when two of its stars were filmed having sex. "What has struck me with previous work is how similar the English are to the Dutch, except on the dimension of what is called masculinity and femininity. The English are much more masculine, and the Dutch, compared with most other European societies, are quite feminine. They have the virtues of concern, sympathy, kindness that may be lacking in other nationalities. On that basis you would expect the competition to be much more heated in this series than it was in Holland."
The group, Collet says, is not necessarily representative. "I would not have done it. Nor would most people. They would say, 'I'm not having people poking their cameras up my nostrils.' These volunteers have got to be unusual people."
So psychologists cannot take the findings and generalise about humanity at large? "You wouldn't use your drinking mate as the basis for generalising about humankind. But Big Brother will provide some truths about what people are about."