The latest series of the ‘reality’ television show ‘Big Brother’ is currently underway within the United Kingdom. Both the format and world-wide popularity of such voyeuristic entertainment mirrors the huge variety of streaming webcams available on the internet.
Somewhat hypocritically then, many of those who enjoy watching others go about their day-to-day lives are keenly concerned about their own privacy, as evident from controversy surrounding the blurring of public and private by recent advances in mapping technology. Together with privacy worries over the increasingly sophisticated use of computerised tracking and profiling of the general public, this reflects a general concern over the perceived rise of a surveillance society.
This ‘doublethink’ has recently been ironically highlighted by consternation over the development of a device that enables a television set to ‘see’ those viewing it, thereby being able to monitor them for audience profiling purposes, and so transforming the watchers into the watchees.
From a social psychology perspective, the ‘Big Brother’ TV programme format is interesting as it is a ‘popular psychology’ take on observational studies of intra-group processes examining phenomena such as successful team formation.
Consequently, the debate over the morality of watching and being watched, and the distinction between public and private, is similarly relevant to academic research design.
If, as with the ‘Big Brother’ house-mates, participants are aware that they are being observed, then there is a risk that their behaviour will be subject to demand characteristics, and so become an ‘unnatural’ performance. Whilst covertly observing unaware participants may therefore result in more accurate findings, however, this can clearly result in studies taking place that are ethically dubious.
Channel 4 ‘Big Brother’ Website
Wittenbaum, G. M. & Moreland, R. L. (2008). Small-Group Research in Social Psychology: Topics and Trends over Time
Strohmetz, D. B. (2008). Research Artifacts and the Social Psychology of Psychological Experiments
Sunar, D. (2009). Suggestions for a New Integration in the Psychology of Morality