Married at First Sight, Channel 4’s “social experiment” reality show which asks whether “science can help to create a successful relationship and if the act of marriage itself helps create a psychological bond that leads to true and enduring love” is about to air in the UK.
Like its sister shows in Denmark, the US and Australia, it’s the latest in a series of reality television programmes to use the format of arranged marriage to place lovelorn singles in hothouse situations for our entertainment.
But this time, instead of simply being offered romantic suspense, emotional stress and gendered humiliation, we’re being asked to view this as a legitimate social experiment. This is scientific research – and the show’s producers have hired relationship experts to oversee and legitimise it.
For each series, the relationship experts match up heterosexual couples using various forms of psychological and neurological testing – basing their selection on their personal and social history. The couples they match will marry, go on honeymoon and move in together while being recorded continuously – with the option of deciding to separate if they change their minds within five weeks. The television channel recently announced some of the volunteers who will shortly be getting married.
Entertainment guinea pigs
Channel 4’s experiment is one that would be highly unlikely to pass muster with any human research ethics committee.
The experts, who gather data from participants to match couples and then interpret their ongoing interactions, come from a variety of disciplines including evolutionary anthropology, neuroscience, psychotherapy and clinical psychology. All of these are professions that require members to uphold standards of human research ethics that include preventing social and psychological harm and avoiding conflicts of interest.
But as per the formula of most reality television, participants are deliberately stressed and exposed, with the data gathered by each researcher publicly interpreted for our entertainment. There is a conflict of interest between the needs of the show’s producers for the largest audience possible and the needs of the participants to be protected from psychological harm.
There is also a conflict of interest between the role of each expert as scientist, consultant, and television performer.
While the contestants will have undoubtedly signed detailed consent forms, this in no way overrides the experts’ own professional obligations to conduct research that complies with the ethical guidelines set for their industries. That’s what guidelines for ethical research practice are there for; to protect participants from voluntarily consenting to experiments that may prove to be harmful.
Harm can be done
There’s no question that the social and psychological sciences have made significant contributions to both violations of ethical research practice and general human misery. Among several humanitarian crimes, anthropologists have worked for natural resource industries against the interests of first peoples. Psychologists have participated in so-called conversion therapy and the design and implementation of torture.
In the case of reality television, because it’s marketed as “light entertainment”, sometimes masked as social experimentation to give it an air of credibility, we can be persuaded to see it as a matter for ethical debate rather than professional sanction.
Professor Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist known for the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment in the early 1970s and past president of the American Psychological Association, has had significant input in the design of reality television programme the Human Zoo. According to Zimbardo, shows such as Survivor, where contestants are marooned on an island and have to feed and shelter themselves while competing in challenges, promote “the worst aspects of human behaviour and the wrong human values.” Human Zoo, however, which used candid-camera style filming to observe human behaviour and social interaction between a group of strangers, was a more responsible and positive demonstration of psychological ideas.
Zimbardo has described the role of the media as a “gatekeeper between psychology and the public”. I’m not sure how we can expect the media to act as a gatekeeper for the public. Aside from dubious ethical standards, what about the people who have experienced significant negative impacts from appearing in such shows and the poor track record for research ethics in reality television to date? It appears that when it comes to televised radical social experiments, both participants and the public are to be left to protect themselves.
As reality television begins to position itself beyond the realm of simple voyeurism and ventures into the territory of legitimate social research without the ethical oversight, perhaps the place for complaints about the process is not only the television networks themselves but also the various member associations of the contributing expert consultants, who are accountable to the public for the ethical practice of their members and have dedicated professional conduct committees whose role is to hear and respond to complaints about the practices of their members.
Participant complaints could have a significant impact on the process of making experimental television. But in the case of the current crop of new reality shows, we have yet to find out.