The Divided Self and Big Brother Geoff Beattie

January 12, 2017

The late Professor Stuart Picken interviews distinguished psychologist Professor Geoff Beattie of Edge Hill University, UK, on his work on the concept of the divided self and his time as resident on-screen psychologist for Big Brother, at The European Conference on Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences 2015.


Professor Stuart Picken: From this morning’s presentation what really came across to me was the implications of the concept of the divided self, and I immediately thought of the book of that title by Laing, which I suspect has had perhaps some influence on you, but maybe you’d like to elaborate on that.

Professor Geoff Beattie: Well, I heard R. D. Laing talking a number of times and I was always hugely impressed by the guy. I think he wrote The Divided Self when he was twenty-eight or twenty-nine which is an extraordinary achievement. A brilliant book, and from my point of view an even better title, and I thought one day I will pinch that title, because it captures exactly what I wanted to say about human beings. We think we know ourselves, we think we have a single, uniform concept of self, but actually there’s another system operating there, which Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate, calls System 1: an automatic, fast, non-reflective, non-rational system that makes many of our decisions for us. That’s why I call my work… it’s all about the divided self.

What I’m really interested is the implications of these two processes operating simultaneously within human beings, and the way I’m trying to pose the issue is with respect to a number of the major challenges we face. I don’t think anyone who reads the scientific literature couldn’t be alarmed by the threat of climate change, and most people wring their hands about the fact that prejudice and inequality and racism still exist today. So why is that? Now if you ask people, if you go into System 2, the logical self, people say “Of course I’m not racist”, and “Of course I care about the planet”. But what I’ve been doing over the last few years is creating new ways of measuring how the automatic, unconscious mind responds, and unfortunately it doesn’t align itself necessarily with the conscious self. So when it comes to climate change, many people have been socialized to believing that success and status are all to do with high carbon lifestyles. Big cars, foreign holidays, a lot of waste in life, all those kind of things – and when you measure people’s implicit attitudes to the environment they’re not nearly as positive as what they say. When it comes to racism, everyone says that they don’t discriminate on the basis of ethnicity or race, but, again, the implicit measures suggest that there is a distinct own-race bias, which comes out in shortlisting decisions. I’m interested in exploring this divided self, exploring what the implications of this is, exploring how the two systems interact with each other.

“If we have this unconscious self making a lot of decisions for us, you know, at some point we have to justify our decisions.”

The extraordinary thing is, if we have this unconscious self making a lot of decisions for us, you know, at some point we have to justify our decisions – it must be feeding information through. Part of the research that we’ve been doing over the past few years is looking at how our automatic self guides us to notice certain things about a situation, or about a person, or about someone’s CV, to allow this logical, rational self that is being expressed in speech to make a decision that looks right. So to me there is a lot of interesting work to be done here. These are, in some sense, like everything in psychology – nothing is new. The ideas have been around for a long time. They had been around for a long time before R. D. Laing. But this has got a different complexion to it, because, as I say, it’s about measuring how these systems work, what the function of them is, how they interact. So, as I say, Laing has informed many ideas in psychology over the years, and he’s had an influence on this one. Great thinker, great man. But this is taking the notion of the divided self, I think, in a new direction.


Professor Stuart Picken: So, really, unless I’m wrong, what you’re saying is that the contemporary situation we live in is forcing us to look again at the concept of the divided self and how, actually, this plays out in the modern world, rather than purely at an academic level.

Professor Geoff Beattie: Yes, I think that’s a really good point because the problems we’re facing are so monumental that we have to have the best psychological theory to base our interventions on, and my argument is that we don’t have the right model at the moment. Now I’m not taking Laing’s idea of the divided self as the base for my thinking, but I’m taking his idea that there is a division in the human mind, and I think that until we recognize that, until we recognize that there are people out there who don’t know their own mind – as I jokingly like to say, they don’t know their own mind because they haven’t got a mind, they’ve got two, and they haven’t access to one of them, and that’s the problem, they simply don’t have access to it – until we recognize that, and in some sense understand the implications of that, I don’t think we’re going to make the kind of progress that we need to make to make either on climate change or on racism.


Professor Stuart Picken: Our audience will know now that you have been involved in the Big Brother series, which, alas, I was out of the country and never actually saw, but I gather from others that it was controversial and it probed certain areas of the human psyche and human behaviour that have been taboo until, well not quite now – but certainly have not been popular areas. Tell us, could you, a little about your experience of that.

Professor Geoff Beattie: Well, it started on Channel 4. It was an extraordinary idea. I remember being approached in 2000, which is when it started. It had been done in Holland – a low-budget, low-specification kind of programme and this notion of “Big Brother”. My area of expertise was analysing human behaviour – micro-analysing it. I did my PhD at Cambridge and then I would bring people into my laboratory and film them and analyse them. They might come in for ten minutes, and then someone came along and said, “Look, we’re going to have people living in a house for ten weeks and you’re going to have access to all this footage that you can analyse”, and I thought, well it’s what I do – it would be odd not to be involved. Obviously you would need to be reassured about the ethics and about the way that the housemates are going to be looked after, but it’s an extraordinary idea. I loved it – I had to analyse in detail how people behaved. It generated a huge surge of applications from people interested in psychology, including to the institution where I was then working – enormous interest in it, and I think people were genuinely surprised that seven, eight, nine million people would watch a show especially where psychologists were poring over the details of the behaviour.

“[Big Brother] generated a huge surge of applications from people interested in psychology.”

I wrote an academic book in 2003, several years in, and many of the examples I had from that book – which has got a lot of academic citations, a very respectable academic book – were taken from Big Brother, because… and some of the phenomena I observed… one thing I work on is mismatching speech and gestures, when the iconic movements of the hand don’t connect to the speech. That came out with a vengeance in Big Brother – people were saying one thing to someone’s face, and their movements seemed to be contradicting it. And, incredibly, it was quite weird to watch a kind of concept-like gesture-speech mismatch to go into the general public, it was like watching a new perspective on body language being shared by people who became really interested in it, and it seems to me we’re a much more psychologically literate culture as a result of that.

“People were saying one thing to someone’s face, and their movements seemed to be contradicting it.”

My new book, by the way, I’m working on for Routledge is called Rethinking Body Language, so it’s expanding the idea that hand movements… it’s not just about social processes – hand movements reflect the internal workings of the mind. You know, many philosophers in the past kind of got it wrong when they thought about abstract thinking and speech being one system and the body as something else – the two work together to convey complex ideas. So I never regretted Big Brother. I think it’s changed now, you know it’s moved to a different station and the show is different, but for those eleven years on Channel 4 I know that the executive producers and producers were really interested in teasing out the psychology element.


Professor Geoff Beattie speaks on “The Divided Self – How a Better Understanding of the Human Mind Could Transform Society” at The European Conference on Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences 2015 in Brighton, UK.


Image | Geoff Beattie

Geoff Beattie

About Geoff Beattie

Geoff Beattie is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University. He is the author of 19 books, with various Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Brazilian, Italian, Finnish and German editions and over 100 articles in academic journals, including Nature and Nature Climate Change. He was also the resident on-screen psychologist for Big Brother for eleven series on Channel 4, specialising in body language and social behaviour.

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