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Hands on experience: A brief look at ‘Touch The Truck’ and endurance television

I apologize in advance for the rather frivolous nature of today’s blog but the topic I am going to briefly talk about comes under the banner of ‘extreme’ behaviour. Back in the early 2000s, I would be the first to admit that I was a bit of a ‘rent-a-quote’ when it came to national newspaper interviews here in the UK. It was when Dr. Rachel Bromnick (a psychologist at Lincoln University) wrote into the Guardian newspaper with this letter under the headline ‘The Prolific Professor’ that I realised I needed to start being a little more selective with who I gave interviews with:

“I was interested to read Professor Mark Griffiths’ confession [in the August 10, 2002 edition of The Guardian] that he was a collector (I knew he was a psychologist). I wonder if he hoards his own cuttings? If so, he must have a house full of paper to add to his stamps, postcards, books etc, because whenever I read a paper, magazine or journal, there he is. For those who wish to add to their Professor Griffiths cutting collection, he was also to be found quoted on the same day in the main section of the Guardian (Labour’s big gamble on casino debts, page 3)”.

The reason I mention this because I recently came across a newspaper article that I had written for my local newspaper (the Nottingham Evening Post, now re-named to the shorter Nottingham Post) that in all honesty I don’t even recall writing. At the time, I was constantly being asked by the British media about reality television shows (particularly about the new Big Brother programme), because at the time I was doing research into the psychology of fame with Dr. Adam Joinson).

One of the television shows that was aired back in 2001 on Channel 5 was a bizarre show called Touch the Truck which I would define as an ‘physical endurance game show’ that was part of the channel’s reality television programming. If you have no idea what I am talking about (and I guess most of you won’t as the series was never re-commissioned in the UK), the Wikipedia entry says:

Touch the Truck was a British Channel 5 endurance gameshow which aired in 2001. It was hosted by Dale Winton and involved a group of 20 contestants holding onto a truck with the last person left touching the truck winning it. The show was filmed at the Lakeside Shopping Centre, Thurrock, Essex. Jerry Middleton, 39, from Winchester, Hampshire, was the winner who managed to stay awake touching the vehicle for 81 hours 43 minutes and 31 seconds…The format was devised by Glenn Barden and Dave Hills and is owned by Vashca. It has been subsequently licensed to the Philippines, Indonesia, Portugal and Turkey”.

The show only ran for five episodes and the format of the show was arguably based on an annual competition that is held in the US, and was turned into a 1990s film (Hands on a Hardbody). I also saw a similar ‘touch the car’ competition on a recent repeat (2005) episode of the wonderful US comedy My Name Is Earl (check out Episode 10, Season 1: White Lie Christmas). The Wikipedia entry on the film said that:

Hands on a Hard Body: The Documentary is a 1997 film directed by S.R. Bindler documenting an endurance competition that took place in Longview, Texas. The yearly competition pits twenty-four contestants against each other to see who can keep their hand on a pickup truck for the longest amount of time. Whoever endures the longest without leaning on the truck or squatting wins the truck. Five minute breaks are issued every hour and fifteen minute breaks every six hours. The documentary follows the 1995 competition which lasted for seventy-seven continuous hours”.

When the show hit the airwaves on March 11 (2001), I remember doing various radio interviews and being asked about the psychological motivations of the contestants taking part, and about the psychological effects of the participants as the competition progressed. I honestly can’t recall what I said to the broadcast media but (as I said earlier) I came across an article that I wrote for the Nottingham Evening Post about the show. I’m a little embarrassed at re-reading what I wrote but here are some of the things I said. Obviously my thoughts were for my local paper and not an academic paper:

“What a bizarre piece of television but what compelling television…It’s an endurance test and people want to almost share the agonies and the miseries that people go through. In a way, you live vicariously through them. It’s emotional and sometimes draining to watch them. As long as there is medical supervision, there is no problem in what they are doing…People aren’t bonkers for doing it, they want to win [the car], they want to win a big prize. It might be equivalent to a year’s salary, so it’s quite an incentive. The only thing I would say is that you would need training to do it. All of us may think it’s easy, but it’s not…People were hallucinating, and an Albanian-born man started speaking in Albanian, even though he didn’t realise it. Daydreams, headaches, these are all known side effects. On the Channel 5 show there was a woman who was so tired, she was forgetting to breathe and her blood pressure was dropping, so you do need medical people on hand who can stop you if necessary. It’s a person’s own choice if they want to do something like this. Hopefully no-one is going to have long-term damage from this. Certainly no long-term psychological harm. It seems that [Channel 5] has chosen people who are used to standing for long periods. Personally, I couldn’t do it for more than an hour”.

The show only lasted one series on British television (presumably because the viewing figures were not as good as the channel expected). Over at the UK Game Shows website, the overview of the show said:

Touch the Truck is a typical attempt by people who don’t normally commission [or] make game shows to do a game show. Such people think that game shows should be all about (a) tacky sets and lighting, (b) fabulous prizes, (c) cheesy catchphrases by the bucket-load, (d) real ‘characters’ as contestants. With the prospect of truckers, tonnes of throbbing metal and 20 members of the public who can’t run away, they’ve been able to wheel in Dale Winton, the consummate professional, to try and generate mass hysteria…The programme is more like a documentary on the effects of trying to stay awake as long as possible. People going mad is quite interesting, although there wasn’t as much of that as perhaps the producers were hoping for…Ultimately, the concept lost all credibility on day 2 when the favourite was pulled out of the competition against his own will for ‘medical reasons’ whereas he looked and sounded perfectly fine”.

My own vague recollection was that the show was compelling to watch (I was going to say it was ‘car crash TV’ but it didn’t seem like a good analogy to use), but maybe it was because I knew I was going to be asked to make comments on it by the media.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Driving test not a mini marathon: A psychologist’s view. Nottingham Evening Post, March 22, p.19.

UK Game Shows (2013). Touch the Truck. Located at: http://www.ukgameshows.com/ukgs/Touch_the_Truck

Wikipedia (2013). Hands on a Hardbody. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hands_on_a_Hardbody

Wikipedia (2013). Touch the truck. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touch_the_Truck

Here’s looking at you: The Truman Show Delusion

Reality television shows have now became a staple of modern life. However, little is known about the effect they have on day-to-day living. Earlier this year, Joel Gold and Ian Gold published a paper in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychiatry about a new phenomenon that they coined the ‘Truman Show Delusion’ (TSD) based on (director) Peter Weir’s 1998 film that told the (fictional) story of Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey) whose whole life had been filmed and broadcast as real life a soap opera around the world (without his knowledge) from the day he was born. All the people around Truman were paid actors and extras.

The plot of The Truman Show revolved around Truman’s gradual awareness that there was something wrong about his life (i.e., that the world appears to revolve around him) and of his of his desire to escape the town in which he is living. Because of the high audience ratings, the show’s producers attempt to keep the show even when Truman begins to suspect there is something amiss in his life. The actors are then instructed by the show’s producers and writers to tell Truman that he is imagining these things and that he is (to all intents and purposes) mentally ill (i.e., a persecutory delusion). In their paper, Gold and Gold described the conditions as:

“…a novel delusion, primarily persecutory in form, in which the patient believes that he is being filmed, and that the films are being broadcast for the entertainment of others. We describe a series of patients who presented with a delusional system according to which they were the subjects of something akin to a reality television show that was broadcasting their daily life for the entertainment of others”

Gold and Gold highlighted five short case studies of patients who had presented for treatment in their psychiatric practices. The cases ‘diagnosed’ as having the TSD are the reverse of what occurred in the film as their reported symptoms recall that of Truman, without the knowledge and awareness that their attempts to understand their situation will lead to a [Hollywood] happy ending. Interestingly, three of the cases highlighted by the authors referred to The Truman Show by name. Here is a brief summary of the five reported cases.

  • Case 1 (‘Mr. A’): Mr A. claimed his life was like The Truman Show, a belief that he had held for five years without his family’s knowledge. He believed the 9/11 attacks of 9/11 were fabricated and travelled to New York to see if the Twin Towers were still standing (and if they were, it would prove that he was the star of his own show). He believed that everyone in his life were part of the conspiracy and that he had cameras implanted in his eyes (and when he was admitted to the psychiatry department he asked to speak to the ‘director’). He was diagnosed as having schizophrenia (and more specifically a chronic paranoid type versus substance-induced psychotic disorder).
  • Case 2 (‘Mr. B.’): Mr B. believed he was being continuously recorded for national broadcast. He formulated a “plan to come to NYC and meet an unknown woman at the top of the Statue of Liberty. He expected [her] to release him from the control of an extended network of individuals who [were]…taping him continually…and broadcasting the tapes nationally for viewers’ enjoyment as part of a scenario similar to…The Truman Show”. He believed he “was and am the centre, the focus of attention by millions and millions of people…my [family] and everyone I knew were and are actors in a script, a charade whose entire purpose is to make me the focus of the world’s attention”. He had attempted suicide three times due to dysphoria, hopelessness, and persecutory delusions. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type) along with both crack cocaine and marijuana dependence.
  • Case 3 (‘Mr. C’): Mr. C. – a journalist – had a history of depression, and was manic and psychotic. He believed that stories – in newspapers, online, and on television – were created by his colleagues in the media for his personal amusement. He believed that those around him were paid actors, and that everything around him was fake, and that “all [his] associates are involved”. During his hospitalization, Mr. C. attempted to escape to confirm whether there were disparities between the news given on the ward and what was happening outside. He was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder with psychotic features.
  • Case 4 (‘Mr. D.’): Mr D. actually worked on a reality television show and came to believe that he was the person whose life was actually being broadcast. He thought he was “a secret contestant on a reality show and believed he was being filmed. He also believed all his thoughts were being controlled by a film crew paid for by his family. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had manic episodes, and a marijuana abuser.
  • Case 5 (‘Mr. E’): Mr E. believed that the Secret Service was following him. He had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had bouts of depression. He described a “scheme” that he claimed was similar to The Truman Show. Gold and Gold reported that Mr. E. “believed that he was the master of the scheme, that it involved everyone in his life including the hospital staff, and that all these people were actors. He thought that he might be recorded while in hospital. He believed that the news was fabricated and that the radio was recorded for him…He believed that the scheme would end on Christmas Day and that he would be released then”. He was diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder versus methylphenidate-induced psychotic disorder.

Gold and Gold searched the academic and clinical literature for other similar scientific reports of patients with delusions of The Truman Show type but said there were none. However, they did cite a 2008 study by Dr. Fusar-Poli and colleagues in the British Journal of Psychiatry. They reported the case of a person who ‘‘had a sense the world was slightly unreal, as if he was the eponymous hero in the film The Truman Show [but] at no point did his conviction reach delusional intensity”. They also made reference to two news reports (one in 2007 and the other in 2009) of men who appear to have suffered from the TSD.

“In 2007, William Johns III, a psychiatrist from Florida, attempted to abscond with a child, Thorin Novenski, and subsequently attacked the child’s mother. A news report on the incident claims that ‘a friend of the psychiatrist reportedly told a judge that Johns said he had to go to New York to ‘get out of The Truman Show’.In 2009, Antony Waterlow, a Sydney man, murdered his father and sister while in a psychotic state. A news report stated that Mr Waterlow believed his family was behind a ‘world wide game’ to murder him or force him to commit suicide. A doctor who interviewed the man is reported to have said that Mr Waterlow told her in a consultation in February that he believed computers were accessing his brain through brainwaves and satellites. He said his family was screening his life on the Internet for the world to watch, akin to the film The Truman Show”.

Gold and Gold noted that their case studies gave rise to three general questions of interest: (1) How precisely should these peoples’ delusions be characterized? (2) What does the delusion contribute to the understanding of the role of culture in psychosis? (3) What does the influence of culture on delusion suggest about the cognitive processes underlying delusional belief? Obviously, watching reality television shows do not cause psychotic or delusional episodes. However, these cases appear to highlight that those with underlying illnesses (e.g., schizophrenia) who watch reality television shows may develop delusions that seem somewhat familiar. Gold and Gold concluded that cultural insights into delusions are an essential part of understanding how these phenomena operate.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Fusar-Poli, P., Howes, O., Valmaggia, L., & McGuire, P. (2008). ’’Truman’’ signs and vulnerability to psychosis. British Journal of Psychiatry, 193, 168.

Gold, J. & Gold, I. (2012). The “Truman Show” delusion: Psychosis in the global village. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, DOI:10.1080/13546805.2012.666113

Disgust discussed: The psychology of revulsion

I have to be honest and say that today’s blog on the psychology of revulsion was inspired by reading another blog (on the same topic) – Inside the human revulsion (disgust) reflex” written by Don Burleson. The reason I am so personally interested is that get periodic emails from readers of my blog saying that what I have written is “gross”. “revolting” and/or “disgusting” (my blogs on necrophilia, zoophilia, vorarephilia, menophilia, apotemnophilia, coprophilia, eproctophilia, emetophilia and formiciphilia being the guilty parties). My interest is in the question of what makes these behaviours so revulsive (i.e., a sudden strong change or reaction in feeling, especially a feeling of violent disgust or loathing) and repulsive (i.e., causing repugnance or aversion; disgusting)? As Burleson’s blog notes:

“Behaviors that are uniform across the world can be teased-out to reveal the truly universal human behaviors, manifestations of our basest raw instinct, instinctive reactions without any cultural or social bias. One such universal behavior is revulsion, the natural squeamish behavior that once served to protect our bodies from carrion and now has become a major entertainment phenomenon”.

Burleson also claims that we as humans love to become disgusted. So what evidence is there (besides our seemingly insatiable appetite for reality television shows)? Dr Valerie Curtis (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK) has been carrying out research in different countries to see which things and activities are perceived as disgusting. Some things are very cultural (e.g., in India, meals cooked by menstruating women are viewed as disgusting). However, there were many things perceived as disgusting and revolting irrespective of where people lived. This included:

But overall, people kept reporting the same things as revolting

  • Bodily secretions (faeces, vomit, sweat, spit, blood, pus, sexual fluids)
  • Body parts (wounds, corpses, toenail clippings)
  • Decaying food (e.g., rotting meat and fish, rubbish)
  • Certain living creatures (e.g., flies, maggots, lice, worms, rats)
  • People who are ill and/or contaminated

Given the widespread cultural similarities, Curtis speculates that disgust might therefore be genetic (i.e., “hard-wired in our brains and imprinted on our biological code by millions of years of natural selection”). The similarity between most of these things is that they are things that have a high association with illness across all cultures. In short, Curtis believes that disgust is (or was) an evolutionary biological mechanism that helped us avoid infectious disease. The latest 2011 paper by Curtis and her colleagues was unequivocal:

“Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature. Darwin was the first to propose that disgust is expressed universally  and many studies since then have supported this proposal. Though there has been no systematic cross-cultural survey of the objects and events that elicit disgust in humans, the available data suggest that there is a universal set of disgust cues. These include bodily wastes, body contents, sick, deformed, dead or unhygienic people, some sexual behaviour, dirty environments, certain foods – especially if spoiled or unfamiliar – and certain animals”.

However, Professor Paul Rozin (Penn State University, US) argues that disgust is culturally acquired because his studies have shown that among North American participants, it was ‘death’ that was rated as the most disgusting thing. He argues that: “Anything that reminds us we are animals elicits disgust. [It] functions like a defence mechanism, to keep human animalness out of awareness.” An article written by Erik D’Amato on disgust in Psychology Today argued that disgust is both instinctual and learned:

“We are socialized by our disgust and, in turn, use it to socialize others; what better way is there to stop people from doing something socially undesirable than to “make” that something–whether eating rancid meat or, in India, defying the caste system, disgusting.”

One of my favourite papers in the area of psychological disgust was by Professor Andrea Morales and Professor Gavan Fitzsimons who published a paper in Journal of Marketing Research on “product contagion”. Their research showed how consumer evaluations can change in response to physical contact with products that elicit only moderate levels of disgust. Using evidence from six studies, Morales and Fitzsimons developed a theory of product contagion, in which disgusting products are believed to transfer offensive properties through physical contact to other products they touch.

The law of contagion argues that objects or people can affect each other merely by touching. Although it is clear that contagion beliefs influence behaviour in both primitive and advanced societies, Morales and Fitzsimons say it is still unclear how they became so prevalent. In a series of studies, Morales and Fitzsimons found that some products (e.g., rubbish bags, nappies, cat litter, tampons) evoke a subconscious feeling of disgust even before they’re used for their ultimate messy purposes. However, they also found that touching these products can also transfer their disgust to anything they come in contact with. In an interview with Time magazine, Professor Fitzsimons said: “We were pretty surprised at how strong the effect was. This is probably the most robust result in my career”.

The study suggests an evolutionary basis for shopping preference and the researchers agree with Curtis that disgust is hard-wired (i.e., low-threshold revulsion protected our ancestors from eating rotten or poisonous food or touching animals that had died of infectious disease). Morales and Fitzsimons wanted to examine whether products like toilet paper psychologically contaminated food in a shopping basket.

They found that any food that touched something perceived to be disgusting became immediately less desirable (even though all of the products were in their original wrapping). Food appeal fell even if the two products were close together but didn’t touch. Everything the researchers did suggested the feelings of disgust were below the level of awareness. They also found that the product didn’t stay “contaminated” as the effect faded after about an hour. The aversion tends to fade after about an hour.

One area where there is no debate is the way in which we as a human race express our disgust facially. Research by Professor Paul Ekman (University of Califiornia, US) has consistently shown that humans across different cultures use a distinctive facial expression to signal disgust and appears to be universal (i.e., screwing up our noses and pulling down the corners of our mouths). Biological research using magnetic resonance imaging scans also show that one particular part of the brain (i.e., the anterior insular cortex) is activated when we are disgusted.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Burleson, D. (Undated). Inside the human revulsion (disgust) reflex. Burleson Consulting. Located at: http://www.dba-oracle.com/p_human_revulsion_instinct_behavior.htm

Curtis, V., de Barra, M. & Aunger, R. (2011). Disgust as an adaptive system for disease avoidance behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366, 389-401.

D’Amato, E. (1998). The mystery of disgust. Psychology Today, January 1. Located at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200909/mystery-disgust

Lemonick, M. (2009). Why We Get Disgusted. Time, May 24. Located at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1625167,00.html

Morales, A.C. & Fitzsimons, G.J. (2009). Product contagion: Changing consumer evaluations Through Physical Contact with “Disgusting” Products. Journal of Marketing Research, XLIV, 272–283