The Apprentice is a very popular TV show despite everyone seeming to hate it. There are interesting psychological reasons for why this is the case
I saw The Apprentice once, many years ago. I didn't like it. I felt it was everything that was wrong with modern culture and the media in general. I vowed never to watch it again, and assumed everyone else would feel similarly. They did not.
Jump to the present day, and The Apprentice is still as popular as ever, going by the fact that my Twitter feed mentions nothing else whenever it is on. I try to follow intelligent, liberal, clear-thinking people. So why do they all get sucked in to The Apprentice? I've not heard anyone say they actually like it, if anything they seem to actively dislike it, but still they tune in every week without fail.
What strange psychological system is in place that makes so many people want to watch the antics of a number of strangers they claim to find repugnant? Is everyone a secret masochist? Does Alan Sugar have some sort of mind-control power? Is the BBC employing weapons-grade schadenfreude?
There must be some interesting psychological phenomena in play. This needs investigating. So, as someone experienced in numerous areas of psychology who is largely ignorant about the current format and cast of The Apprentice, I felt I was in a perfect position to offer an objective psychological assessment of it. Here are the notes I made from viewing the latest episode.
2 min: OK, we're barely out of the recap and already Lord Sugar emphatically says he believes "actions speak louder than words". But many of the physical actions humans can perform produce little or no audible output. A metaphor, or does he suffer from synaesthesia?
3 min: I'm thinking Lord Sugar may be using psychological methods to control the contestants and produce the most "stimulating" television. He seems the sort. Also, he strikes me as a cross between an ageing human and a belligerent Brillo pad. Just saying.
5 min: Lord Sugar calls the contestants at 5.20 am. Bit early, a possible attempt at sleep deprivation, leading to an unstable mental state? Also, all the contestants seem to live together in one house. I'm assuming this is something arranged by the show and not a massive coincidence?
8 min: They're visiting a farm, as you do. Details aside, Lord Sugar seems to persist in addressing the contestants from a raised level, so it's a set-up where groups of supposedly ruthless people stand assembled in uniform while a man with absolute power over them looks down and barks orders.
9 min: Lord Alan Sugar wants them to set up and run a farm shop, something completely unfamiliar to people who work in the economic/corporate field. Excessive environmental change can cause symptoms to worsen in delirium. Most of the contestants don't seem old enough for that to be a major concern, but then given the aforementioned sleep deprivation...
11 min: Maybe this friction between so many empty vessels is an attempt to generate large amounts of static electricity? Lord Sugar may want this to power some device he's working on. This doesn't sound like the most practical technology, but then again he is the head of Amstrad.
13 min: I don't think that guy Alex knows his eyebrows look like that. They must have drawn them on him as he slept for a cruel joke.
17 min: One of the women is on a farm and says the silage smells really nice. Maybe her insula or putamen is wrongly wired up?
19 min: Eyebrow guy showing obvious signs of dyscalculia. I'm sure that's not an issue for people who want to work with large sums of money.
21 min: There's a great deal of footage here of close-ups of vegetables and vaguely glamorous women. It's like being backstage at the filming of a Marks and Spencer's advert.
23 min: The phrases "Just use logic" and "Engage brain" have just been used with no sense of irony or self-awareness. Can the Dunning-Kruger effect ever be fatal? If so, we might not make it to a full series.
25 min: Announcer keeps saying "milkshake" and now all the boys are in a yard. Nobody has mentioned the obvious joke yet.
28 min: I appear to be watching a lot of dislikeable people buy fruit, at prime time on BBC1. This may be an ingenious form of propaganda by the junk food industry.
29 min: I am struggling to tell these people apart, for all that they don't really resemble each other. The programme may have caused some form of prosopagnosia. Either that or my visual processing system has just grouped them together as some diffuse mass of absolute-tittery. I believe the gestalt theory of visual perception allows for this.
30 min: They've got to sell ridiculously expensive slabs of buffalo meat or they'll lose the contest, and yet nobody has said "the steaks are too high". It's like I'm doing all their thinking for them.
32 min: Heavily made-up woman just asked a passing pedestrian "are you interested in some milk?" Freud would have had a field day with this show.
35 min: I don't think anyone would be willing to buy produce from a man in the street with the sort of eyebrows used to denote a cartoon character as "evil". How is it possible for a human to occupy the uncanny valley?
36 min: This show is instilling in me an intense loathing of these people and the capitalist system that produces and even rewards such individuals. This may be some clever use of associative learning by the BBC, subtly supporting its more socialist funding model. Good effort, if so.
37 min: It's no good; I'm going to need some booze to get all the way through this. Back in a second.
37 min: OK, here we go again. I couldn't find any proper alcohol, so am sucking on an antibacterial kitchen wipe. It'll do.
39 min: I just realised that "Lord Sugar" sounds like the main bad guy in a cartoon that promotes dental hygiene. This could be worth a fortune. If only there was some way to present my business ideas to Alan Sugar...
42 min: Lord Sugar just made two weak cowboy jokes in succession, didn't get a laugh either time and seemed genuinely surprised at this. This suggests some sort of short term memory failing. It's probably fine, but I'd get that checked.
45 min: This whole set up is clearly designed to create animosity; it leaves the Robber's Cave Experiment standing. Arguments are bound to happen when you put people in high-pressure unfamiliar scenarios in competition with each other where survival is maintained by criticising others. You'd have less chance of starting a fight if you deliberately spill the pint of a guy with tattoos and no neck.
46 min: The Stanford Prison experiment showed that people will tend to conform to the roles assigned to them by a legitimate authority, however unpleasant they may be. So maybe the contestants aren't awful people; they're just behaving in a way they think is what's expected of them? This does suggest that Alan Sugar has another set of contestants chained up in his basement though.
48 min: People seem to fall back on blaming others for their behaviour when they pretty much did identical things themselves. There is some serious attribution bias going on here, it's all over the place.
55 min: All the confident/cocky men in this seem to have some form of facial hair or stubble. This could be a fashion thing, or maybe the excessive stubble is a subtle ploy. After all, facial hair is the result of testosterone, testosterone makes you more masculine, more masculinity makes you the alpha-male, and people fear the alpha male, and fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the dark side... sorry, seem to have wandered off there for a minute.
58 min: Lord Sugar just sacked someone. I think it was the woman one, but to be honest I've lost all ability to pretend I care at this point.
So there you have it, the Apprentice seems to be an ongoing experiment by a skilful but possibly mad mogul with a fondness for psychological manipulation. Of course, it's important to not make conclusions based on a single source/example.
Someone else can gather the data in future though. No way am I sitting through that again.
Dean Burnett is usually silent on Twitter when the Apprentice is on. See for yourself, @garwboy.Dean Burnett
The changing ratios of calcium and barium in the teeth of modern humans and macaques chronicle the transition from mother’s milk to solid food -- and may provide clues about the weaning habits of Neandertals, a new study suggests.[More]
The right to avoid questions from Congress has a long and contentious history. Just ask gangsters, Ken Lay … and Einstein
When IRS executive Lois Lerner asserted her right, under the fifth amendment, to avoid taking questions from the House oversight committee on Wednesday, she joined a long line of would-be witnesses to tell Congress to kiss off.
The tactic came into vogue in the early 1950s, when legislators developed a habit of dragging private citizens to Washington, accusing them of being commies and demanding they name other commies. The poor witnesses often found sweet refuge in the Bill of Rights.
Not every witness who has sought such refuge, however, has done so quite as innocently. In 1950-51, organized crime figures took the fifth to avoid testifying in the Kefauver hearings. The tactic has been used by felonious CEOs (Enron's Ken Lay), disgraced athletes (slugger Mark McGwire) and, yes, mid-level bureaucrats caught up in serious back-room dealing.
Legal scholars have debated, hotly, whether the fifth amendment even provides the protection Lerner and so many others have claimed. Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling professor of law at Yale University, has long argued against sweeping fifth-amendment protections in cases of congressional testimony. Amar has pointed out that while witnesses have a right to justice, society has a right to the truth. Writing about Lay's successful use of the fifth in 2002, to avoid disclosing details of how Enron cooked its books, Amar asked: "By what right do Enron bigwigs stonewall Congress?"
The Fifth Amendment prohibits a person from being compelled to be a witness against himself in any 'criminal case', but a Congressional hearing is hardly a criminal case … sometimes a truth-seeking society needs to be able to compel a person to speak outside his trial – in grand jury rooms, civil cases and legislative hearings, for example.
Amar proposes a "a narrow type of testimonial immunity" for congressional witnesses. The difficulty of threading that needle was illustrated at the Lerner hearing by an argument among oversight committee members as to whether she had forfeited her fifth-amendment protections by delivering a statement. As Lerner rose to leave, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), objected.
"She waived her right to testify by issuing an opening statement," said Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor. (He apparently meant that Lerner had waived her right not to testify.) "She ought to stay and answer questions."
Ranking member Elijah Cummings, (D-Maryland), also a lawyer, intervened.
"Unfortunately this is not a federal court and she does have a right," Cummings said. "And we have to adhere to that." Committee chair Darrell Issa excused Lerner, with the provision that she could be called back if it had been found that she had indeed, as Gowdy claimed, waived her fifth-amendment right.
Issa's staff will have to sort through a truly daunting overhang of case law if they are to answer that question. The argument wends through a bramble patch of supreme court precedent and heavy-hitting entries in the Journal of the American Bar Association.
A Harvard law school dean, Erwin Griswold, mounted the seminal defense of the practice in a 1954 essay titled The Fifth Amendment: An Old and Good Friend. Revolted by the personal destructiveness of the McCarthy era, Griswold drew a comparison between criminal courts and congressional hearings:
In our criminal courts, we would never think of requiring an accused person to answer questions. He doesn't have to take the stand at all, and if he does do so, he has the protection of an impartial judge, and the right to have his counsel speak in court on his behalf. Why should it be so different in a legislative inquiry, when the information that is sought relates to the witness' own conduct? … The more I think about this, the more it seems to me to be an unsound practice.
To those on the political right outraged today at Lerner's refusal to testify, there may be some consolation in the knowledge that the politics cuts both ways. In 2007 Monica Goodling, an underling in President George W Bush's justice department, took the fifth to avoid telling Congress about the Bush administration's sudden dismissal a year earlier of six US attorneys. A justice department investigation later concluded that the firings were inappropriately political; one of the dismissed attorneys seemed to have been fired for not aggressively prosecuting supposed voter fraud by Democrats. Goodling was implicated because she was one of the few to have been clumsy enough to explicitly describe the administration's plan in writing. She took the fifth, was never charged with a crime, and today she works in PR.
No less a figure than Albert Einstein argued against taking the fifth before Congress. In 1953 Rose Russell, a member of the New York City teachers union, was called to testify before a committee led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most famous circus barker in the American Red Scare. Russell wrote to Einstein, to ask him whether she should take the fifth. He replied that she should not, and supplied a bit of amateur jurisprudence:
The 5th Amendment was adopted in order to make it impossible for the judicial authorities to bring the accused to confess through means of extortion.
In the present cases, it is not a matter of violent extortion of the accused but a matter of using people as tools for the prosecution of others that one wants to label as "unorthodox" and pursue through an economic campaign of destruction. It is a misuse of Parliament's immunity, carrying out practices that should fall into the machinery of the judicial fury (police). This procedure absolutely contradicts the nature of the arrest, if not also its exterior form.
The individual is offered no legal middle ground for him to defend his actual rights. That is why I argued that there is no way other than revolutionary non-cooperation, like Gandhi used with great success against the legal powers of the British Authorities.
When in doubt, go Gandhi.
Tesla Motors’ loan repayment is a bright spot for the DOE loan program.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk hinted it would happen, and now it’s happened. Tesla, the electric car maker, has paid off the DOE loan that allowed it to build a factory and start building and selling its Model S electric car. And it’s done so nine years ahead of schedule, according to the company (see “Musk Says Tesla Will Pay Off Its Loans in Half the Time”).
The new British space race (To boldly go, G2, 21 May) has the potential to inspire young people and boost our economy. Space travel captures the imagination of budding young inventors and engineers – it is the stuff of childhood dreams. But there are other British industries at the forefront of technology that can inspire and propel young people towards careers in engineering and science. Without changing the way we teach, they will pass children by.
Engineers have designs on the future: fuel cells, driverless cars and super materials. Material scientists, for instance, delve into the depths of space at a micro-level, increasing the possibilities of product design and engineering. But children do not see this side of engineering. For them, engineers are men in greasy overalls fixing the boiler. We must bridge the gap in understanding – to plug the shortage of 40,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates every year.
Our design and technology curriculum must reflect the potential of a career in engineering. Our foundation has worked with secondary schools in Bath, donating industry equipment and setting pupils briefs to make something with a purpose – much like in industry. It connects the idea that engineers design something tangible. The results have been startling, with more than twice the number of students signing up to study design and technology. A world class D&T curriculum that fuels young astronauts and aeronautical engineers alike would replicate this on a national scale. The results could be quite remarkable – getting Britain inventing again.
Founder of Dyson and chair of the James Dyson Foundation
The first major conference for the digital currency suggests it is gaining legitimacy, but in a manner disappointing to some early enthusiasts.
This past Sunday, Doug Scribner took out five $100 bills and began feeding them into what looked like a small, white ATM in San Jose Conference Center in California. The machine swallowed the bills smartly and credited him with an equivalent value in bitcoins, an intangible, digital currency that is backed by not gold or any government, but by math.
The first major conference for the digital currency suggests it is gaining legitimacy, but in a manner disappointing to some early enthusiasts.
This past Sunday, Doug Scribner took out five $100 bills and began feeding them into what looked like a small, white ATM in San Jose Conference Center in California. The machine swallowed the bills smartly and credited him with an equivalent value in Bitcoins, an intangible, digital currency that is backed by not gold or any government, but by math.
Sleep disturbances may be an early warning sign of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases
The latest issue of Nature contains an Outlook supplement about the health impacts of poor sleep, including a feature I wrote about the link between sleep disturbances and neurodegenerative diseases, called "Amyloid awakenings". The title refers to a process called amyloidosis, by which mutated, abnormally folded proteins aggregate to form insoluble clumps in the brain.
This process is a normal part of ageing, but happens faster in some people than others. Alzheimer's disease, for example, is characterised by insoluble clumps called plaques, which build up in the spaces around neurons in the brain, and neurofibrillary tangles, which accumulate inside the cells. The plaques are made of a mutated protein called amyloid-beta (Aβ), and the tangles of another called Tau. Most other neurodegenerative diseases involve the build-up of misfolded proteins (although each is associated with a different protein or proteins), so amyloidosis does not specifically refer to Aβ aggregation, but is a catch-all term for the process.
The feature grew out of two recent news stories I wrote: the first reported on research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans last October, showing that sleep disturbances may predict Alzheimer's, and the second describes a paper published earlier this year, showing that age-related deterioration of the prefrontal cortex disrupts sleep and impairs memory. Other research published over the past five years or so suggests that sleep disturbances could be an early warning sign of other neurodegenerative conditions, and the article summarises much of this work.
The research shows that people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and several other neurodegenerative conditions often experience sleep disturbances many decades before any symptoms appear, and that these disturbances are somehow linked to disruptions of the circadian rhythm. They include common sleeping difficulties such as insomnia, sleep apnoea, and daytime drowsiness, and some slightly more unusual ones. According to one small study published in 2011, for example, the early stages of Parkinson's disease are characterised by alterations in the content of dreams, particularly the presence of animals and increased aggressiveness.
It is still not clear how the sleep disturbances experienced by pre-symptomatic Alzheimer's patients differ from those who will go on to develop one of the other neurodegenerative conditions. Yet, all of the researchers I spoke to seem to agree that sleep disturbances may be the earliest manifestation of these diseases, and that detecting and treating them as early as possible may slow the neurodegenerative process, or even prevent it altogether.
They all agree, too, that the relationship between sleep and neurodegeneration is probably a two-way street. In other words, people with unhealthy sleeping habits earlier on in life may be predisposing themselves to these diseases.
Another new study, published earlier this month, shows that major depressive disorder involves disruption of the activity of hundreds of genes that are involved in regulating the circadian rhythm. Typically, these so-called "clock genes" exhibit regularly fluctuating expression patterns, so that their activity goes up and down with the daily rhythm of the body. As I discuss in my article, the sleep disturbances in patients who go on to develop neurodegenerative diseases are accompanied by a breakdown in the rhythmic expression of clock genes. This new paper is interesting because we now know that depression involves pathological changes similar to those seen in Alzheimer's, including shrinkage of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory.
One thing I didn't mention in the article, due to space restrictions, is the relationship between protein aggregation and neurodegeneration. In some of these diseases, the misfolded proteins that build up in the brain are highly toxic, and lead directly to neuronal cell death. This is true of the motor neuron diseases and the prion diseases, which include "mad cow disease" and various human forms of it, such as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). For the past few decades, researchers assumed that Aβ plaques cause Alzheimer's disease, and drug companies spent billions researching and developing drugs that block plaque formation or break down plaques that have already formed.
In animal studies, these drugs alleviate the memory impairments associated with Alzheimer's. In humans, however, they don't seem to work, and as a result several large drug companies have halted clinical trials in their late stages. Some researchers are sticking to their guns, arguing that the drugs have to be administered at the earliest stages of the disease to be effective.
It is also possible that plaque formation is a consequence of Alzheimer's disease, rather than its cause. According to one new school of thought, it's the soluble form of Aβ protein that is toxic, and the plaques may actually be protecting the brain by capturing these soluble protein particles and preventing them from causing damage. If this turns out to be the case, then blocking plaque formation may actually be harmful.
How does this come to bear on the link between sleep disturbances and neurodegeneration? In Alzheimer's, plaque formation seems to be closely related to the sleep-wake cycle. One study found that levels of soluble Aβ decrease at night and increase during the day, and are significantly elevated after sleep deprivation. Another showed that the sleep-wake cycle breaks down following plaque formation, but is restored when the plaques are eliminated.
It may mean that the protective mechanism is more active while we sleep than during waking hours, which is in keeping with the emerging view that sleeping well is important for good overall health. More research is needed to clarify exactly how all these factors are related, but this does not bear on the possibility that sleeping difficulties are early diagnostic markers of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Light from TVs, computers, tablets and smartphones may disrupt sleep and raise risk of obesity, heart disease and depression
Watching TV or using computers, tablets or smartphones after dark may cause sleep loss and resultant health problems, a leading doctor has warned.
Peering at brightly lit screens at night disrupts the body's natural rhythms and raises the risk of medical conditions linked to poor sleep, including obesity, heart disease, strokes and depression, he said.
The warning, from Charles Czeisler, director of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston in the US, comes as cheap electricity and more portable devices make it easier to surf the web, read books and check social media on glowing gadgets at any time of night.
Artificial light can prevent a good night's rest by dampening down the activity of neurons that bring on sleep, activating those for wakefulness, and suppressing the sleep hormone, melatonin. Together these push back the natural clock that controls the body's sleep-wake cycle.
"As a result, many people are still checking email, doing homework, or watching TV at midnight, with hardly a clue that it is the middle of the solar night," Czeisler writes in the journal, Nature. "Technology has effectively decoupled us from the natural 24-hour day to which our bodies evolved, driving us to bed later. And we use caffeine in the morning to rise as early as we ever did, putting the squeeze on sleep."
Reliable trends on sleep behaviour are hard to confirm, but a survey published last year of workers in Britain claimed that 5% slept no more than five hours a night. After a similar survey in the US suggested that nearly 30% of respondents were sleeping no more than six hours a night, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said insufficient sleep was a "public health epidemic".
Long-term sleep loss raises the risk of a range of diseases, and those who get less than five hours a night have a 15% greater risk of death from all causes than people of the same age who sleep well. Because sleep-deprived children become hyperactive rather than dozy, sleep loss might be mistaken for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Czeisler warns.
The Boston physician, who holds patents on using light to reset the body's circadian clock, claims that the number of people who aren't getting enough sleep is likely to rise because of the availability of TVs, computer screens, laptops, tablets and handheld devices that use energy-efficient LEDs. These can produce light rich in blue and blue-green wavelengths, which light-sensitive cells in the eye respond to most strongly.
Czeisler calls for night lighting that replaces the bluer hues with reds and oranges, which disrupt the body's circadian rhythms less. He criticises some airlines' decision to flood aircraft cabins with blue light – the best colour for suppressing melatonin and disrupting sleep.
Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Surrey Sleep Research Centre at Surrey University, said exposure to artificial light in the evening made people less sleepy, and so less likely to go to bed on time. In a report last year, he concluded there was a "growing need to engineer artificial light to minimise its disruptive effect".
"Before the advent of artificial light, going to bed was determined by the Earth's rotation about its axis. Now it's determined by our behaviour, and that is the really fundamental change," Dijk said. "The main issue now is awareness. Light has an activating effect, but people don't treat light as they would caffeine. If you have problems falling asleep that might be associated with this, keep your exposure to light low in the evening."Ian Sample