Britain’s Got Behaviour


Will Davies*

LondonJanuary 5, 2015 (Alochonaa): It is relatively obvious, I’d have thought, that talent shows and reality television rest on a format that has been found (or at least felt) across a range of economic institutions over the past 30 years. The critical event in X Factor, Big Brother, The Great British Bake-off and other similar shows is theelimination of the unworthy. Moments of elimination are what allow the show and the series to be sustained over time. Unless the winner were found by a slow process of elimination, talent shows and most reality TV shows would simply be regular entertainment.

As I argue here (and in The Limits of Neoliberalism), a privileging of competitive dynamics is a hallmark of distinctively neoliberal forms of government and regulation. Friedrich Hayek described competition as a ‘discovery procedure‘: it is a necessarily dynamic process, that must be planned for and sustained in order that truth, value and beauty can come to light. What reality television does is to convert that epistemology into a form of entertainment, to be watched, safe in the knowledge that – at least on this occasion – the viewer herself is not about to be shown the door. X Factor is really an interplay between facial expressions (on the part of the judges) and tears (on the part of the contestants). The vibrato butchering of 60s soul classics and operatic hate-crimes against The Beatles are merely the vehicles that keeps this ‘discovery procedure’ going.

Away from TV, austerity has added bite to these procedures. Failure is becoming more doggedly manufactured, and survival harder to come by. As is clear from recent government pronouncements about universities, and the need for more failure in the sector, the game is to deliberately heat up the floor, to see who can keep dancing the longest. If everyone can still cope, heat up the floor further. No suffering, no discovery. No tears, no number 1 Christmas single for Simon Cowell.

It is worth noting that this is a dogmatically relativist epistemology. Cowell’s philosophy is that there is no such thing  as a ‘good’ pop song, so there must be several weeks of raised eyebrows, hugs and tears, to identify a winner by a process of elimination. Jo Johnson’s philosophy is that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ university, so the climate for research and teaching must be made harsher, until certain universities have gone under.

Dragon’s Den is in many ways the apotheosis of this entertainment format, in that it fuses the talent show format with actual capital investment. (Incidentally, I am greatly looking forward to the forthcoming book on ‘capitalisation’ by Fabian Muniesa and colleagues, which I understand explores the rituals through which capital and entrepreneurship perform for one another, and seek to win credence from audiences.) However, in the current climate, the image of ‘dragons’ (i.e. VCs) sitting surrounded by piles of £50 notes, distinguishing the drowned from the saved, is now a pretty horrific one. The main ideological effect of the financial crisis (and policy responses to it) was to demolish the credibility of ‘meritocracy’ as a legitimating principle of capitalist inequality. Bake-off is sufficiently innocent and free of economic logic that it can still feel like a safe space for discovery-through-competition. But Dragons Den, like Location Location Location, is now a simple and transparent mis-representation of what’s going on in the economy.

(As an aside, imagine a reality television show that was an honest representation of contemporary capitalism. “Depressed John is 24, has sent out his CV 200 times and is willing to work for minimum wage. Anxious Sarah is 32, lives with her parents and is willing to work for free: lets find out what happens next!” Or “the Dragons have no capital of their own nor any experience of business, but they are taking advantage of negative real interest rates to purchase start-ups in the hope of selling them on before the credit bubble bursts. Which contestant’s start-up will allow them to exit fastest?”)

Perhaps because the competitive talent show format has gone off the hegemonic boil somewhat, I’ve noticed a new strand of reality television over the last year, resting on a rival epistemology. Rather than competition acting as the ‘discovery procedure’, shows such as Married at First Sight and The Secret Lives of 4, 5 and 6-year-olds return to a behaviorist fetishisation of expert scientific observation as the basis for spectacular revelation. It seems to me that this signals something interesting about the shifting culture of capitalism.

The pivotal figures in both of these shows are the ‘scientists’. I put the word in scare quotes, not because I doubt their academic credentials (although the ‘evolutionary anthropologist‘ on Married at First Sight seemed to be auditioning for something, ahem, other than an academic career) but because ‘science’ is represented as a form of magic within these entertainment formats. Rather than confront the disappointment of all empiricism – that it’s the most provisional, least reliable account of reality – pop behaviourism needs the illusion that ‘science’ will reveal what’s really and ultimately going on with us under the surface. This isn’t unique to television, but has been fuelling a massive non-fiction book industry for many years.

Whereas talent show judges are permanently positioned on the set, the ‘scientists’ are secret observers. On The Secret Lives Of x-Year Olds, their furtive quality is impressed upon us by the fact that they wear headphones the whole time, listening in like the stasi operative in The Lives of Others, despite the fact that they are plainly out of ear-shot of the children. The ‘scientists’ on Married At First Sight sit around discussing data and methodologies, expressing shock at the fact that one of their couples is almost a perfectstatistical match (I’m no biologist, but isn’t perfect matching counter-evolutionary, and probably incestuous?).

Without wishing to accord reality TV producers some magical gift of their own for tapping in to our collective unconscious, the fact that these shows have appeared now may suggest something about shifts in the ‘structure of feeling’. More specifically, it seems to point towards a change in (what I think Boltanski terms) the ‘reality principle’ of capitalism. We all consciously or unconsciously carry around assumptions about how things work, what is keeping the show on the road, what makes society cohere. Anyone who uses public transport or the internet or visits a pub relies on some kind of social theory in their everyday life. They make tacit or explicit assumptions about why everyone is carrying on in a faintly similar way, despite their differences. They don’t express shock when trains arrive on time, crimes get punished or strangers are discussing the same news items as friends.

These tacit, pragmatic social theories come in various guises. They may point towards the state, in more authoritarian societies, or towards religion in more traditional societies. Conspiracy theories may be a sign of the fracturing of the sociological imagination, suggesting that things must surely be held together by invisible elite networks, for there is no other way.

Reality television toys with these, holds them up for examination, and isolates them. The ‘reality principle’ is removed from its real context, and turned into something unreal. Talent shows involve a toying with the principle of competition, on the basis that this principle is what allows liberal society to cohere as a complex web of institutions and individuals in the first place. The emotional tug of X-Factor only works because it seems to be touching on something with sociological and not just (the more obvious) psychological pertinence, namely the fear of discovered failure.

The rise of algorithms (or, more specifically, the rise of the cultural awareness of algorithms) in everyday life over recent years represents the rise of an alternative mode of interpretation, as well as an alternative mode of organisation. As I’ve argued in various pieces, this has facilitated the return of ‘social’ logics of government which neoliberalism ostensibly eliminated.

When ‘smart’ environments appear to recognise you or anticipate your desires, without you having consciously communicated anything, the feeling is of a social world being expertly designed and observed. Navigating a city today is now something which involves a web of smart-phones, apps, vehicles, dot matrix systems and so on. Within the neoliberal imaginary, the decisive type of question was ‘is it worth me paying for a taxi, or waiting for the bus?’. Today, the question would be how to adapt one’s behaviour and decisions around the personalised feedback provided by Uber and Google Now. What knits the social world together has subtly altered.

One of the more frustrating charges I’ve received since the publication ofThe Happiness Industry is that I’m ‘paranoid’. This rests on a couple of bad extrapolations from the critique of behaviorism. Firstly, it mistakes the claim “those people are watching us” for the claim “I feel I’m being watched”. The latter is an expression of paranoia, but the first is just a simple observation concerning how both government and social science work. Secondly, it assumes that surveillance is largely malign. This is rarely true, and is certainly untrue today. Most surveillance today is ‘benign’, aimed at making us healthier and happier, though retains the capacity to flip into something else. At worst, it feels creepy, (as with the endless ‘hello!’, ‘how are you feeling?’, ‘we care about you’ which is the front-end code of social media today) but even that is not quite the same as paranoid.

To inhabit a behaviourally-attuned, ‘smart’ environment is to experience this strange sensation of being cared for in ways that one doesn’t understand, using powers of data analytics that are beyond human cognition. In the digital age, serendipity feels uncanny. The ‘scientists’ in Married at First Sight andThe Secret Lives of X-Year Olds personify this behaviorist power, just as the judges in X-Factor personify neoliberal judgement more generally.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two is in the degree of agency that is attributed to the participants, which is theatrically exaggerated in two opposite directions. On talent shows, it all comes down to the individual, he isentirely responsible for his performance, hence the extremes of emotion that are encountered along the way. On the behaviour shows, the individual is just a lab-rat: Married at First Sight involves the extraordinary, discomforting spectacle of two people handing over a major life decision to scientists; The Secret Lives of X-Year-Olds explores adult questions of morality, friendship and leadership, via analysis of humans without moral agency. Where talent shows create entertainment by burdening us further with a sense of individual culpability, behaviour shows create it by removing that culpability altogether.


* Will Davies  lis a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, where  he is also Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: Culture

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