Reality TV study shows race and age discrimination among contestants

Wednesday, 04 March 2020

Reality TV contestants have regularly faced accusations of discriminating against ethnic minorities in the choices they make and a new study of the TV show, Big Brother, supports this view with evidence that white contestants are more likely to nominate for eviction ethnic minority housemates.

In the first study of its kind, Dr Tom Lane from the School of Economics at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, examined the nominations of contestants in 35 series of Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother, broadcast on British TV.

Men were more likely to be racially biased and there were regional variations in voting patterns with northerners showing the highest tendency to vote against non-white housemates. Racial discrimination was higher in the 18 to 25 year old age group, compared to contestants aged over 40. Levels of education made little difference. Highly educated people and those with less education discriminated significantly against non-whites.

Tom-Lane 120 x 144 May 2017
The recent allegations of racial bias among contestants on Love Island are concerning but based on only a small number of observations. My research on Big Brother, using a large dataset, finds that there is indeed strong evidence of discriminatory patterns of behaviour against ethnic minorities on British reality TV. The patterns are similar whether we look at celebrity or ‘civilian' housemates. Overall, this suggests that despite efforts to stamp out racism from British society, it remains a problem, even in the most public of settings.
Dr Tom Lane

He analysed 1,919 sets of nomination choices, made by 461 contestants from across 35 series, and excluded nominations with a twist that did not follow the formal pattern. He found that on average white contestants nominate about 1.3 non-white contestants for every 1 white contestant they nominate.

He also tested for bias based on age, gender and geographical locations. Key findings are:

  • Age discrimination is stronger among northerners than by Londoners.
  • The likelihood of a housemate being nominated increases with their age difference with the nominator.
  • Age-based discrimination is found in contestants of high and low levels of education.
  • Londoners discriminated against the opposite gender more than those from other regions whilst northerners favoured the opposite gender.

Dr Lane concludes: “The chance of making friends or finding a romantic partner may motivate discrimination along identity lines and it partly explains the tendency among younger housemates to nominate older contestants. Another possibility is that housemates favour people who are same as them because they see it as advantageous towards their own chances of winning.”

The report, ‘Along which identity lines does 21st-century Britain divide? Evidence from Big Brother’ is published in the journal, Rationality and Society.

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