The Big Bang Debate

ResearchBlogging.orgA few days ago, I posted this poll about the show The Big Bang Theory, asking the question if it was bad for science (and women). I closed the poll last night, the votes are in, you people have spoken.  Here’s the final results from 58 votes – and thanks for voting, polls are fun!

Most of you don’t seem to take sitcoms all that seriously, and that’s probably a sensible attitude. Also, quite a few of you think I should get a life. That’s probably also a fair statement. Beyond that, there’s about twice the number of BBT-lovers as there are BBT-haters, with a smattering of on-the-fencers. Well, you already know where I stand, but before I return back to the life that I do in fact have, let me elaborate.

Like I said in the previous post, I really love BBT. One of the reasons I don’t have a problem with the way the characters are presented is that they have really evolved as the show’s progressed – particularly the central trio of Leonard, Penny and Sheldon. They are very human and loveable. The message to me is that every Sheldon needs a Penny in their life, and vice versa, which is lovely.The boys may mock Penny, but she often comes out on top. And even though Penny looks down on the scientists’ geekiness, she ends up joining in and having fun.

I suspect that many people who have a problem with the stereotyping haven’t watched beyond the first few episodes, in which the characters are very one-dimensional. And I guess the reason these folks didn’t continue watching is that they just didn’t like it, which would further contribute to their negative feeling about it.

I don’t actually think the show is perfect, there are some things that maybe I’d like to see changed. The two supporting characters of Howard and Raj are a little one-sided compared with Leonard, Penny and Sheldon, and I really hope something happens on that front. And what happened to Leslie Winkle, the resident girl physicist? It would be great if her part became more substantial again. I read somewhere that the writers just couldn’t get quality material for her on a regular basis – but I found her much more fun and interesting than, say, creepy Kripke, who seems to have become more of a fixture in the show. Try harder, writers, please?

One voter who went for the “trainwreck” option impressively demonstrated an evidence base to their concerns about BBT: a study from 2008 published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, looking at how sexist humour affects male attitudes towards women (also described here). In a couple experiments, the authors show how exposure to sexist humour makes men who already have sexist attitudes towards women act out more on their feelings, e.g. by being less likely to donate money to a women’s rights organisation, than if exposed to gender-neutral jokes or to just sexist statements (rather than jokes). The message is that joking about women makes sexist behaviour more acceptable. In the authors’ own words, “sexist humor acts as a releaser of prejudice”.

I think behavioural research of this kind is not hard science in the way that physics is, and I don’t know enough about the background and methodology of the study to analyse it critically. I’m sure there are some provisos, no research is perfect, but I can accept their conclusion that sexist jokes, like racist or homophobic jokes, can make it seem ok to discriminate, which is bad. I just don’t think BBT is as one-sided as that.

An interesting side avenue to the discussion was raised by another friend: perhaps our personal feelings about BBT say more about ourselves than about the show? Go think about that, voters.

Ford, T., Boxer, C., Armstrong, J., & Edel, J. (2007). More Than “Just a Joke”: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humor Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (2), 159-170 DOI: 10.1177/0146167207310022


  1. Don’t get me wrong, I like BBT, but much like The IT Crowd, it is pretty much a standard, formulaic sitcom with nerdy words in place of “regular people” speech. I enjoy both of those shows shows, but wish they were more along the lines of Spaced for computer/science nerds.

  2. “I think behavioural research of this kind is not hard science in the way that physics is”

    1: What exactly do you mean by that?
    2: Is the answer to 1 something you can express in terms of p-values?
    3: If not, why not?

  3. Christie says:

    I think, with regards to the research, there’s a bit of a ‘duh’ factor to these findings. If you’re racist, you are encouraged by the KKK. In general, if you fell one way and others appear to agree, of course your view is reinforced.

    By the way: love the show.

  4. @i – what I mean by that is that testing human behaviour is not like testing, say, an astrophyiscal hypothesis. While I’m sure we can learn all kinds of fascinating things from the experiments in the paper, the fact is that human behaviour doesn’t follow laws of nature in the way that protons and electrons do. Moreover, while atoms will behave in exactly the same way inside a lab or out in space (given the same conditions), what people say in a questionnaire for a research study may not reflect how they would act in everyday life.

    So all I’m saying is that, IMO, psychological studies should be interpreted with care and caution. That said, the outcome of this study seems pretty plausible from a totally non-expert point of view.

    @Christie – I agree. But interestingly, the study did show specifically that the pre-existing sexist feeling were acted on to a greater degree in those who’d been exposed to sexist jokes, rather than just sexist statements that weren’t supposed to be funny. So it seems like it’s the humour in particular that lowers the threshold to discriminating behaviour.


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