How mad are you?

Horizon explores the fuzzy boundary between sanity and science programming

‘How mad are you?’, a two-parter in the BBC’s Horizon series, attempts to steer a course through the rocky, murky waters which divide people with psychological illness from people who are normal, but just a bit weird. The programme, the boat in our over-stretched analogy, ended up lost in the Gulf of Aden, where it was hijacked by Somali pirates who held the (film) crew to ransom for the licence fee unless they pepped up the ratings by forcing it to be more compelling telly.

Any delusions of sober, considered analysis were RPG-ed out of the water by the opening pitch, which explained that the complex psychological experiment was to take place in a picturesque castle. Do you think that the subjects might notice that they’re being studied? And that’s before you shove cameras in their faces during their every waking moment.

The smoke-like gossamer of serious science was draped over a shameless personality-centric reality show where five people who had a history of psychological disorders were stuck into close proximity with five people who hadn’t, and some psychologists had to guess who was which. The three ‘experts’ had to discern the mentally normal from the normally mental using only video of the subjects’ performance in various bizarre tasks, whilst constantly reiterating that they were probably wrong, to try to avoid upsetting or offending any of the participants by misdiagnosing them.

The depressing result for the ‘experts’ was that they were only successful in two of their five guesses, and those two were well obvious. The chap with OCD had a task especially tailored for his specific form of the disorder: his obsession was with being fastidious, and consequently his egregious squirming during the test where they had to clean out a barn full of cow shit was something of a red flag. Similarly, the ex-anorexic was a relatively skinny woman who dramatically over-estimated in the guess-how-wide-you-are test. Woop, woop. That’s the even-an-amateur-can-do-this psychology alert.

However, we might forgive the experts for doing no better than an armchair psychologist: without access to clinical histories or indeed any diagnostic tools other than some video footage and an extremely restrictive handful of interviews, they were denied much hope of ever getting it right. This was compounded by the fact that none of the participants were at present suffering from their disorder (with the exception of the OCD chappie), meaning that analysis of their conditions was reduced to glib over-extrapolation from the minutiae of small-talk, attitude and behaviour as they approached the tasks and their fellow participants.

As a consequence, the rest of the participants were uniformly misdiagnosed, which is a double-edged sword as far as societal attitudes to mental health are concerned. On the pros side, it was made obvious that people suffering from psychological illness can appear fairly normal, and be hard to distinguish from the ‘sane’ people around us. However, it would have been possible to construe that diagnosis of psychological abnormality was flimsy to the point of usually-wrong, which can’t do the image of science or the medical profession much good.

However, the main problem with the programme in my view was the same as the trouble with every science show. If you’ve got enough mental capacity to read the TV guide and decide to watch it, you will find it glacially slow. Physics shows are some of the worst offenders, with every drip of actual science interspersed with ten minutes of pointless time-lapse footage of the night sky rotating over a telescope on a remote mountaintop accompanied by ponderous narration which rhetorically asks how modern science can be so fucking weird. How mad are you? was no exception; the padding here was infuriatingly-edited footage of the tasks, most of which felt so much like Castaway 2000 that I was expecting Ben smug-face Fogle to pop up (hopefully as one of the ones with a mental disorder) at any moment and shoot a camera-smashing winning smile out of the screen at me.

What makes the slow-lane dumbed-down editing of these shows most disappointing is that the science is genuinely fascinating. One test, using to jars of beads to identify schizophrenia, sparked a day’s rumination on the meaning of quantifying human rationality. Science shows should be less of an easy-going stroll through over-simplified concept space. Give me a brain-assaulting cascade of idea vomit, replete with juicy chunks of mind-boggling carrot which I can pick from my hair, rinse off and look up at a later date.

How mad are you? is slightly simplistic science draped in a pedestrian reality show—it’s not nearly mad enough.


  1. Rather agree with your position on this documentary. The format itself seemed to suffer from a ‘Jumping to conclusions’ bias – to the extent that the ‘experts’ ended up diagnosing a healthy individual as having schizophrenia.

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