Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Married at First Sight - From the Lens of Psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona

A Glimpse Under the Veil of "Married at First Sight"

FYI Network's Married at First Sight Season 1 Finale became the most watched telecast in the network's history. I caught up with one of the show's four expert specialists, Dr. Joseph Cilona, licensed clinical psychologist, for exclusive insight on the docu-series that became a phenomenal overnight success.

How did you originally get involved with "Married at First Sight"?
I was contacted directly by one of the casting directors working on the show at the end of 2013.

What was your first thought when you were approached?

To be frank, I thought it was absurd, certain to be salacious, exploitive and sensational television, void of substance and quality. I initially refused to even take the meeting. I have been approached by producers more than a dozen times in the past, and turned down all of the offers, because I felt that the projects were exploitive or lacking substance in one way or another. I have worked very hard to build a successful private practice and professional reputation and would never threaten that by becoming involved with something that would undermine my reputation. And I just would never be comfortable being involved with something that was hurtful, demeaning, or exploitive to anyone, lacking in value for the viewer.

What made you decide to agree to this social 
Well, the irony is that this project sounded the most over-the-top, and it turned out to be the one I was most comfortable with and chose to do. When I initially politely declined, the casting director really pushed me to view the original Danish version of the show, upon which the US version would be based. They sent links of the entire series. Once I began watching, I was shocked to find that it was nothing I thought it would be. It was thoughtful, compelling, innovative, respectful, and very well executed. I watched the whole series in a few days. After I finished, I contacted them and told them I’m in, as long as they execute it the way they did the Danish version.

Did you know any of the other experts prior to agreeing?
No, I did not. But of course, I did some Googling and was very impressed by their credentials. 

What were the risks involved for you professionally?
As mentioned above, I have worked very hard to build a very successful private practice here in Manhattan, one of the most competitive markets for my field.  I put decades into building my credibility and reputation. Involvement in a national television project that might undermine that, had some very significant risks for my business, and my livelihood. 

What did you see as the possible gains that would outweigh the risks?

There were actual contractual assurances that the US version would mirror the Danish version very closely, so that made me very comfortable. Also, having dealt with so many production companies in the past, I could tell that Kinetic Content was different. They too were really invested in creating something special, innovative, and committed to honoring the Danish model. In fact, the shows creator, Michael Van Wurden, actually flew in from Denmark and spent four days with all of us, explaining all the elements of the model and why they are so important. This really made me feel relieved and excited about moving forward.

Were there any deal breakers for you?
We (the experts) had to have full control over the matches.  There couldn’t be any influence or override from production for production value or anything else. We were assured and they honored that. We had full control over making the matches.

Can you explain the selection process and your role specifically?
The casting process was already underway for 4-5 months when we were brought on. I believe these kinds of shows usually cast for only a month or two, so I knew they were taking it seriously. The producers were quite clever in the casting and did not reveal the actual premise (that there would be a blind arranged marriage) until the very end stages. In doing that, I think they really filtered out a lot of people that might have been in it for the wrong reasons (e.g. fame, notoriety, exposure, etc). 
They advertised things like: 
“Are you single and looking for love, but just can’t seem to find it no mater what you do?  Are you ready for commitment and marriage? Are you open to something radical?”  etc.
The casting people did a great job in finding candidates with potential. They conducted what they called “workshops” in which they divided them all into groups separated by gender, so they wouldn’t be exposed to one another. Then the Executive Producer, Sam Dean, dropped the bomb on them that they would have to agree to a totally legal blind arranged marriage.  
After the shock subsided and some people literally ran out, they turned it over to the experts. 
We then explained who we were, our professional background and expertise, what we would be contributing, exactly what our roles would be, and why we decided to participate in the show. This seemed to make a real difference in the decision to move forward, for a lot of people. I think they were assured by the fact that we are credible professionals with our reputations on the line, and were intrigued at all we were bringing to the table, to help them find love. 

As far as my specific role, I administered four separate sophisticated psychological assessment measures that examine different facets of personality, as well as the authenticity of the applicants.They had already undergone background checks and full psychological evaluations by an external firm that specializes in that (I was given access to those findings).
I also conducted extensive clinical interviews and developed my own thorough questionnaire, addressing every aspect of romantic compatibility I could think of. The process was exceptionally thorough, intense and extremely time consuming.

What was the time frame from reviewing applications to final selection?
Between 5-6 months total.  

What prompted you to go with the 3 couples?
The core of my recommendations was based on the findings from all of the formal assessments measures I administered. These yielded almost 100 pages of data on each participant. I then had to figure out how to use that data to inform my recommendations. 
Remember, these are sophisticated psychological tests intended to examine facets of personality. However, they were not intended (or as far as I know, previously used) to determine romantic compatibility. 
I ultimately had to use my best clinical judgment on how to use the data.  Of the 120+ facets of personality examined in the tests, I chose a 75% or higher apparent compatibility (or complementarity) as a cut-off for making recommendations for matches. 
The other experts had their own methods of assessment. We came together, discussed our findings and came up with our matches. The one thing the production company insisted upon, was that our decisions were unanimous. We all had to be in agreement on any final matches. 

You've said you went to bat for Jamie. What were the concerns about Jamie?   What was it that compelled you to fight for her?

One thing we all agreed upon, was that authenticity was absolutely essential for MAFS to have any meaning or value.  Participants had to be there for the right reason. They needed to be authentic and sincere in their quest to find love in this very unconventional manner, and for no other primary reason. Jamie’s previous experience in reality television gave us all pause and reason to question her authenticity. 

My testing has elements called, “Validity Scales,” that are very powerful indicators of authenticity. You really can’t fool these tests by trying to fake. I was actually surprised to see that Jamie’s results came up completely clean. There was not the slightest indicator of a lack of sincerity with her across all the measures. I was certain she was authentic. 

I also felt that my meetings with her outside of the testing, really convinced me of her authenticity. I actually brought her back for an additional thorough interview, specifically to address her intentions and her previous experience in reality television.

The other experts agreed and we all went to bat to include her. The production company and the network, I believe, had some reservations. We knew her history would cause skepticism once it inevitably got out. In the end, we were able to convince everyone why we felt she was a good choice. Everyone ultimately agreed she was a great candidate. And most importantly, we had what we thought to be such a strong match for her.

One issue the couples struggled with is trust. Is complete trust in 5 weeks essential or even possible in this scenario?

This is a tough question to answer.  Having gone through this process as an expert, it’s very difficult to explain how very intense and accelerated it all turned out to be.  So for me, making judgments like that about such a unique and unusual situation, is difficult. 
My short answer would be no, it’s not possible for anyone to have complete trust in such a short amount of time. However, I do think an extreme experience like this can help develop enough of a foundation of trust, to create a comfort level and take the risk to continue to work on what might be possible.

How involved were you in the editing process?
Not at all.

What is one thing you wish would have aired, that didn't?

I really wish they would have aired much more from my individual sessions, as well as sessions with the couples. I met with all of them for 4-5 hours each in total. Only about 5-8 minutes for each couple was ultimately aired of all of those 15-20 hours of meetings.

We covered some really important issues, and I really feel like showing more of those meetings could have added a lot to the viewers’ understanding of the participants, the nuances of their relationships and what the experience as whole had been like for each of them.

Tell me one thing that surprised you throughout this process.
The thing that was most surprising to me was how the perception of the amount of time that passed, was so distorted. The five weeks really did feel like a MUCH longer amount of time. I believe the other experts and all the participants had the same experience.

What is one thing you would change?
I’m not sure of anything specific right now, but I think it’s very important to examine very closely everything we did, to see where it might be improved.

Why do you think the show was so successful? 

I feel the show was so successful because it was absolutely authentic. I think the viewers could really see and feel that authenticity, which is what I believe resonated so deeply with them. I also think we could see pieces of our past relationships and ourselves in these couples. It touched on things that we all struggle with and care about.  

Share your level of personal investment in the success of the couples, the show and why.
It’s hard to explain how invested I became in these couples and in the show. Of course, when I agreed to do it, I was committed to doing the best job that I could do. However, as it evolved, it became much more compelling and engaging than I ever imagined it could be. It was an extraordinary experience in so many ways. I never imagined it could be so moving and meaningful.

What are your thoughts regarding the integrity and authenticity remaining intact for Season 2 of Married at First Sight.
For me, the most important element remains authenticity. Now that the show is so visible and popular, I think it presents some new challenges. But I do believe they are surmountable.  

Do you have to live in NY in order to apply/be chosen? If so, what is the reason for this? 

I don’t have any specific information about this. I do think there is a possibility of it being in another area of the country. The production of this show is very challenging in many ways. How the casting evolves may influence where it will ultimately take place. They need to find enough appropriate potential participants in a geographically accessible area in order to execute this. So, I guess time will tell…

 You might also like: A Chat with Courtney Hendrix 

To read my interview with Married at First Sight's, Courtney Hendrix, click here.

Screencaps made by Bee, courtesy of FYI Network's Married at First Sight.

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