“Behavioural theory is a powerful tool for the government communicator, but you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work.”
Executive Director of
Normalising state punishment
Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individual pathologies of “welfare dependency” and “worklessness.” The consequence is an escalating illogic of authoritarian policy measures which have at their core the intensification of punitive conditionality. These state interventions are justified by the construction and mediation of stigma, which is directed at already marginalised social groups that the policies target. The groups, which include sick and disabled people, people who are unemployed, are painted with a Malthusian brush, as a “burden on the state” and a drain on what are politically portrayed and publicly seen as scarce resources in an era of austerity. Political processes of scapegoating, stigmatisation and outgrouping have been amplified by a largely complicit UK corporate media.
Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative and new political and economic responses. Behavioural economics theories, which “nudge” is a part of, for example, are aimed at “changing the behaviours” of citizens perceived to “make the wrong choices” – ultimately the presented political aim is to mend Britain’s supposedly “broken society” and to restore a country that “lives within its means”, according to a narrow, elitist view, bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on “economic competitiveness” in a “global race.”
Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter: it has been politically reduced and is explained as a private, internal characteristic of disadvantaged individuals, rather than it being an inevitable feature of a socioeconomic form of organisation founded on competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise it, making disadvantage the private and sole responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach to changing citizen’s behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes.
Institutions structure political struggles, they provide models, schemas and scripts for citizen’s behaviours. Bureaucratic norms within the welfare state have become increasingly about moral rectification. Debate about addressing structural inequality and poverty has been transformed into political rhetoric about behavioural incentives to change what are deemed to be poor people’s biased attitudes, cognitive deficits and faulty actions. Apparently, wealthy people don’t have these flaws.
Welfare dependency is now a synonym for poverty, with its perceived dimensions of moral/psychological dependency accepted as a character “trait” or a “personality disorder.” The sociopolitical relations of subordination, exploitation and economic organisation that were hidden within the discourse of “dependency” have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty.
Narratives about social security in the UK that emphasise a deepening of neoliberalisation became particularly virulent in the context of the global economic crash, which raised threats to the New Right neoliberal hegemony.
In August 2008, James Purnell, then Work and Pensions secretary, ordered a review of welfare to cut costs. The review explored how behavioural economics (nudge) may be used to “motivate” those claiming welfare support and to establish what the “right conditions” are for the long-term unemployed or to deal with those thought to be “abusing the system.”
The review also addressed issues such as how people’s aversion to loss could be used to reduce the claimant count, which included consideration of the loss of high regard in the community; respect for legitimate authority; reciprocity – including a sense of obligation to give something back – and finally, “social proof” (using normative setting) – responding to the behaviour of others, such as their successful search for work.
Following some targeted survey work carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions, it was claimed that more than half of claimants say they are more likely to look for work because of the threat of sanctions. It was also suggested that attaching more stringent conditions to welfare could draw on the then latest British interest in nudge economics, and the “hidden art of persuasion.” This took place in a context of other European countries and the US exploring similar radical welfare reforms. (See also: Experiments on Unemployment Benefit Sanctions and Job Search Behaviour, 2004).
However, the direct evidence on the impact of sanctions largely concerns how it affected the compliance; rule-following, job seeking behaviour and employment rates of those who have actually experienced or been formally warned of a sanction. However, how “employment rates” are actually measured poses a problem, as, in the UK, an outcome of employment is assumed if someone’s claim is closed.
Several US studies have used high quality designs to analyse differences in post-welfare outcomes and found that, on average, those who are sanctioned out of the welfare system are less likely to enter employment than those who leave for other reasons. Sanctioned welfare leavers are more likely to experience severe hardship and some become disconnected from income and other support systems.
Purnell resigned in 2009, as Gordon Brown refused to implement his neoliberal welfare proposals. The Nudge Unit was established and formally instituted as part of the Cabinet in 2010, under Cameron’s coalition government.
I’ve written more than one critical piece about the Government’s part-privatised Nudge Unit – the Behavioural Insights Team – particularly its insidious and malevolent influence on the range of psychocratic policies aimed at “behavioural changes” which are now being imposed on the poorest citizens.
From the shrinking category of legitimate “disability” to forcing people to work for no pay on exploitative workfare schemes, “nudge” has been used to euphemistically frame punitive policies, “applying the principles of behavioural economics to the important issue of the transition from welfare to work.” (See: Employing BELIEF:Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, 2010.)
The Conservatives have claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and harsh conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” and “incentivising” people to find work, highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of structural constraints; labor market conditions, exclusion from acceptable living standards because of cuts to income and rising living costs, bad political decision-making and subsequent policy-shaped socioeconomic circumstances.
The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed more than one manipulated semantic shift, words like “fair” , “support” , “reform” , “responsibility”, “opportunities” and “help” , for example, have become embedded in a narrative of superficial Glittering Generalities – part of a lexicon of persuasion and precarious psychosemantics that simply prop up Tory ideology – an idiom of belief – in an endlessly erroneous, irrational and self-referential way.
The problem is that the power of a system of such implicit beliefs to defeat valid objections one by one is entirely due to the circularity and self-perpetuating nature of such systems, as Iain Duncan Smith, who stands firmly within this idiom, consistently demonstrates only too well. After being rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority (ONS) for his claim that his policies have “forced 8,000 benefit claimants back into work” in 2013, he was informed politely that this wasn’t empirically evidenced – his claim could not be proven with his statistics. His response was: “I have a belief that I am right […] you cannot disprove what I said.” His “theory” tells him what he may observe.
There is a gulf between the rhetoric and empirical evidence on benefit sanctions. The evidence base is both small and limited in its scope, and it does not accommodate the differing approaches to preventing poverty and promoting opportunity that arise in international policy design. Increased welfare conditionality and sanctions are too narrowly based on a rhetoric of moral(ising) philosophy, and takes a highly selective approach evidence.
Iain Duncan Smith is the expert Tory pop-psychologist, fluent in psychobabble words like “incentivise” and “behavioural change” and whilst he demands rigorous research standards from academics and his critics, he doesn’t ever uphold those same standards himself.
If you “just know” you’re right, then does it matter if you regularly make up the evidence to support your mighty powers of New Right and very neoliberal intuitions? It ought to, and it would if Conservative policy was genuinely based on meeting public needs, evidence and objective measures of effectiveness, rather than being based on prejudice and political expediency.
Words like “fair” and “help” now signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative discourse. Nudge permeates language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help” “justice” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.
The Conservatives have orchestrated semantic shifts which reflect neoliberal values and reference a distinctive New Right ideological repertoire, from which is constructed basic pseudo-scientific justification narratives, asserting that people claiming welfare do so, as I said previously, because of “faulty” personal characteristics and various types of cognitive incompetence and laziness. In short, the government have pathologised and stigmatised unemployment, redefining it as a psychological disorder.
The government have also problematised welfare, based on the absurd New Right idea that financial support when people really need it somehow creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support, justice and opportunities: social insurance and security.
The government have adopted a strongly disciplinarian approach to structural problems such as poverty, using narratives that are strikingly reminiscent of the attitudes and values that shaped the extremely punitive and ill-conceived 1834 Poor Law amendment act.
The post-war welfare state is founded on the idea that government plays a key role in ensuring the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and both political and social responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for health and wellbeing.
Restricting choices to “choice”
The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare “conditionality” in 2012. Sanctions are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – a cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.
I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution.
Libertarian paternalists claim that whilst it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of coercive, draconian Conservative welfare sanctions.
Last year I wrote about the connection between the Nudge Unit’s pseudoscientific obsession with manipulating people’s decision-making by utilising various cognitive bias theories – in this case, particularly, the behavioural economic theory of loss aversion – and the increased use and severity of benefit sanctions. Though most people succumbing to the Nudge Unit’s guru effect (ironically, another cognitive bias) think that “nudging” is just about prompting men to pee on the right spot in urinals, or about persuading us to donate organs and to pay our taxes on time. Nudge is at the very heart of the New Right’s neo-behaviourist turn, which entails the application of operant conditioning to individualise and privatise social problems such as inequality and poverty.
When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.
For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – read this paper, focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions, paying particular attention to the part about loss aversion, on page 7.
And this on page 18: “The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).”
The recommendation on that page: “We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”
The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as disabled people.
The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012.
Sanctioning welfare recipients by removing their lifeline benefit – originally calculated to meet the cost of only basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – isn’t about “arranging choice architecture”, it’s not nudging: it’s operant conditioning. It’s a brand of particularly dystopic, psychopolitical behaviourism, and is all about a totalitarian level of micromanaging people to ensure they are obedient and compliant to the needs of the “choice architects” and policy-makers. Nudge in this context is nothing more than a prop for austerity, neoliberalism and social conservatism.
It is all-pervasive, nudge permeates political rhetoric and discursive practices. Words like “help” and “support” disguise coercive and punitive state actions. Bland language is used to normalise inequality and discriminatory political practices. The word “incentivise,” for example, is used a lot by the Conservatives, but to wealthy people, it means financial privileges in the form of tax cuts and privatised wealth, and to poor people, it means having lifeline income taken away by the state.
Deploying behavioural modification techniques (and without the public’s consent) marginalises political discussion, stifles public debate, sidesteps democratic dialogue, problem-solving, criticism and challenges and forecloses the possibility of social justice considerations.
Furthermore, an individual’s autonomy, which is also the basis of his or her dignity, as a person, is worthy of protection and should not be interfered with by any kind of behavioural modification, “nudge” or otherwise. Nor should removing people’s lifeline income designed to meet only basic survival needs ever be withdrawn as a state “correction” and punishment.
Nudge operates at a much broader level, too. The intentional political construction of folk devils and purposeful culturally amplified references to a stereotype embodying fecklessness, idleness and irresponsibility, utilising moral panic and manufactured public outrage as an effective platform for punitive welfare reform legislation, is one example of the value-laden application of pseudoscientific “behavioural insights” theory. The new paternalists have drawn on our psychosocial inclinations towards conformity, which is evident in the increasing political use of manipulative normative messaging. (For example, see: The Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. used social normative messages to increase tax compliance in 2011.)
The paternalist’s behavioural theories have been used to increasingly normalise a moral narrative based on a crude underpinning “deserving” and “undeserving” dichotomy, that justifies state interventions imposing conditions of extreme deprivation amongst some social groups – especially those previously considered legally protected. Public rational and moral boundaries have been and continue to be nudged and shifted, incrementally. Gordon Allport outlined a remarkably similar process in his classic political psychology text, The Nature of Prejudice, which describes the psychosocial processes involved in the construction of categorical others, and the subsequent escalating scale of prejudice and discrimination.
In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of the impacts of such policies .
The theory tells you what you may observe
There is no evidence that welfare sanctions improve employment outcomes. There is no evidence that sanctions “change behaviours.” There is, in any case, a substantial difference between people conforming with welfare conditionality and rules and gaining appropriate and secure employment.
One difficulty is that since 2011, Job Centre Plus’s (JCP) primary key performance indicator has been off-flow from benefit at the 13th, 26th, 39th and 52nd weeks of claims. Previously JCP’s performance had been measured against a range of performance indicators, including off-flows from benefit into employment.
Indeed, when asked for evidence by the Work and Pensions Committee, one minister, in her determination to defend the Conservative sanction regime, regrettably provided misleading information on the destinations of JSA, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance claimants from 2011, that pre-dated the new sanctions regime introduced in 2012, in an attempt to challenge the findings of the University of Oxford/LSHTM study on the effects of sanctions on getting JSA claimants off-flow. (Fewer than 20% of this group of people who were no longer in receipt of JSA were recorded as finding employment.) Source: Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review – Work and Pensions.
Studies have shown that being “treated” by at least one “stick” (punitive measure) significantly reduces an individual’s earnings after periods of unemployment; on the other hand, participating in a supportive programme affects earnings positively.
Treatment and policy regime effects of Carrots and Sticks, in % of average earnings
Effects are expressed in percent of average monthly earnings within 3.5 years after unemployment (3547 CHF = 3290 EUR = 3575 USD in sample). Treatment effects: effects of being exposed to at least one carrot (job search assistance, training) or stick (sanction, workfare programme).
Source: Arni, P, Lalive, R, and G J van den Berg (2015) “Treatment versus regime effects of Carrots and Sticks”, IZA Discussion Paper 9457.
It’s remarkably difficult to reconcile state imposed responsibilities that illiberally target only one social group, with democracy and universal human rights, which are based on core principles like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy.
We ought to question the claim that the manipulation of public decision-making to cut costs to the state is in our “best interests.” Who is nudging the nudgers, and clearly they have their own whopping great “cognitive biases.”
Behavioural modification techniques are particularly prone to abuse because they are very effective – all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists – and such techniques represent, because of the range of subtle to threatening methods in which they exercise control and can elicit compliance, a political tool that is difficult to observe, challenge and control.
It’s also worth noting that the application of nudge is entirely experimental and nonconsenusal. For the record, when a government in a so called first world liberal democracy – that are generally expected to recognise and address public needs – decides to act upon citizens to change their behaviours to meet partisan, ideologically directed outcomes, we tend to call that authoritarianism, not nudge.
If it wasn’t for this government’s “behaviourist turn” and psychosemantic approach to the inequality and poverty that their policies tend to extend, the Department for Work and Pensions would have been renamed “The Department for Punitive State Correction and Neoliberal Behaviour Modification Experiments.”
I wrote much of this as part of a considerably longer piece, but felt that this particular point and the evidence regarding the intensification of sanctions was lost in the weight of other important issues raised in the original article: The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work