Tag: loss aversion

The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

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Some context: the new neuroliberalism and “behavioural insights”

The behaviourist turn in government administration – the use of targeted citizen behavioural conditionality in neoliberal policy making –  has expanded globally and is linked to the growth of behavioural economics theory (“nudge”) and a New Right brand of “libertarian paternalism.”  

Reconstructing citizenship as highly conditional stands in sharp contrast to democratic principles, rights-based policies and to those policies based on prior financial contribution, as underpinned in the social insurance and social security frameworks that arose from the post-war settlement.

The fact that the poorest citizens are being targeted with behavioural theory-based interventions also indicates discriminatory policy, which reflects traditional Conservative class-based prejudices. It’s an authoritarian approach to poverty which simply strengthens existing power hierarchies, rather than addressing the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK.

Some of us have dubbed this trend neuroliberalism because it serves as a justification for enforcing politically defined neoliberal outcomes. A hierarchical socioeconomic organisation is being shaped by increasingly authoritarian policies, placing the responsibility for growing inequality and poverty on individuals, side-stepping the traditional (and very real) political/structural explanations of social and economic problems.

Such a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce and established power relations and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are best for poor citizens, who are assumed to lack cognitive competence (because they are poor and therefore make “the wrong decisions”). Apparently the theories and insights of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. Policy has increasingly extended a neoliberal cognitive competence and decision-making hierarchy. 

It’s very interesting that the Behavioural Insights Team now claim that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be “counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from the behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place. 

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare conditionality in the Conservative’s Welfare “reform” Act, 2012. The current sanction regime is based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – an alleged cognitive bias we have 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 alleged behavioural deficits and poor decision-making. Hence the need for policies that “rectify” behaviour.

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. At the very least this approach indicates a slippery slope from “arranging choice architecture” in order to support the “right” decisions that are felt to benefit people, to downright punitive and coercive policies that entail psycho-compulsion, such as sanctioning and mandatory workfare. 

Psychology is being misused by the government to explain unemployment (it’s claimed to happen because people have the “wrong attitude” for work) and as a means to achieve the “right” attitude for job readiness. Psycho-compulsion is the imposition of often pseudo-psychological explanations of unemployment and justifications of mandatory activities which are aimed at changing presumed beliefs, attitudes and dispositions. The Behavioural Insights Team have previously propped up this approach.

Welfare conditionality and its experimental approach to behavioural change doesn’t operate within an ethical framework, citizens cannot withdraw from behavioural experiments, nor is this framework based on informed consent. The impact of state directed psycho-compulsion and potential harm that it may cause citizens is not being monitored. 

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is composed of mostly behavioural economists, who also claim the title of libertarian paternalists (and who have a clear and distinct ideological premise for their behavioural theories, while attempting to claim “objectivity”.)

They claim that while 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.” Apparently, that proviso doesn’t apply to poor citizens.

The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of extremely coercive and punitive Conservative welfare sanctions.

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.

And when one nudge theory fails, there are always lucrative and political opportunities to generate more.

Of course Dr Kizzy Gandy, a leading researcher at the policy unit says: “We are optimistic that behavioural science can help government departments to better design policies to help those who are ‘just managing’ in order to prevent and overcome poverty.”

In a new report released today from the Behavioural Insights Team, the authors say: “There is evidence that welfare conditionality in the UK – mandatory behavior requirements such as attending meetings with work coaches or providing repeated evidence of disability in order to receive benefits – is associated with anxiety and feelings of disempowerment.” 

“However, as far as we know no one has examined whether welfare conditionality has cognitive depleting effects.”

It’s particularly worrying that there is a proposal in the report for further experimental pseudo-psychological approaches to policies aimed at the poorest citizens. The researchers call on the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct experiments into whether welfare conditionality actually had any positive effects and suggested that “self-set” and “enforced goals” might be a better way of “helping people into work.” Although this allows for a little tokenist self-determination and permits a little autonomy, it is still an approach ultimately based on coercion and enforcement.

There is a clear distinction to be made between “behavioural science” – which is almost entirely about economic outcomes; what is politically deemed “best” for citizens and social conformity, and mainstream psychology – which embraces a much broader and deeper perspective of the complexities of human potential and wellbeing.

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 – here is an interesting read: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, which is focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions.

(Update 27/10/17 – the link to the original document no longer works. But I found a copy with the same page layout here, luckily: – https://www2.learningandwork.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/CESI_employing_BELIEF.pdf).

Pay particular attention to the part about the alleged cognitive bias called 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 lone parents, sick and 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. I wrote about this at length earlier this year, here: Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification.

The Behavioural Insights Team, (otherwise known as the Nudge Unit) was set up by David Cameron in 2010. In their most recent report called Poverty and decision-making: How behavioural science can improve opportunity in the UK, the nudge researchers now say that burdening unemployed people with responsibilities, using the threat of sanctions might actually be making it harder for them to get jobs.

According to the behavioural economist theorists authoring this highly jargonised report, government policies designed to help people are reducing and impairing people’s so-called cognitive scope and abilities.

However, it’s difficult to imagine how punitive sanctioning, which entails the removal of people’s lifeline income, originally calculated to meet the costs of only basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter, could ever be seen as “helping people.”

I don’t believe that Orwellian semantic shifts can ever provide a genuine and effective solution to poverty and inequality. 

Some major inconsistencies and incoherences in the report

In the latest BIT report, loss aversion is mentioned again:  “People dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains. Babcock, Congdon, Katz, and Mullainathan (2012) hypothesise that people may experience loss aversion if they consider taking a job paying below past earnings. Therefore, they may stay on unemployment benefits longer than they should. Unrealistic wage expectations may be reinforced when the social status and personal identities of workers are strongly tied to their previous job.” [My emphasis]

Note the phrase “unrealistic wage expectations” and later incoherent comments in the report about in-work poverty, which I will highlight.

The summary report states in the introduction: A third of the UK population spent at least one year in relative income poverty between 2011 and 2014.

Traditionally policymakers and anti-poverty organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) have focused on boosting people’s economic capital (e.g., income) and human capital (e.g., educational attainment) to reduce poverty. While investments in these areas have led to important gains in opportunity for many Britons, emerging research from behavioural science shows that other less tangible resources, which derive from psychological, social and cultural processes, significantly influence people’s ability to overcome disadvantage.

BIT was commissioned by JRF to examine the role of individual decisions in shaping people’s experiences of poverty in the UK and to identify the drivers of these decisions. This reflects JRF’s interest in looking beyond traditional, structural drivers of poverty. Our findings, based on a review of the published literature, are presented in a new report, launched today.”

 

Let’s cut to the chase. The entire document is framed by the use of a distinct and established narrative; it’s composed of a pre-loaded ideological language, references and signposts, using comments and phrases like “[…] we explain some of the ways that cognitive, character and social capital influence social mobility, via decision-making.”  

And a sub-heading:Character capital: Self-efficacy and responsive parenting.” Apparently, “home visits by health workers have had positive effects in preventing intergenerational poverty.” That’s quite a remarkable claim, given that the document acknowledges poverty is actually increasing in the UK.

The whole concept of character capital is itself founded on the notion that people with an “internal locus of control” tend to perform tasks better than those with an “external locus of control.” This is about where people place the responsibility for what they achieve – either “inside” individuals, based solely on notions of merit, specific skills and talents, or external to individuals – “outside” of them, based on environmental conditions such as competition, chance, opportunities, socioeconomic, employment market context and so on. However, the cited evidence to support this theory was later contradicted in the report.

It’s also worrying that it is implied those who believe that achievement is linked with structural conditions are “under-performers.” It reads a little like a Samuel Smiles Victorian treatise on “thrift, character and self-help.”

It’s also an almost subliminal method of dismissing the impact of structural constraints on the opportunities available to individuals. It serves to make invisible what was once a key consideration in public discussions about poverty: the unequal distribution of power, wealth, resources and opportunity.

Also of note: “low levels of financial literacy” was conflated with notions of “human capital”, which “potentially exacerbate the effects of depleted cognitive capital among low income groups when choosing between credit options.”  Nothing to see here, then, regarding the behaviour of lenders. I mean whoever heard of a bank offering an overdraft to people who actually need one. Still, thank goodness there are generous companies like Wonga, always ready to step up to the mark, with eye-watering interest rates to offer those on low incomes.

The research authors seem to think that the only human potential worth recognising is that of our economic decision-making. Yet when people are materially poor, budgeting and decision-making are invariably constrained – that’s intrinsic to the very nature of poverty.

Limited decision-making and reduced available choices don’t cause poverty: they are the subsequent exclusion effects of poverty.

It’s telling that none of the recommendations made in this document actually address the structural and political causes of material poverty and growing inequality in the UK.

There is a substantial incoherence in some of the claims made, too. For example: “The world of work is possibly the single most important policy area for maximising individual and household resources to prevent and overcome poverty.”

Yet: “Just under half of those in poverty in the UK live in a workless household (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2014)”. So work clearly doesn’t pay for over half of those people in poverty. 

In fairness, it is later acknowledged that: “However, simply being in work is not sufficient to prevent or overcome poverty. Nearly two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families.” 

This heavily jargonised rhetoric is, on the whole, about looking for cheap individualist “solutions” to poverty that disregard the need for improving people’s material and financial situations, by extending on an existing neoliberal narrative of alleged individual fault, character deficits, cognitive bias and decision-making flaws.

None of this will raise the profile of crucial issues such as the conditions imposed by austerity and neoliberal policies, socioeconomic organisation and political decision-making, that are having a profound impact on growing inequality and increasing poverty in the UK. The persistent use of the word “workless” rather than “unemployed” is another linguistic signpost for neoliberal competitive individualism, too. 

Geographer David Harveydescribes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets. The report does not refer to the mode of political-economic organisation of which growing inequality and poverty are an intrinsic and inevitable feature.

Proposed solutions: more of the same

Summary of recommendations:

MINIMISING COSTS

Consumer credit

1 Make it easier to access low cost credit through extending access to interest-free Budgeting Advances; assisting credit unions to expand online services; and providing tax relief to individuals taking out payroll loans.

2 Further restrict practices by high cost credit providers that play on consumer biases, and test remedies that will improve consumer credit decision-making.

3 Continue to evaluate financial capability programmes through initiatives like the Money Advice Service What Works Fund.

(Access to credit does not alleviate poverty in the long-term.)

Savings

1 Test ways of automating rainy day savings through employer enrolment, default savings accounts with banks, and Universal Credit payments.

2 Evaluate the effectiveness of financial apps for helping people save.

3 Optimise the Help to Save matching scheme, through testing auto-enrolment and prizes for regular saving, to encourage low-income groups to save.

(Poor citizens do not have sufficient funds to make savings. And research shows that absolute poverty is growing in the UK, which means that many people often don’t have sufficient funds for meeting even fundamental survival needs, such as for food and fuel.) 

MAXIMISING RESOURCES

Work

1 Use identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work in order to improve the quality and sustainability of jobs that people find.

2 Collect longer-term and more holistic outcome measures of labour market interventions to understand their full impact on poverty.

3 Develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs.

Entitlements

1 Develop a common “cognitive load stress test” that measures how easy it is for eligible groups to access government entitlements.

2 Use annual entitlement summaries to prompt existing welfare recipients to apply for other assistance they may be eligible for, and to help them budget.

3 Experiment with the design of welfare conditionality to boost cognitive capacity and self-efficacy, such as having claimants set their own payment conditions.

PREVENTING INTERGENERATIONAL POVERTY

Parenting

1 Provide families in or near poverty with free access to evidence-based online parenting programmes.

2 Develop community to strengthen social ties between parents from different backgrounds.

3 Conduct research into whether small and inexpensive adjustments to housing conditions can reduce cognitive load and improve parental decision-making.

Post secondary education

1 Make the application process for post-secondary education as simple as possible, for example, by pre-populating application forms.

2 Use personalised assistance and prompts to encourage students and parents to apply to post-secondary education.

3 Link formal information about returns to post-secondary education with informal information (from peers) about what post-secondary education will be like.

Every single intervention recommendation fails to address the structural causes of poverty, which lie outside of the control of people experiencing poverty. Yet most of these recommendations are aimed at prompting the state to act upon individuals.  

Proposals such as providing access to parenting programmes, “identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work”, “rainy day savings”, and to “develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs” all sound like a New Right blame-storming exercise. Again, the problem of poverty is regarded as being intrinsic to the individual, rather than one that is about material deprivation which arises in a wider political, economic, cultural and social context.

Post secondary education costs money and isn’t supported by the state. The Education Maintenance Award (EMA) was withdrawn by the Conservatives, and the cost of a university education is now far too much for many young people from poorer backgrounds because of the tripling of fees and reduction in maintenance support. It’s the government that need a nudge, here. This is a good example of how opportunities and choices are being limited for poorer citizens by cuts and constraints imposed by the neoliberal ideologues in office.  

The government never question the decision-making of the powerful and wealthy, yet it certainly wasn’t the poorest citizens that caused the global recession in 2007, nor was it the poorest citizens that imposed damaging austerity policies. The poorest people are burdened with a disproportionate weight of austerity cuts to their income and support. The wealthiest citizens have meanwhile been gifted with substantial tax cuts. 

Nudge is a state prop for neoliberalism, inequality and social control

Neoliberals argue that public services present moral hazards and perverse incentives. Providing lifeline support to meet basic survival requirements is seen as a barrier to the effort people put into searching for jobs. From this perspective, the social security system, which supports the inevitable casualties of neoliberal free markets, has somehow created those casualties. But we know that external, market competition-driven policies create a few “haves” and many “have-nots.” This is why the  welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, we must also concede that there are always ”winners and losers.”

Neoliberalism organises societies into hierarchies. Inequality is therefore an inevitable feature of the UK’s current mode of socioeconomic organisation. 

The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

Inequality and poverty are central features of neoliberalism and the causes therefore cannot be located within individuals.  

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised, and outgrouped.

Shamefully, in a so-called first world, wealthy liberal democracy, othering and outgrouping have become common political practices.  

Replacing spent micro-managementspeak with more micro-managementspeak

The Nudge Unit, which was part-privatised in 2014, have now warned that some Government policies were reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help. So more theoretical psychobabble to overwrite the previous psychobabble which didn’t work when applied via policy.

This is bland neoliberal managementspeak at its very worst. The policies are causing profound damage, harm and distress to those they were never actually designed to “help”. Let’s not permit an evading of accountability and techniques of neutralisation: the use of rhetoric to obscure the real intention behind policies, as well as the consequences of them. It’s nothing less than political gaslighting. 

Of course the report attempts to apply “the latest findings from behavioural science to improve government services.” In a neoliberal framework, there are many lucrative opportunities for private companies to experiment in the psychological management of populations who have become the casualties of political decision-making, for political ends. The ethical relativity, moral entrepreneurship and sheer financial opportunism on display here certainly reflect some fundamental neoliberal values and principles. The main one being profit over human need.

Dr Kizzy Gandy proposes that cost-effective “simple tweaks” to services could help improve the way services worked. “Government policies should help people to have less on their mind, not more,” she added. 

However, I propose that government policies in democratic societies should also be designed to meet the public’s needs, including alleviating poverty, rather than being about impoverishing targeted social groups and then undemocratically acting upon individuals, without their consent, directing them how to behave in order to accommodate government ideology and meet politically defined neoliberal outcomes.

Material poverty steals aspiration and motivation from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival. Abraham Maslow (a real social psychologist) explained that when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, they cannot be “incentivised” to fulfil higher level psychosocial needs – that includes job seeking.

Further criticism 

Labour Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Even the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team now recognise the mountains of evidence that the widespread use of sanctions is not leading to better outcomes for people seeking work. Indeed, this government team’s report suggests that sanctions may be operating as a barrier to finding a job.

“This government should be ashamed of their persistent failure to act on this issue over many years, after I, and other campaigners, have provided evidence of the devastating impacts of their sanctions policy.  I have committed to putting an end to Tories’ cruel and unnecessary sanctions regime, as part of our work to transform the social security system.” 

In fairness to the BIT, the report does say on page nine, among the listed areas of proposed future research: “A significant portion of behavioural science research focuses on improving the decisions of end-users – in this case people in poverty. But what about the decisions of service providers and policymakers? How can we improve the quality of their decisions to support people [to] escape poverty? And how can we build their empathy with those whose opportunities are at stake?”  

But who is nudging the nudgers?  I would think nudgers are “incentivised” by those providing the contracts that pay their salaries, on the whole. The government part-own the nudge unit.

Researchers from a variety of universities across the UK, using qualitative longitudinal interviews with nine groups of welfare service users from across England and Scotland, aim at determining longer-term effects of sanctions. The first wave findings from this collaborative ongoing study regarding the effects and ethics of welfare conditionality were released last year 

It was found that linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements has created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment. The impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by service users as profoundly negative, having severely detrimental financial, material, emotional, psychological and health impacts. Some individuals disengaged from services, some were even pushed toward “survival crime”.  

The most surprising thing about these findings was the general lack of surprise they raised.

A recurring theme is that sanctions are grossly out of proportion to “offences”, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Many reported being sanctioned following administrative mistakes. The Claimant Commitment was criticised for not taking sufficient account of individuals’ capabilities, wider responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Many saw job centres as being primarily concerned with monitoring compliance, imposing discipline and enforcement, rather than providing any meaningful support. 

Power relations, class and economic organisation have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. Neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by a corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

This is not just about shifting public rational and moral boundaries to de-empathise the electorate to the circumstances of politically defined others. It also obscures the consequences more generally of increasingly non-inclusive, anti-democratic, prejudiced and extremely punitive policies.  

The bottom line is that government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. 
 
However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies: euphemisms, superficial glittering generalities and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from aims and consequences of ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. 

For example, the state has depoliticised disadvantage, making it the private responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach that encodes a punitive Conservative moral framework. 

According to the behavioural economist theorists, in their highly jargonised and fairly meaningless report, government policies are reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help.

That the government imposes additional “cognitive costs”, as well as material and financial ones, on low-income groups, is hardly a groundbreaking revelation. 

I can put it much more plainly, and strip it of neoliberal psychobabbling: imposing sanctions on people who already have very limited resources is not only irrational, it is absurdly unjust, damaging, distressing and spectacularly cruel. 

See also:

Benefit Sanctions Can’t Possibly ‘Incentivise’ People To Work – And Here’s Why

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government

Welfare, Conditional Citizenship and the Neuroliberal State – Conference Presentation

 

 

Welfare sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work

Maslow

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

A summary

The Conservative-led welfare “reforms” had the stated aim of ensuring that benefit claimants – who have been stigmatised and inaccurately redefined as economic free-riders are entitled to a minimum income provided that they uphold responsibilities, which entail being pushed into any available work. Conditionality for social security has been around as long as the welfare state. Eligibility criteria have always been an intrinsic part of the benefits system. For example, to qualify for jobseekers’ allowance, a person has to be out of work, able to work, and seeking employment.

But in recent years welfare conditionality has become conflated with severe financial penalities (sanctions), and has mutated into an ever more stringent, complex, demanding set of often arbitrary requirements, involving frequent and rigid jobcentre appointments, meeting job application targets, providing evidence of job searches and mandatory participation in workfare schemes. The emphasis of welfare provision has shifted from providing support for people seeking employment to increasing conditionality of conduct, enforcing particular patterns of behaviour and monitoring compliance.  In short, welfare has become a hostile environment, designed specifically to deter claims for support.

Sanctions are “penalties that reduce or terminate welfare benefits in cases where claimants are deemed to be out of compliance with  requirements.” They are, in many respects, the neoliberal-paternalist tool of discipline par excellence – the threat that puts a big stick behind coercive welfare programme rules and “incentivises” citizen compliance with a heavily monitoring and supervisory administration. The Conservatives have broadened the scope of behaviours that are subject to sanction, and have widened the application to include previously protected social groups, such as sick and disabled people and lone parents.

There is plenty of evidence that sanctions don’t help people to find work, and that the punitive application of severe financial penalities is having a detrimental and sometimes catastrophic impact on people’s lives. We can see from a growing body of research how sanctions are not working in the way the government claim they intended.

Sanctions, under which people lose benefit payments for between four weeks and three years for “non-compliance”, have come under fire for being unfair, punitive, failing to increase job prospects, and causing hunger, debt and ill-health among jobseekers. And sometimes, causing death.

I’ve always felt that it is self evident – common sense – that if people are already claiming financial assistance which was designed to meet only very basic needs, such as provision for food, fuel and shelter, then imposing further financial penalities would simply reduce those people to a struggle for basic survival, which will inevitably demotivate them and stifle their potential.

However, the current government demand an empirical rigour from those presenting criticism of their policy, yet they curiously fail in meeting the same exacting standards that they demand of others. Often, the claim that “no causal link has been established” is used as a way of ensuring that established correlative relationships, (which often do imply causality,) are not investigated further. Qualitative evidence – case studies, for example – is very often rather undemocratically dismissed as “anecdotal,” which of course stifles further opportunities for research and inquiry.

The Conservative shift in emphasis from structural to psychological explanations of poverty has far-reaching consequences. The partisan reconceptualision of poverty makes it much harder to define and very difficult to measure. Such a conceptual change disconnects poverty from more than a century of detailed empirical and theoretical research, and we are witnessing an increasingly experimental approach to policy-making, aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals, without their consent.

This approach isolates citizens from the broader structural political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. It also places unfair and unreasonable responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making.

I want to discuss two further considerations to add to the growing criticism of the extended use of sanctioning, which are related to why sanctions don’t work. One is that imposing such severe financial penalities on people who need social security support to meet their basic needs cannot possibly bring about positive “behaviour change” or “incentivise” people to find employment, as claimed. This is because of the evidenced and documented broad-ranging negative impacts of financial insecurity and deprivation – particularly food poverty – on human physical health, motivation, behaviour and mental states.

The second related consideration is that “behavioural theories” on which the government rests the case for extending and increasing benefit sanctions are simply inadequate and flawed, having been imported from a limited behavioural economics model (otherwise known as nudge” and libertarian paternalism) which is itself ideologically premised.

I also explored in depth how sanctions and workfare arose from and were justified by nudge theory, which is now institutionalised and deeply embedded in Conservative policy-making. Sanctions entail the manipulation of a specific theoretical cognitive bias called loss aversion.

At best, the new “behavioural theories” are merely theoretical  propositions, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour, as a mechanism of explanation, and in terms of capacity for generating comprehensive, coherent accounts and understanding about human motivation and behaviour.

I reviewed research and explored existing empirical evidence regarding the negative impacts of food poverty on physical health, motivation and mental health. In particular, I focussed on the Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment and linked the study findings with Abraham Maslow’s central idea about cognitive priority, which is embedded in the iconic hierarchy of needs pyramid. Maslow’s central proposition is verified by empirical evidence from the Minnesota Experiment.

The Minnesota Experiment explored the physical impacts of hunger in depth, but also studied the effects on attitude, cognitive and social functioning and the behaviour patterns of those who have experienced semistarvation. The experiment highlighted a marked loss of ambition, self-discipline, motivation and willpower amongst the subjects once food deprivation commenced. There was a marked flattening of affect, and in the absence of other emotions, Doctor Ancel Keys observed the resignation and submission that hunger manifests.

The understanding that food deprivation dramatically alters emotions, motivation, personality and that nutrition directly and predictably affects the mind as well as the body is one of the legacies of the experiment.

The experiment highlighted very clearly that there’s a striking sense of immediacy and fixation that arises when there are barriers to fulfiling basic physical needs – human motivation is frozen to meet survival needs, which take precedence over all other needs. This is observed and reflected in both the researcher’s and the subject’s accounts throughout the study. If a person is starving, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes.

In a nutshell, this means that if people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will have either the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to seek work. Abraham Maslow’s humanist account of motivation also highlights the same connection between fundamental motives and immediate situational threats.

Ancel Keys published a full report about the experiment in 1950. It was a substantial two-volume work titled The Biology of Human Starvation. To this day, it remains the most comprehensive scientific examination of the physical and psychological effects of hunger.

Keys emphasised the dramatic effect that semistarvation has on motivation, mental attitude and personality, and he concluded that democracy and nation building would not be possible in a population that did not have access to sufficient food.

I also explored the link between deprivation and an increased risk of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and substance addiction. Poverty can act as both a causal factor (e.g. stress resulting from poverty triggering depression) and a consequence of mental illness (e.g. schizophrenic symptoms leading to decreased socioeconomic status and prospects).

Poverty is a significant risk factor in a wide range of psychological illnesses. Researchers recently reviewed evidence for the effects of socioeconomic status on three categories: schizophrenia, mood and anxiety disorders and substance abuse. Whilst not a comprehensive list of conditions associated with poverty, the issues raised in these three areas can be generalised, and have clear relevance for policy-makers.

The researchers concluded: “Fundamentally, poverty is an economic issue, not a psychological one. Understanding the psychological processes associated with poverty can improve the efficacy of economically focused reform, but is not a panacea. The proposals suggested here would supplement a focused economic strategy aimed at reducing poverty.” (Source: A review of psychological research into the causes and consequences of poverty – Ben Fell, Miles Hewstone, 2015.)

There is no evidence that keeping benefits at below subsistence level or imposing punitive sanctions “incentivises” people to work and research indicates it is likely to have the opposite effect. In 2010/2011 there 61,468 people were given 3 days emergency food and support by the Trussell Trust and this rose to 913,138 people in 2013-2014.

Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken re-analyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in developing countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependency” purposefully diverts us from political prejudice, discrimation via policies and disperses public sympathies towards the poorest citizens.

Conservative claims about welfare sanctions are incommensurable with reality, evidence, academic frameworks and commonly accepted wisdom. It’s inconceivable that this government have failed to comprehend that imposing punishment in the form of financial sanctions on people who already have very limited resources for meeting their basic survival needs is not only irrational, it is absurdly and spectacularly cruel.

Minnes

 The Minnesota semistarvation experiment

This is a summary of a much longer, detailed piece of research and review work about welfare sanctions. You can see the original here

Further study of the impact of food deprivation and starvation on psychological and cognitive deterioration: The Psychological Effects of Starvation in the Holocaust

Cognitive function deficits and demotivation associated with food deprivation and hypoglycaemia: Blood glucose influences memory and attention in young adults

Nutritional deficiencies and detrimental consequences for mental health: Nutrition and mental health

A comprehensive study of the detrimental impacts of food insecurity on the development, behaviour, mental health and wellbeing, learning, educational attainment, citizenship and physical health of children in America: Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation

Comprehensive computerized assessment of cognitive sequelae of a complete 12-16 hour fast

The Minnesota food deprivation experiment also established a link between food insecurity and deprivation and later unhealthful eating practice, eating disorders and obesity: Journal of the American Dietetic Association

 

The media need a nudge: the government using ‘behavioural science’ to manipulate the public isn’t a recent development, nudging has been happening since 2010

8+Ways+to+Protect+Yourself+From+Emotional+Manipulation

Last year I wrote a critical article about the government’s Nudge Unit. The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioural economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that we are fundamentally “irrational” and that many of our choices are influenced negatively by “cognitive bias.” They go on to propose that policymakers can and ought to nudge citizens towards making choices that are supposedly in their best interests and in the best interests of society.

But who nudges the nudgers?

Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

And how can human interests be so narrowly defined and measured in terms of economic outcomes, within a highly competitive, “survival of the fittest” neoliberal framework? The Nudge Unit is concerned with behavioural economics, not human happiness and wellbeing.

The welfare reforms, especially the increased application of behavioural conditionality criteria and the extended use of benefit sanctions, are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – the 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. But nudge was always going to be an attractive presentation at the top of a very slippery slope all the way down to open state coercion. Most people think that nudge is just about helping men to pee on the right spot on urinals, getting us to pay our taxes on time, or to save for our old age. It isn’t.

How can sanctioning ever be considered a rational political action –  that taking away lifeline income from people who are already struggling to meet their basic needs is somehow justifiable, or “in their best interests” or about making welfare “fair”?  The government claim that sanctions “incentivise” people to look for work. But there is an established body of empirical evidence which demonstrates clearly that denying people the means of meeting basic needs, such as money for food and fuel, undermines their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing, and serves to further “disincentivise” people who are already trapped at a basic level of struggling to simply survive.

The Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment for example, provided empirical evidence and a highly detailed account regarding the negative impacts of food deprivation on human motivation, behaviour, sociability, physical and psychological health. Abraham Maslow, a humanist psychologist who studied human potential, needs and motivation, said that if a person is starving, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes. This idea of cognitive priority is also represented in his classic hierarchy of needs. 

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In a nutshell, this means that if people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will have either the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to job seek.

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. (See Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions.)

Evidently the government have more than a few whopping cognitive biases of their own.

I have previously criticised nudge because of its fundamental incompatibility with traditional democratic principles, and human rights frameworks, amongst other things. Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, policies are no longer about representing and reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

I’ve also pointed out that nudge operates to manipulate 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.

So we really do need to ask exactly in whose “best interests” the new paternalist “economologists” are acting. Nudge is being targeted specifically at the casualties of inequality, which is itself an inevitability of neoliberalism. The premise of nudge theory is that poor people make “bad choices” rather than their circumstances being recognised as an inexorable consequence of a broader context in which political decisions and the economic Darwinism that neoliberalism entails creates “winners and losers.”

I have seen very little criticism of nudge in the mainstream media until very recently. On Monday the Independent published an article about how the Chancellor exploited our cognitive biases to secure his cuts to welfare, drawing particularly on the loss aversion theory. To reiterate, in economics decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

From the Independent article:

“Researchers have also found that people do not treat possible forgone gains resulting from a decision in the same way as equivalent potential out-of-pocket losses from that same decision. The forgone gains are much less psychologically painful to contemplate than the losses. Indeed, the gains are sometimes ignored altogether.

There was an apparent attempt to harness this particular psychological bias in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. Of course the Chancellor was forced into a memorable U-turn on his wildly unpopular tax credit cuts. Millions of poor working families will now not see their benefits cut in cash terms next April. Yet the Chancellor still gets virtually all his previously targeted savings from the welfare bill by 2020.

How? Because the working age welfare system will still become much less generous in five years’ time. As research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation has shown, the typical low-income working family in 2020 will be hit just as hard as they were going to be before the Autumn Statement U-turn. The Chancellor seems to be calculating that the pain of future forgone gains will be less politically toxic than immediate cash losses.”

 image002

It’s hardly a revelation that the Conservative government are manipulating public opinion, using scapegoating, outgrouping and the creation of folk devils in order desensitize the public to the plight of the poorest citizens and to justify dismantling the welfare state incrementally. As I’ve pointed out previously, this has been going on since 2010, hidden in plain view.

In the article, Ben Chu also goes on to say:

“Experiments by Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler also suggest that this stealth approach fits with people’s sense of fairness. They found that in a time of recession and high unemployment most people they surveyed thought a hypothetical company that cut pay in cash terms was acting unfairly, while one that merely raised it by less than inflation was behaving fairly.

There was another exploitation of our psychological biases in the Autumn Statement. The Chancellor announced an increase in stamp duty for people buying residential properties to let. That underscored the fact that the Chancellor remains wedded to the stamp duty tax, despite pressure from public finance experts to shift to a more progressive and efficient annual property tax (perhaps an overhauled council tax).

But Mr Osborne, like all his recent predecessors, realises that stamp duty, for all its deficiencies, tends to be less resented as a form of taxing property. Why? Because of “anchoring”. When people buy a house they are mentally prepared to part with a huge sum, usually far bigger than any other transaction they will make in their lives. The additional stamp duty payable to the Treasury on top of this massive sum, large though it is, seems less offensive. People resent it less than they would if the tax were collected annually in the form of a property tax – even if, for most, it would actually make little difference over the longer term. Sticking with stamp duty is the path of least resistance.”

There is another economologist “experiment” that seems to have slipped under the radar of the media – an experiment to nudge sick and disabled people into work, attempting to utilise GPs in a blatant overextension of the intrusive and coercive arm of the state. It is aimed at ensuring sick and disabled people don’t claim benefits. I don’t recall any mention of behaviourist social experiments on the public in the Conservative manifesto.

When I am ill, I visit a doctor. I expect professional and expert support. I wouldn’t consider consulting Iain Duncan Smith about my medical conditions. Or the government more generally. There are very good reasons for that. I’m sure that Iain Duncan Smith has Dunning–Kruger syndrome. He thinks he knows better than doctors and unreliably informs us that work can set you free, it can help prevent and cure illness.  Yet I’ve never heard of a single case of work curing blindness, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer or even so much as a migraine. I’ve also yet to hear of a person’s missing limbs miraculously growing back. The Conservative “medical intervention” entails a single prescription: a work coach from the job centre. State medicine – a single dose to be taken daily: Conservative ideology, traditional prejudice and some patronising and extremely coercive paternalism. The blue pill.

I don’t agree with the conclusions that Ben Chu draws in his article. Whilst he acknowledges that:

“The Government has a Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”) whose objective is to exploit the public’s psychological biases,” he goes on to say that it’s merely “to push progressive policies, such as getting us to save more for retirement and helping us make “better choices”, perhaps by counteracting the negative impact of loss aversion. But, as we’ve seen, the Chancellor is not above exploiting our biases in a cynical fashion too.” 

Progressive policies? The draconian welfare “reforms” aren’t remotely “progressive.” 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 (and nudge-driven) normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of such policies.

There is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and that person’s actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The asymmetrical, class-contingent application of paternalistic libertarian “insights” establishes a hierarchy of decision-making “competence” and autonomy, which unsurprisingly corresponds with the hierarchy of wealth distribution.

So nudge inevitably will deepen and perpetuate existing inequality and prejudice, adding a dimension of patronising psycho-moral suprematism to add further insult to politically inflicted injury. Nudge is a technocratic fad that is overhyped, theoretically trivial, unreliable; a smokescreen, a prop for neoliberalism and monstrously unfair, bad policy-making.

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural science” is merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour, as a mechanism of explanation, and in terms of its capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

At worst, the rise of this new form of psychopolitical behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

But for the record, when a government attempts to micromanage and manipulate the behaviour of citizens, we call that “totalitarianism” not “nudge.” 

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Related reading

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Mind the MINDSPACE: the nudge that knocked democracy down

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

cogs

“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.”
Alex Aiken
Executive Director of
Government Communications

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. 

Context

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.” 

Nudge. It’s become another clever little euphemism. 
gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1From the Ministry of euphemism and semantic thrifts, 1984th edition

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

Related

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Man with diabetes had to have his leg amputated because of benefit sanctions

Cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government


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