Tag: Milgram experiment

The DWP call handlers’ strike, structural violence and the Milgram experiment framework

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Universal Credit call handlers working at centres in Wolverhampton and Walsall have overwhelmingly voted in favour of strike action, accusing the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of treating them with “utter contempt”.

A ballot of PCS members working for the DWP on it’s highly controversial programme was announced earlier this month, warning of “severe under investment, staff shortages and ironically, criticism from claimants on how they are treated”. They also want full contracts for fixed-term workers, and an end to “management by statistics.”

Speaking ahead of the vote, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka challenged assumptions by government ministers that “Universal Credit is working well for workers and claimants”, instead arguing that “the opposite is in fact the case”.

He said that is was clear the DWP “want to run this service into the ground”, but the DWP insisted its “top priority remains assessing and making payments to customers”.

PCS and its members are calling on the DWP to hire 5,000 new staff, full contracts for fixed-term workers, and a reduction in the number of calls from Universal Credit claimants each case manager is required to handle.

Commenting on the result of the ballot, Serwotka said: “The message from our members is clear – changes need to be made otherwise they will walkout for two consecutive days.

This will mean that approximately 274 call handlers who work at the two offices will walk out for 48 hours starting on 11 March, after 90% of those balloted by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union backed industrial action.

Serwotka added: “The union has tried to negotiate for months but to no avail. Ministers have stuck their heads in the sand and our members are now sending them a very loud wakeup call.

“PCS members have not taken the decision to strike lightly but the fact is industrial relations have broken down because ministers seem intent on running this service into the ground while treating staff with utter contempt.”

Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “It is shocking that staff working in DWP offices are feeling so stressed through overwork that they are going on strike and calling for the government to recruit more staff.

“Not only is the government’s flagship social security policy Universal Credit failing claimants, the government is also failing the DWP staff who work so hard.

“Labour will deliver a social security system that treats those in need and the people who are employed to support them with respect.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “This result is disappointing, we greatly value the work that our colleagues do and our top priority remains assessing and making payments to customers.

“We are comfortable with current staffing levels and will monitor and reallocate resource where necessary.

“Contingencies are underway to ensure the smooth running of our services to minimise any impact.

“We urge PCS to seek to resolve this through further dialogue.”

Serwotka said: “The union has tried to negotiate for months but to no avail.

“Ministers have stuck their heads in the sand and our members are now sending them a very loud wakeup call.

“PCS members have not taken the decision to strike lightly.

“But the fact is industrial relations have broken down because ministers seem intent on running this service into the ground while treating staff with utter contempt.”

Four years ago, 1,300 Universal Credit staff staged a 48-hour walkout in protest of the “oppressive” workplace culture.

DWP workers complained of staff shortages, poor training and at least £40m ‘squandered’ on IT that wasn’t used.

However, there was no complaint made about the intentionally cruel policies being implemented by the DWP, which troubles me a lot.

Some thoughts: government policy, structural violence and the Milgram experiment framework 

Milgram 1

 

One of the most famous and controversial studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram in 1963, he was a psychologist at Yale University. He conducted an experiment which explored the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. Milgram examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defence was often based on “obedience” – that they were just following orders from their superiors.

The experimental procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher.’  However, the draw was fixed so that the participant was always the ‘teacher’, and the ‘learner’ was one of Milgram’s confederates (and actor pretending to be a real participant).

The ‘learner’ (a confederate called Mr. Wallace) was taken into a room and had electrodes attached to his arms, and the ‘teacher’ and researcher (there was also an “experimenter” dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor – not Milgram) went into a room next door that contained an electric shock generator and a row of switches marked from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (XXX). 

Milgram was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person, and how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities. 

Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used – one for the ‘learner’ (with an electric chair) and another for the ‘teacher’ and experimenter with an electric shock generator. The ‘learner’ (Mr. Wallace) was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs, the ‘teacher’ then tested him by naming a word and asking the ‘learner’ to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices. For the purpose of the experiment, Mr Wallace gave the wrong answers deliberately.

The punitive shocks were administered at an increasing voltage each time the ‘learner’ made a mistake. There were 30 switches on the shock generator (pictured above) marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). 

Milgram wanted to know whether people would administer what they believed to be fatal shocks to another person under the pressure of an authority figure.

Some of the teachers protested as the authority figure gave the orders to continue — which began with “please continue” or “please go on” and increased in severity to “you have no other choice, you must go on.” 

Other subjects were detached and methodical, not protesting even as the learner screamed from the other room, ostensibly from the extremely painful shocks.

65% (two-thirds) of participants (‘teachers’) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

Mr Wallace was a convincing actor who shrieked in pain and begged for the shocks to stop. All of participants believed the shocks they administered were real. 

They weren’t.

Participants in the experiment were also told that researchers know a good deal about how positive reinforcement improves learning, but they know very little about how punishment improves learning. This was the ‘front’ for the purpose of the study.

Milgram’s pessimistic conclusion was that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.  Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.

People tend to obey orders from other people if they believe their authority is morally right and/or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school, and workplace.

The government’s welfare policies place emphasis on citizen ‘learning’, compliance and obedience to authority. The Conservatives’ distorted and prejudiced views about social security claimants have resulted in technocratic attitude and ‘behavioural change’ programmes – a pseudoscientific behaviourist approach – which is embedded in extremely punitive and oppressive policy and DWP practices.  The government’s coercive and behaviourist methods of achieving their aim has resulted in a class related and particularly vindictive form of structural violence. 

The politically orchestrated hierarchical organisation and institutionalisation of structural violence has recently reminded me of the Milgram experiment. 

Structural violence

structural violence

The government’s antiwelfarist ideology has resulted in structural violence being institutionalised, administrated and imposed on targeted groups of society, namely the poorest citizens. From the top down, this culture of inflicting harm on certain groups has become routinised and normalised. It’s hidden in plain view. 

However, the key difference between the experiment and current punitive practices within the DWP – such as sanctions – is that the harm inflicted in the former was not real. The punishments inflicted by the DWP are very real and are having catastrophic consequences on some groups of citizens, ranging from hunger and fuel poverty to destitution, rough sleeping and even death. 

In a few years it has become acceptable to threaten people who are already on the breadline with the removal of their lifeline support, leaving them without the means to meet their most basic survival needs – food fuel and shelter.  

According to Norwegian sociologist, Johan Galtung, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs”. As it is avoidable, structural violence is a high cause of premature death and unnecessary disability. Because structural violence affects people differently in various social structures or groups, it is very closely linked with inequality, social injustice and oppression.

A major contributing factor to the increase the ‘culture of workplace oppression’ is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has perpetuated, permitted and endorsed prejudices against marginalised social groups, such as disabled and unemployed citizens, with a complicit media amplifying these prejudices.

Because the Conservatives’ policies embed such a deeply punitive approach towards the poorest social groups, this in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the DWP and job centres, for example, are also bound by punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at the targeted group.

As authority figures and role models, their behaviours establish a normative framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted by the Conservatives with a clear basis of one-upmanship, lies and aggression, rather than being founded on rational exchange. Indeed, ministers frequently sneer at rationality and do not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead they employ the tactics of a bully: denial, gaslighting, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations.

This in turn pushes moral and normative boundaries and gives wider society permission and approval to behave the same.

Studies of power, and obedience to authority provide an interesting paradigm in psychology, sociology, social psychology, political science, and obviously within organisational behaviours.

Scapegoating groups of citizens has a wide range of focus: from ‘approved’ enemies of very large groups of people (such as the mythologically discrete group known vaguely as the  ‘tax payer’) down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals.

The scapegoater’s target always experiences a terrible sense of their personal accounts of experiences being edited and re-written, with the inadequacies of the perpetrator often inserted into public accounts of their character (projection), resulting in isolation, ostracism, exclusion and sometimes, expulsion and elimination. The sense of isolation is often heightened by other people’s reluctance to become involved in challenging bullies, usually because of a bystander’s own discomfort and fear of reprisal.

Many of the participants in Milgram’s experiment said they acted as they did, not because they were committed to the experimenter or to science, but because they trusted the experimenter not to let them inflict serious harm.

The call handlers who voted to go on strike complain of “severe under investment, staff shortages and criticism from claimants on how they are treated”. They also mention a culture of oppression. Perhaps they believe they are administering harmless policies, and that their own stresses are simply down to severe under-staffing, “management by numbers”, mismanagement of IT projects and ‘complaints’ from claimants. But the call handlers are not those who are being targeted with political ‘contempt’. 

I was shocked that the DWP call handlers complained of “criticism from claimants on how they are treated”, rather than criticising how claimants are being actually being treated. 

Authority bias is the tendency to obey the orders of authority figures, even when you strongly believe that there is something wrong with those orders. During the Milgram experiment, participants could indicate at any point that they wished to stop. Most didn’t. 

At any point during the experiment, participants could indicate that they wish to stop. Any time this happened, the experimenter would tell the subject the following things, in order using an authoritative tone:

Please continue.

The experiment requires that you continue.

It is absolutely essential that you continue.

You have no other choice, you must go on.

If, after saying all four lines, the subject still refused to carry on with the experiment, then the experiment was stopped. 

I’m bitterly disappointed that both the workers themselves and the union fail to recognise the part those workers play within a hierarchy of power that is instrumental in inflicting structural violence on people claiming social security – those who have no negotiating power to change their circumstances whatsoever. 

It’s time to stop the experiment now.

 


 

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The still face paradigm, the just world fallacy, inequality and the decline of empathy

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UNICEF’s reports have consistently put the UK at the bottom of the child well-being league table. See also: UNICEF criticises UK’s failure to tackle child inequality as gap grows.

pie-wealthSource: The Equality Trust 

The still face paradigm and inequality

Before Christmas I read an excellent and insightful article by Michael Bader called The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics, which was about Edward Tronick’s Still Face experiment in part. Tronick is an American developmental psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His studies illuminate the importance of trusting relationships and consistent human responses in children’s development and learning.

Tronick’s experimental design was very simple: mothers were asked to play as they usually would with their six-month-old infants. The mothers were then instructed to suddenly blank their face: to make their facial expression flat and neutral – completely “still”  – and to do so for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity.  Mothers were then told to resume normal play. The design came to be called the “still face paradigm.

The study demonstrated that when the connection between an infant and caregiver is broken, the infant tries to re-engage the caregiver, and then, if there is no response, the infant withdraws – first physically and then emotionally. Recent studies have found that four-month-old infants, when re-exposed to the “Still Face” two weeks after the first time, show rapid physiological changes that were not present when they were exposed to it the first time.

Tronick said: “It speaks to the incredible emotional capacities [of] the infant — to pick up on the fact that the mother’s not reacting emotionally the way she normally does. The baby has not only this ability to process what’s [happening], but [also] the capacity to respond in a really appropriate way — that is, they try to get the mother’s attention, and then when they fail, they give up, with a sense of their own helplessness. They may be angry and then they become sad.”

Tronick also emphasised the impact of parenting practices embedded in the sociocultural and ecological environment of the infant.

Bader’s inspiring article draws on Tronick’s experimental findings, which he then applies to citizen’s life experiences in the US, in the face of dehumanising encounters with bureacracy, increasingly depopulated policies and a profoundly alienating sociopolitical system. He goes on to discuss how “the pain of the “still face” in American society is present all around us.”

He says: “People feel it while waiting for hours on the phone for technical support, or dealing with endless menus while on hold with the phone or cable company, or waiting to get through to their own personal physician. They feel it in schools with large class sizes and rote teaching aimed only at helping students pass tests.  

They feel it when crumbling infrastructure makes commuting to work an endless claustrophobic nightmare.  And, too often, they feel it when interacting with government agencies that hold sway over important areas of their lives, such as social services […] and city planning departments, or a Department of Motor Vehicles.  Like Tronick’s babies, citizens who look to corporations and government for help, for a feeling of being recognized and important, are too often on a fool’s errand, seeking recognition and a reciprocity that is largely absent. 

This problem is greatly exaggerated by the profoundly corrosive effects of social and economic inequality. Under condition of inequality, the vulnerability of those seeking empathy is dramatically ramped up, leading to various forms of physical and psychological breakdowns. In a classic epidemiological study [The Spirit Level] by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, researchers found a strong correlation between the degree of inequality in a country (or a state, for that matter) and such problems as rates of imprisonment, violence, teenage pregnancies, obesity rates, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and addiction, lower literacy scores, and a wide range of poor health outcomes, including reduced life expectancy. 

Wilkinson and Pickett’s key finding is that it is the inequality itself, and not the overall wealth of a society that is the key factor in creating these various pathologies.  Poorer places with more equality do better than wealthy ones marked by gross inequality.

Inequality makes people feel insecure, preoccupied with their relative status and standing, and vulnerable to the judgment of others, and it creates a greater degree of social distance between people that deprives them of opportunities for intimate and healing experiences of recognition and empathy.”

The still face of the neoliberal state

It’s impossible to fail to recognise the parallels with citizen’s experiences here in Britain. We have ideological and socioeconomic commonality with the US, especially as both the UK and US are neoliberal states. Neoliberalism is an ongoing, totalising ideological and political-economic project of a resurgent political right that gained ascendancy in the US under Ronald Reagan and in the UK under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.   

Bader says: “As a metaphor for adult life in contemporary society, the “still face” paradigm—the helplessness intrinsic to it and the breakdown of empathy that lies at its foundation—aptly describes the experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including government.

And, as with Tronick’s babies and their mothers, when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger, and hopelessness.  Such inattention and neglect lead to anxiety about our status and value, and a breakdown of trust in others.”

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I agree that the growing inequalities we are witnessing in western neoliberal “democracies” create profound psychological trauma and ontological insecurity. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We thrive best when we have a social rationale which tends towards the promotion of cooperative and collective creativity. This was perhaps expressed best in our civilised, progressive institutions and civilising practices, facilitated by the social gains and economic organisation that arose from the post-war settlement.  

Those gains are now being systematically dismantled. Our culture has been saturated with conceptual schema that demand we remain committed to an socioeconomic Darwinism, a kind of economic enclosure: a neoliberal competitive individualist obsession with our private, inner experiences, the pursuit of economic self-interest, and ultimately, this embellishes our separability from other human beings. It alienates us. 

Neoliberalism scripts social interactions that are founded on indifference to others, tending to be dehumanising, adversarial and hierarchical in nature, rather than social and cooperative. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of the responsive, animated human face; of collectivism, mutual support, universalism, cooperation and democracy. Neoliberalism has transformed our former liberal democracy into an authoritarian “still faced” state that values production, competition and profit above all else; including citizens’ lives, experiences, freedoms, well-being, democratic inclusion and social conditions that support all of this.  

Citizens are seen and are being politically redefined in isolation from the broader political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape individual experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. This also places responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making, whilst at the same time, the state is steadily abdicating responsibility for the basic welfare of ordinary citizens. 

Geographer David Harvey describes 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.  

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.  

Stigma is a political and cultural attack on people’s identities. It’s used to discredit, and as justification for excluding some groups from economic and political consideration, refusing them full democratic citizenship. 

Stigma is being used politically to justify the systematic withdrawal of support and public services for the poorest – the casualties of a system founded on competition for allegedly scarce wealth and resources. Competition inevitably means there are winners and losers. Stigma is profoundly oppressive. It is used as a propaganda mechanism to draw the public into collaboration with the state, to justify punitive and discriminatory policies and to align citizen “interests” with rigid neoliberal outcomes. Inclusion, human rights, equality and democracy are not compatible with neoliberalism. 

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices, and are now culturally embedded. 

This serves to desensitise the public to the circumstances of marginalised social groups. Outgroups serve to de-empathise society and dehumanise stigmatised others

This political and cultural process legitimises neoliberal “small state” policies, such as the systematic withdrawal of state support for those adversely affected by neoliberalism, and it also justifies inequality. By stigmatising the poorest citizens, a “default setting” is established regarding how the public ought to perceive and behave towards politically demarcated outgroups. That default setting is indifference to the plight of others. 

Authors of The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, say “The truth is that human beings have deep-seated psychological responses to inequality and social hierarchy. The tendency to equate outward wealth with inner worth means that inequality colours our social perceptions. It invokes feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination – which affect the way we relate to and treat each other.”

Neoliberalism and the myth of meritocracy

How does inequality and social injustice become acceptable? And why do we, as a society, permit the political construction of scapegoats and outgroups? 

Neoliberalism is premised on the assumption that the market place can somehow replace the state as the ultimate arbiter of cultural logic and value. Relationships between people are mediated by the depersonalising market place.

It is fundamentally Hobbesian in character, neoliberalism privatises citizen’s experiences, who are valued for their economic productivity and are therefore only responsible for themselves.

Bader says: “The failure of our institutions to empathize with the plight of the middle and working classes, to recognize their sacrifice and reward their hard work is traumatic. It is the same type of trauma that children experience when their caretakers are preoccupied or rejecting. The trauma erodes trust. It overwhelms systems that people have developed to deal with stress and creates psychological suffering and illness.” 

He goes on to tell us how our social brains seek a collective experience – of “we” rather than “I” – and often do so by creating a fantasy of an “us” versus “them” that we can devalue and fight.

Tribalism draws on our need for sociability and interconnectedness but it can also be used to pervert it. Rejected by government, employers and wider society, some citizens then go on to reject and demean others. It’s a coping strategy: they are trying to cope with the pain, powerlessness, and lack of empathy that they experience in their social lives.

And we must we also recognise the play of hidden ideologies and the influence of dog whistle and wedge issue politicking. This is a state tactic which manipulates our fundamental human need for a sense of belonging. It’s also about the creation of scapegoats and diversion from the real problem: neoliberalism, authoritarianism and the inequality and increasing precarity that this extends and perpetuates. Hierarchical thinking is embedded in neoliberal and authoritarian ideologies.

Neoliberalism also extends a myth that citizens are autonomous and free to make choices. However, this ignores the well-researched reality that those without resources have few or no choices. 

Neoliberalism is an ideology that manufactures consent to inequalities by offering the myth of meritocracy: the false promise that everyone will eventually benefit by working hard to earn merit, status and wealth. However, it isn’t logically possible for equal opportunities to exist in a highly unequal society. 

This myth undermines the principles of social and economic rights and discredits solidarity, collective responsibility and contravenes our human need for belonging. Success, according to the meritocrats, is shaped by your IQ and individual talents, hard work and personal effort. Yet at least a third of those touting this myth are millionaires who simply inherited their wealth.   

The ideology of meritocracy conceals the fact that class privileges are institutionalised, and are reinforced through the education system, for example. The UNICEF report, Fairness for Children, emphasised the importance of a strong welfare system in reducing inequality – and carried a strong suggestion that the UK Government should reconsider its cuts to benefits. In June last year, following its investigation, the United Nations committee on the rights of the child called on ministers to act regarding austerity, the benefit cap and tax credit cuts, which are undermining children’s rights to an adequate standard of living. The government were also urged to do more to ensure children’s rights to adequate health, housing and education are met, too. 

The government, however, have claimed that welfare cuts reduce poverty by “incentivising” people to work. Meanwhile, over half of those families queuing at food banks are in work, and nearly two thirds of children in poverty live in working families. “Making work pay” is nothing more than a Conservative euphemism for the incremental dismantling of the welfare state, which they intend to continue, regardless of the social consequences. 

Neoliberalism is sustained by ideologues employed by governments, in think tanks, PR companies and as individual consultants, that invent technical justifications for small state neoliberal policies on the grounds of: “efficiencies”, savings, democracy, economic growth, and more recently “fairness” and “social justice.” The latter two especially are founded on the myth of meritocracy, in this context. 

In any competitive system, there are invariably a few “winners” and many more “losers”.  The system itself creates the conditions which mean that many people “lose”. It has nothing to do with the IQ, character or qualities of those people. Competition is adversarial – it’s defined as a situation in which two or more people or groups are fighting to get something which not everyone can have

The Nudge Unit is one example of a technocratic think tank that promotes the myth of meritocracy, which is embedded in the Cabinet Office. The neoliberal Reform think tank and the Adam Smith Institution are others. There is a raft of contemporary academics who are also fueling ideological justifications of neoliberal policies – the likes of Adam Perkins, Richard Layard, Mansel Aylward and Simon Wessley, for example, each in their respective academic fields have each presented “studies” that endorse “small state” antiwelfarism and enforce notions of personal responsibility and competitive individualism. Public interests are steadily being aligned with economic outcomes, driven by private interests. 

Status and rewards in society do not go “naturally” to those who are best “performers” or those who “earn” their privilege: the hierarchy of wealth and power is being purposefully shaped by the state.

Stigma and the just world fallacy

Sociologist Imogen Tyler at Lancaster University, says “[…] the centrality of stigma in producing economic and social inequalities has been obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses have generally developed in separate domains’ (Hatzenbuehler, 2013). In short, stigma is widely accepted to be a major factor in determining life chances, yet research on stigma is fragmented across academic disciplines.”

Tyler’s ongoing work – The Stigma Doctrine, is focused on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.” 

Her explicit focus is on “stigmatization as a central dimension of neoliberal state-crafting.” The project is focussing in particular on welfare “reform”, the neoliberal de/recomposition of class, poverty, work and dis/abilities.

At a basic level, stigma is seen as a mark of disgrace associated with particular circumstances, qualities, or persons. However, it has a fundamental normative dimension, which is culturally and historically specific. 

We tend to make assumptions about people, based on what their circumstances or characteristics are. Central to these assumptions lies a basic moral dichotomy founded on the binary notions of “deserving” and “undeserving”. 

Everyone has heard “what goes around comes around” before, or maybe you’ve seen a person “get what was coming to them” and thought, “that’s karma for you.” These are all shades of the just world fallacy. But in reality, we don’t always “reap what we sow.”

In social psychology, the just world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to – or expect consequences as the result of – a universal force that restores moral balance. This belief generally implies the existence of destiny, cosmic justice, or divine providence. 

It is very common in fiction for the villains to lose and the virtuous folk to win. It is a reflection of how we would like to see the world – just and fair. In psychology the tendency to believe that this is how the real world actually works is a known cognitive error: the just world is a fallacy. 

Many people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and fair place, where people simply get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important role in our lives – in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. 

Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we either act to restore justice by helping victims or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred.  We comfort ourselves with the idea that the person without a job is simply lazy, the homeless person is irresponsible, and the ill person made the “wrong” lifestyle choices. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, popular fiction, comics, TV, the mainstream media, current political rhetoric and other morality tales of our culture, including the great myth of meritocracy, embedded in neoliberal narrative, in which “good” is always rewarded and “evil” punished. Only it isn’t.

Deep down, we all would probably like to believe hard work and virtue will lead to success, and laziness, evil and manipulation will lead to ruin, quite often we simply edit the world to match those expectations. 

The normalisation of socioeconomic hierarchy: a nod to Milgram

Social psychologist, Melvin Lerner documents people’s eagerness to convince themselves that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering. In a 1965 study, Lerner reported that subjects who were told that a fellow student had won a cash prize in a lottery tended to believe that the student worked harder than another student who lost the lottery. Lerner observed that when one of two men was chosen at random to receive a reward for a task, that somehow caused him to be more favourably evaluated by observers, even when the observers had been informed that the recipient of the reward was chosen at random. (Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1030–1051).

Existing social psychological theories, including cognitive dissonance, do not fully explain these phenomena. In another study a year later, Lerner and a colleague recorded a simulated “learning” experiment in which it appeared that the “participants” were subjected to electric shocks. Lerner found that subjects who observed the videotapes tended to form much lower opinions of these “victimised” participants when there was no possibility of the victim finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim took on the role of “martyr” by voluntarily remaining in the experiment despite the apparent unpleasantness of the experience.

Lerner concluded that “the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”

If the belief in a just world simply resulted in humans feeling more comfortable with the universe, its uncertainties and our own precarity, it would not be a matter of great concern for human rights activists, ethicists or social scientists. But Lerner’s just world hypothesis, if correct, has significant social implications. The belief in a just world may well seriously undermine a commitment to social justice.

So, the just world fallacy is founded on a massive misconception: that we always get what we “deserve”. We like to think that people who are not doing well in their lives must have done something to deserve it. Yet we also know that the beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and people doing harmful deeds often get away with their actions without consequences.

Lerner’s research extended, to some extent, on Stanley Milgram‘s research on social conformity and obedience. Lerner was curious as to how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering manage to maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering.

Lerner’s direction of inquiry was influenced by his frequent witnessing of the tendency of observers to blame victims for their suffering, particularly during his clinical training as a psychologist, when he observed treatment of mentally ill persons by the health care practitioners with whom he worked. Though he knew them to be basically kind, educated people, they often blamed patients for the patients’ own suffering. Lerner also describes his surprise at hearing his students derogate disadvantaged people, believing that poor people somehow caused their own poverty, whilst being seemingly oblivious to the social, political and economic (structural) forces that contribute significantly to poverty. 

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of the UCLA conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more Conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes and and hold prejudices toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but nonetheless significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

It’s ironic that the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice. When that occurs, the result may be the abdication of personal responsibility, acquiescence in the face of suffering and misfortune, and indifference towards injustice

In the murky waters of real life, evil people often prosper whilst harming others, and quite often never face justice and retribution.

Social reality isn’t founded on some intrinsic and fair principle or quality of the universe. Social justice is something that we must construct and re-construct our selves. In the same way, democracy isn’t something we “have”, it is something we must do.

As a society, we make our own “karma”. We participate in, shape and distribute social justice. That affects those around us. We do need to think about what kind of world we live in, how we ought to live and how that affects our families, friends, neighbours and strangers. A measure of civilisation may be observed in how we behave towards those people we don’t know.

In our society, over the past 6 years, some (previously protected) social groups have become politically defined strangers and economic exiles. If you think that’s okay, it’s worth bearing in mind that sooner or later, someone you know well, perhaps one of your loved ones, will be affected by this ongoing process.

When one group are targeted with injustice and inequality, it affects everyone, and other groups soon follow. Historically, we learned that tyrants don’t stick with targeting and persecuting the group you don’t like. You don’t get a choice ultimately. Prejudice tends to multitask very well, and tyrants remain tyrants no matter who you are.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s research on the harmful effects of economic inequality is a challenge for us to ensure that redistribution is the main focus of our political programme. Their research very clearly shows us that if we work towards greater equality, we can ameliorate a wide range of human suffering. Because neoliberal ideology ultimately disconnects us from each other, we really must work hard to seek common ground with the people on the other side of what American sociologist, Arlie Hochschild, calls the “empathy wall” to reach out, communicate to them that “we not only feel their pain, but we share it, and that, in the end, we are all in this together.”

Hochschild’s work has often described the various ways in which we each  becomes a “shock absorber” of larger social, economic and political forces.  She explores the “deep story” of American citizens – a metaphorical expression of the emotions they live by. She recognised that the people she studied may not vote in favour of their economic self-interest, but they often voted for what they felt was their emotional self-interest as members of a group which feels marginalised, scorned and betrayed by the establishment. This sense of betrayal was utilised by the right, who readily draw on and manipulate the role of emotion in politics.

How much more of the current political-economic just world narrative will people permit to remain largely unchallenged before we all say “enough”?

In democracies, Government’s are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population. Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice. The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable Government and equality before the law, is crucial to social organisation, yet it seems the moment we become distracted, less attentive and permit inequality to fundamentally divide our society, the essential details and defining features of democracy seem to melt into air. 

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, all citizen’s 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 and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly depopulated; detached from public interests and needs.

Democracy is not something we have: it’s something we have to DO.

My hope for 2017 is that enough of us will recognise that democratic participation is essential, and that injustice directed against one is injustice ultimately directed against all. 

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All the best for the new year. 

In solidarity.

Related  

The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics – Michael Bader

Who Believes in a Just World? –  Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau 

The Stigma Project – Imogen Tyler

The Spirit Level authors: why society is more unequal than ever – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

 


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can make a donation if you wish and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Conservatives, cruelty and the collective unconscious

fastThis offensive image mocks the Stroke Association’s Act FAST poster – illustrating each of the charity’s three signs of a stroke, “Face, Arms and Speech”, with a picture of Ed Miliband, being mocked as a victim of brain damage.

The Conservatives, using social media accounts for Kensington and Chelsea borough, have been accused of circulating this offensive and callous graphic mocking Ed Miliband as a stroke victim, finishing with the phrase “Time to LOL.”

The entire Twitter account has since been deleted and the ward’s Facebook page has changed its name to “London parks and trees” and now, strangely, to “Parks Lnd.”

Since when, in the 21st century, did it become an acceptable part of democratic dialogue to attempt to ridicule and reduce political opponents by systematically mocking their physical characteristics? Or by contemptuously defining, discrediting and dismissing them as ill and disabled? Moreover, how has it become acceptable that ill and disabled people are held up as objects of political derision?

Amidst claims of an attempted cover-up, Campden’s three Tory councillors have denied having anything to do with the post. Councillor Catherine Faulkes said that she and her two elected colleagues do not run the page – but has refused to say who does.

She told the Mirror:“I don’t want to comment on who operates it. We’re investigating them and we’re investigating the Twitter account because there’s the possibility it might have been hacked.”

I don’t buy that. Conservatives have always coldly conceived society as a hierarchy of human value, and they have, from their pinnacle of supremicist, self-appointed authority, historically cast the poorest and the most vulnerable citizens as the putative “enemies of civilization.” Social Darwinism is written in bold throughout their policies.

There has never been a clearer contrast between the values and approach of the two main political parties: the Tories are undemocratic, they state plainly that some people’s lives don’t matter – the food bank debate and the bedroom tax debate are further examples of how Conservatives reduce human subjects to objects of derision.

While Labour MPs spoke out in the debates about the terrible hardships that vulnerable families in their constituencies are facing, we were faced with the unedifying spectacle of Tory MPs laughing, jeering and shouting their spiteful glee at the plight of those people that this government have intentionally impoverished – after all, policies are plain and legislated statements of intent.

By contrast, the Labour Party have fostered a counter-narrative that is decent, democratic, inclusive and about a fundamental equality of the worth of each human life, founded on a strong commitment to human rights – without which there can be no meaningful social justice and democracy.

The narcissism of nudging

Labour recognise human potential, and surely that is what progressive politics is about, ultimately: human and social development. The Tories, on the other hand, never fail to stifle our individual potential, social evolution and development.

Progressives liberated themselves from the pre-occupation with superficial characteristics and taxonomic ranking of human beings – the emphasis on “what” we are – and began to cherish “who” we are, delving into our human potential and celebrating  one o our greatest assets – our diversity – as much as our individual, equal worth.

The Conservatives have created a Darwinist socioeconomic landscape – they always do – and yet take it upon themselves to “civilise” we “irrational” heathens, using disdainful behaviourist nudges that deny our autonomy by acting upon us, telling us how to be, rather than acting for and with us. They construct rhetoric peppered with authoritarian morality, blame, ascribed motives – the poor are dismissed as “scroungers” for example. Projection is a defence process by which personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in others. It’s a bully’s way of protecting their ego – an assembled fantasy – from their psyche.

I have often thought that beneath the need to control others and cruel behaviour lies a profound emptiness. Scorn, spite, rage, anger, and hatred are ways of filling the emptiness. Perhaps some people believe it is better to feel sadistic than to feel nothing at all. To stop feeling, after all, is to die. Or perhaps investing such hatred in others is a way of undoing their own profound self-loathing.

We are being led by a group of people that have failed to grasp the myth of individualism: identity is a deceit, it is nothing more than a constructed, superficial mask that is tied to largely unconscious impulses. Whilst we, in appalled fascination, watch on, these preachers of materialism measure out our human worth in meagre pounds and pennies, whilst presenting us with reductive, impoverishing sermons on primitivity, dominance and cruelty. They ask us to blame ‘them’ not ‘us’ for the increasing problems we face as a society. 

Not content with scapegoating societies’ most vulnerable groups, the Conservatives want to take away their lifeline support as well,on the grounds that they are ‘non deserving.’

I’ve often wondered where does human cruelty towards fellow humans come from, and why do we permit it, as a so-called civilised society?

We are climbing Allport’s ladder

I’ve previously discussed Gordon Allport’s work which explored the psycho-sociological processes that led to the Holocaust. Allport knew that it’s crucial to recognise social prejudices and dehumanization, because these processes push our rational and moral boundaries, gradually eroding the natural inhibitions that prevent us from inflicting harm on other human beings. The stages of prejudice unfold, permitting bullying, cruelty, persecution and ultimately, Allport’s end-stage: systemic genocide.

It’s a social process of barely perceptible stages: the perpetrators become increasingly confident in the “validity” of their prejudice, the public are systematically desensitised and indoctrinated. Mocking, negative stereotypes and negative images become a part of our everyday culture and language: hate speech is normalised, discriminatory policies and practices flourish, hate crimes are permitted.

On a psychic level, our repressed, destructive urges; the reservoir of darkness that is our shadow selves; our uncivilised rage and fear – previously sublimated – are manipulated and directed at politically constructed scapegoats.

For me, Gordon Allport and Carl Jung respectively show us that when those who have never confronted our instinctive, collective fear of the dark are urged to open their own cellar door, it is others that are consumed by the ferocity of the straining beast that is found there.

Those right-wing critics of left-wing political correctness are wrong. Far from it stifling free speech, political correctness liberates us by actually acknowledging the straining beast within us all, and helps us to begin a dialogue about how we can help each other find our way in the dark. That has got to be so much better than denial and projection, which happens beyond the light of reflection, integration and consciousness. Hate speech isn’t free speech at all: it’s aim is to intimidate, silence and to close down democratic debate.

And the consequences of denial and projection are scapegoating, prejudice, discrimination, persecution of others, all of which may lead to genocide if we fail to address such social manifestations from our psyche.

Jungians believe that our own shadow contains and reflects the shadow of society, which is fed by ancestral, abandoned, neglected and repressed collective values: the collective unconscious. Our psyche is an assemblage of our timeless collective fantasies. There are shared, fundamental elements that make up the collective unconscious and generate a limiting framework around which our psychic material organises. Jung referred to those elements as archetypes.

We are much more than that which we choose, embody, perform, and identify with. The common importance of the collective unconscious makes people especially vulnerable to political manipulation, especially in an era of mass media.

Psychopathology is considered by Jungians to be the independent ability of the psyche to create morbidity, disorder, illness, abnormality and suffering in any part of its manifest behaviour and to imagine and experience life through a distorted perspective. Social psychology has shown us that even at a basic normative level, social group values, beliefs and behaviours are very vulnerable to manipulation and corruption. (See Milgram experiment, Stanford Prison experiment, for example.)

The medium is the message

The media is far from objective, benign and politically neutral, in fact we have handful of offshore billionaires that have subverted  democracy and established a cultural hegemony. This self-appointed elite are telling you that some human lives are worthless, whilst investing in their own, quite literally, at all cost to our society.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said recently that UK tabloid coverage of “immigration” is directly linked to the loss of life (of refugees) in the Mediterranean, for example. The media have created a category of others, and desensitised the public to the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded. Using the word “immigration” implies that people are travelling from choice. These people are not migrants: they are desperate refugees.

The United Nations statement says that an article in which Katie Hopkins described  refugees as “cockroaches” and “feral humans” resembled dehumanizing, pro-genocide propaganda. (See also – Media Migrant Propaganda ‘Can Cost Lives’ (Video).)

little girl

This dear human child tragically lost her precious life on Sunday.  Her “feral” family were fleeing for their lives.

They were trying to save her.

The number of people fleeing war, oppressive regimes, unspeakable horror, pain and absolute poverty in the Middle East and Africa has risen sharply in recent months. Around 65% of the refugees are from the Syrian civil war zone. Their desperation is being exploited by profiteering smugglers, linked with organised crime, who charge exorbitant fees for transport in often unseaworthy cargo vessels, cramming hundreds of human beings into locked holds.

It is now estimated that for every 1,000 refugees that are known to have crossed the Mediterranean, more than 46 lose their lives in shipwrecks. The actual number might be much higher.

In a strongly worded statement issued on Friday, the High Commissioner said tabloid “misinformation” about immigration was fed into a “nasty underbelly of racism” lurking beneath the migration issue. He noted that the media in Nazi Germany “described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches.”

“Under the guise of freedom of expression, [negative coverage is] being allowed to feed a vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants,” High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in the statement.

However, the word “migrant” implies choice of movement. These people are fleeing for their lives, they are not migrants: they are refugees.

Prejudice multitasks

For those of you that hate refugees, and fail to recognise others as being of equal worth to you, perhaps it’s worth considering that the Nazis didn’t simply exterminate the ethnic group of public choice, they also exterminated sick and disabled people, social democrats, socialists, trade unionists, freemasons, communists, and anarchists, the Roma, Slavs, Polish people, gay people, poor people, vagrants, pacifists, people with mental illness – including those with war-induced PTSD, unemployed people, drug addicts, people who were better artists than Hitler, and the list was continually extended. You see, prejudice and cruelty multi-task very well, and scapegoating and persecution doesn’t stay confined to the social group you may dislike: fascists are mercilessly fascists, regardless of who you are.

Jung once remarked on Hitler: “You know you could never talk to this man; because there is nobody there … It is not an individual; it is an entire nation.”  He was referring to the collective unconscious. I am reminded of ancient cultures sacrificing to their “Gods”, offering up their joys of cruelty to appease.

Conservatives are liturgists of competitive individualism, market forces and minarchism. The ecclesiastical procession of our own right-wing state is ritualistically sacrificing people to appease their own god: neoliberalism.

The ability to recognise and translate our collective, remnant, dark impulses, and excercise self-control is a rare and remarkable virtue. Yet the collective conscious contains all aspects of human nature: light and dark, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, if we would only turn to look at it.

The Holocaust is the most thoroughly documented example of the extreme savagery and hideousness of dehumanization.  It’s a little too easy to imagine that the Third Reich was an aberration. We can take the easy option and dismiss the Holocaust as a very unusual phenomenon – a mass insanity instigated by a small group of deranged ideologues who conspired to seize political power and exercise their monstrously evil will.

It’s comforting to imagine that these were uniquely cruel and savage people. However, one of the most disturbing discoveries about how the Holocaust happened is not that all of the Nazis were madmen and monsters. It’s that they were mostly ordinary human beings.

Behind the cellar door

My point is simply this: every one of us is vulnerable. Every single human being is susceptible to frailties – we are each partial, and easily compromised: open to the ravages of fear, doubt, insecurity, anger and loneliness, and to the shadow of our unchosen choices – the person we choose to be always invites a dark double – the person we choose not to be – the psychic twin we keep leashed deep in our psychic basement, as it were. The more we repress, the darker our shadow becomes, and the greater its influence.

By alienating our self and our own shared, instinctual foundation, we fail to recognise when it motivates us, animates us and directs our deeds. It is all to easy, therefore, for those who are politically motivated to manipulate our perceptions, to touch and rouse the ancient predatory instincts we all have locked away in the cellar of our psyche.

Perhaps a definition of evil is suffering transferred to others. In the process, whatever started the original pain is forgotten and the energy of it moves around amplifying revenge and cruelty until someone somewhere contains it, and transforms it by walking in the shoes of many others towards empathy, wisdom, kindness and compassion. We have that wonderful potential. All we need to realise it is the courage to face our selves. Beyond the cellar door. And by facing our selves, we recognise all others.

Anyone who has recognised transference as a potentially therapeutic tool in a group setting will tell you that emotions are a tangible, primordial, manifest life-force, moving indiscriminately, relentlessly from person to person, animating, hating, hurting, loving and healing. E-motion -> movement.

We are primarily emotional creatures. Advertisers and propagandists know this. Many of us deny it. However, as developed human beings we endeavour to learn and to recognise the base elements of the psyche and arbitrate: mature adults liberate their self, both from the deceptive cover of the persona, (some call this the ego – our superficial individual identity –  though the ego is also considered to be a mediator between self and society) and from the power of (universal and personal) unconscious impulses. But the more we repress, the more the leashed shadow strains for release from the force of our resistance.

Perhaps if we were to rename and redefine the shadow archetype as “teacher”, we would find the motivation and courage to face what is in the darkness of our collective basement. And learn.

Know thyself – Delphic maxim.

Manly P HallPicture courtesy of Robert Livingstone.

Endnote

Here, I’ve used Jungian concepts as a frame of analysis. Jung provides us with an expansive frame of reference and an invaluable therapeutic tool, yet his work has all too often been devalued and dismissed as “new age mysticism.” But for me, any kind of personal development may be deemed “spiritual” without necessarily having any reference to a systemic religion.

It is proposed that Jung had a profound influence on the development of quantum theory through his own theory of synchronicity – as a mode of relationship that is acausal and non-local – an idea that influenced Wolfgang Pauli, in particular, as well as other physicists.

Jung’s archetypes have also been identified as universal and this seems to have been verified at an anthropological level.

They certainly have a powerful cross-cultural resonance.

 


 

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The just world fallacy

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The Tories now deem anything that criticises them as “abusive”. Ordinary campaigners are labelled “extremists” and pointing out flaws, errors and consequences of Tory policy is called “scaremongering”.

Language and psychology are a powerful tool, because this kind of use “pre-programs” and sets the terms of any discussion or debate. It also informs you what you may think, or at least what you need to circumnavigate first in order to state your own account or present your case. This isn’t simply name-calling or propaganda: it’s a deplorable and tyrannical silencing technique.

The government have gathered together a Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – it is a part of the Cabinet Office – which is comprised of both behavioural psychologists and economists, who apply positivist (pseudo) psychological techniques to social policy. The approach is not much different to the techniques of persuasion used in the shady end of the advertising industry.  They produce positive psychology courses which the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are using to ensure participants find satisfaction with their lot; the DWP are also using psychological referral with claims being reconsidered on a mandatory basis by civil servant “decision makers”, as punishment for non-compliance with the new regimes of welfare conditionality for which people claiming out of work benefits are subject.

Positive psychology courses, and the use of psychological referral as punishment for non-compliance with the new regimes of welfare conditionality applied to people claiming out of work benefits are example of the (mis)application of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

CBT is all about making a person responsible for their own thoughts and how they perceive events and experiences and can sometimes be used to empower people. But used in this context, it’s a political means to push an ideological agenda, entailing the “responsibilisation” of poverty, with claimants being blamed for not having a job or for being ill and/or disabled.

However, responding with anger, sadness and despair is normal to many events and circumstances, and to deny that in any way is actually grotesque, cruel and horrendously abusive – it’s a technique called gaslighting – a method of psychological abuse that is usually associated with psychopathic perpetrators.

Gaslighting techniques may range from a simple denial by abusers that abusive incidents have occurred, to events and accounts staged by the abusers with the intention of disorienting the targets (or “victims”.)

The government is preempting any reflection on widening social inequality and injustice by using these types of behavioural modification techniques on the poor, holding them entirely responsible for the government’s economic failures and the consequences of  class contingent policies.

Sanctions are applied to “remedy” various “defects” of individual behaviour, character and attitude. Poor people are being coerced into workfare and complicity using bogus psychology and bluntly applied behavioural modification techniques.

Poor people are punished for being poor, whilst wealthy people are rewarded for being wealthy. Not only on a material level, but on a level of socially and politically attributed esteem, worth and value.

We know from research undertaken by sociologists, psychologists and economists over the past century that being poor is bad for mental wellbeing and health. The government is choosing to ignore this and adding to that problem substantially by stripping people of their basic dignity and autonomy.

The application of behavioural science is even more damaging than the hateful propaganda and media portrayals, although both despicable methods of control work together to inflict psychological damage on more than one level. “Positive psychology” and propaganda serve to invalidate individual experiences, distress and pain and to appropriate blame for circumstances that lie entirely outside of an individual’s control and responsibility.

Social psychologists such as Melvin Lerner followed on from Milgam’s work in exploring social conformity and obedience, seeking to answer the questions of how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering.

The just-world” fallacy is the cognitive bias (assumption) that a person’s actions always bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, so that all honourable actions are eventually rewarded and all evil actions are eventually punished.

The fallacy is that this implies (often unintentionally) the existence of cosmic justice, stability, or order, and also serves to rationalise people’s misfortune on the grounds that they deserve it. It is an unfounded, persistent and comforting belief that the world is somehow fundamentally fair, without the need for our own moral agency and responsibility.

The fallacy appears in the English language in various figures of speech that imply guaranteed negative reprisal, such as: “You got what was coming to you,” “What goes around comes around,” and “You reap what you sow.” This tacit assumption is rarely scrutinised, and goes some way to explain why innocent victims are blamed for their misfortune.

The Government divides people into deserving and undeserving categories – the “strivers” and “scroungers” rhetoric is an example of how the government are drawing on such fallacious tacit assumptions – that utilises an inbuilt bias of some observers to blame victims for their suffering – to justify social oppression and inequality that they have engineered via policy.

The poorest are expected to be endlessly resilient and resourceful, people claiming social security are having their lifeline benefits stripped away and are being forced into a struggle to meet their basic survival needs. This punitive approach can never work to “incentivise” or motivate in such circumstances, because we know that when people struggle to meet basic survival needs they are too pre-occupied to be motivated to meet other less pressing needs.

Maslow identifies this in his account of the human hierarchy of needs, and many motivational studies bear this out. This makes the phrase trotted out by the Tories: “helping people into work” to justify sanctions and workfare not only utterly terrifying, but also inane.

Unemployment is NOT caused by “psychological barriers” or “character flaws”. It is caused by feckless and reckless governments failing to invest in growth projects. It’s not about personal “employability”, it’s about neoliberal economics, labour market conditions, political policies and subsequent socio-structural problems.

Public policy is not a playground for the amateur and potentially dangerous application of brainwashing techniques via the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or “nudge unit”. This is NOT being nasty in a nice way: it is being nasty in a nasty way; it’s utterly callous.

The rise of psychological coercion, “positive affect as coercive strategy”, and the recruitment of economic psychologists for designing the purpose of  monitoring, modifying and punishing people who claim social security benefits raises important ethical questions about psychological authority. Psychology is being used as a prop for neoliberal ideology.

We ought to be very concerned about the professional silence so far regarding this adoption of a such a psychocratic, neo-behavourist approach to social control and an imposed conformity by this government.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone 

Related reading:

AFTER FORCED-PSYCHOMETRIC-TEST DEBACLE, NOW JOBCENTRES OFFER ONLINE CBT – Skywalker

The Right Wing Moral Hobby Horse:Thrift and Self Help, But Only For The Poor

From Psycho-Linguistics to the Politics of Psychopathy. Part 1: Propaganda.

The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame

Whistle While You Work (For Nothing): Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy – The Case of Workfare by Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn (A must read)

 


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you. 

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