Tag: Misuse of psychology

Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, cult thinking and neoliberalism

behavchange
Dr Robert J. Lifton is a psychologist who studied and identified the techniques of mass persuasion and groupthink used in propaganda and in cults (from political to religious). I found his interesting article about the eight criteria for “thought reform” on the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) site.

What struck me immediately about Lifton’s criteria is how easily they may be applied to neoliberalism – a totalising, authoritarian New Right ideology, imposed by an elite of very financially secure and powerful oppressors. Over the last few years, much of the rest of the population in the UK have experienced growing inequality and increasingly precarious socioeconomic circumstances, exacerbated by class-contingent neoliberal austerity and “small state” policies.

The neoliberal approach to public policy has become naturalised. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama, announced in 1992 that the great ideological battles between “east and west” were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. He was dubbed the “court philosopher of [post-industrial] global capitalism” by John Gray.

In his book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama wrote:

“At the end of history, it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society…..What we are witnessing, is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

I always saw Fukuyama as an ardent champion of ultra-neoliberalism, he disguised his conservatism behind apparently benign virtue words and phrases (as part of a propaganda technique called Glittering Generalities), such as “Man’s universal right to freedom.” 

He meant the same sort of self-interested “freedom” as Ayn Rand: “a free mind and a free market are corollaries.” He meant the same kind of implicit social Darwinist notions long held by Conservatives like Herbert Spencer – where the conditions of the market rather than evolution decides who is “free,” who survives, and as we know, the market is rigged by the invisible hand of government.

Fukuyama’s ideas have been absorbed culturally, and serve to normalise the dominance of the right, and stifle the rationale for critical debate.

Fukuyama’s work is a celebration of neoliberal hegemony. It’s an important work to discuss simply because it has been so widely and tacitly accepted, and because of that, some of the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions and ramifications need to be made explicit. 

Neoliberalism requires an authoritarian approach to public administration. Rather than an elected government recognising and meeting public needs, instead, we now have a government manipulating citizens to adapt their views, behaviours and circumstances to meet the politically defined needs of the state. This turns democracy on its head. It is also presents us with a political framework that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations and equality legislation. 

Government policies have become increasingly irrational.  We have a government that has decided work is a health outcome, for example. In an absurd world where medical sick notes have been politically redefined as fit notes, sick and disabled people are apparently no longer exempt from work, which is now held to be a magic “cure”. The only way out of the politically imposed punitive and increasing poverty for those who cannot work is… to work. (See: Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records.) 

Neoliberalism has become a doxa in the Western world. Here in the UK, citizen behaviours are being aligned with politically defined neoliberal outcomes, via policies that extend behaviour modification techniques, based on methodological behaviourism. Policies that “incentivise” have become the norm. This is a psychocratic approach to administration: the government are delivering public policies that have an expressed design and aim to act upon individuals, with an implicit set of instructions that inform citizens how they should be

Aversives and punishment protocols are most commonly used. Coercive welfare policies are one example of this. The recent eugenics by stealth policy entailing the restricting of welfare support to two children only is another. Both were introduced with the explicitly stated political intention of “changing behaviours” of poorer citizens. Those that cannot or will not conform are politically stigmatised and outgrouped, as well as being being further “disciplined” by state-imposed economic sanctions.

Another particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas that are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy. Every Conservative campaign has been a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control.

Communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of your beliefs and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo. (See also: Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism.)

As a frame of analysis, Lifton’s criteria are very useful in highlighting parallels between cult thinking and how political dogma may gain an illusion of consensus; how it becomes a dominant paradigm and is accepted as everyday “common sense.” 

Kitty.

Lifton’s criteria for “thought reform” are:

  1. Milieu Control.  This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

  2. Mystical Manipulation.  There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes. (This can include “natural order” ideas and political doxa.) 
  3. Demand for Purity.  The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.  The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here. (Stigma and political outgrouping is used to deter and exile non-conformists.)
  4. Confession.  Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.  There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders. (Mainstream media have bombarded us with “confessions” of “scroungers”, for example. The lives and experiences of those out of work have become public moral “property.”)
  5. Sacred Science.  The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.  Truth is not to be found outside the group.  The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism. (Ties in with Conservative notions of a “natural social order”)
  6. Loading the Language.  The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.  This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking. (See Glittering Generalities and The Conservatives are colonising progressive rhetoric.)
  7. Doctrine over person.  Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. 
  8. Dispensing of existence.  The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.  This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology.  If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the  members.  Thus, the outside world loses all credibility.  In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.  (Lifton, 1989)

*Italics in blue added by me.

Related

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

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.

 

Link: The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour changegcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1


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The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

“This is a round up.”

The song is about a world where citizens are deeply suspicious of one another, where fear of the Other is politically instigated and nurtured, social conformity, discrimination, exclusion and prejudice reign supreme. It’s about a society blindly climbing Allport’s ladder.

 

“Of the forehead, when the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding.” Johann Kaspar Lavater, phrenologist (1741–1801).

 

Back in the nineteenth century, phrenology was the preferred “science” of personality and character divination. The growth in popularity of “scientific” lectures as entertainment also helped spread phrenology to the masses. It was very popular among the middle and working classes, not least because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were supportive of the liberal laissez faire individualism inherent in the dominant Victorian world view. It justified the status quo. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited the charlatan George Combe to feel the bumps and “read” the heads of their children.

During the early 20th century, there was a revival of interest in phrenology, partly because of studies of evolution, criminology and anthropology (pursued by Cesare Lombroso). Some people with political causes used phrenology as a justification narrative for European superiority over other “lesser” races. By comparing skulls of different ethnic groups it supposedly allowed for ranking of races from least to most evolved.

It’s now largely regarded as an obsolete and curious amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy, colonialist supremicism with a dash of moral philosophy. However, during the 1930s Belgian colonial authorities in Rwanda used phrenology to explain the so-called superiority of Tutsis over Hutus. More recently in 2007, the US State of Michigan included phrenology (and palm reading) in a list of personal services subject to sales tax. 

Any system of belief that rests on the classification of physical characteristics is almost always used to justify prejudices, social stratifying and the ranking of human worth. It highlights what we are at the expense of the more important who we are. It profoundly dehumanises and alienates us.

Though the saying “you need your bumps feeling” has lived on, may the pseudoscience of phrenology rest in pieces. 

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Phrenology is dead: long live the new moralising pseudoscience

The Conservatives have simplified the art of personality and character divination. They have set up a new economic department of the mind called the Behavioural Insights Unit. This fits with the age old Conservative motif of a “broken Britain”and their obsessive fear of social “decay and disorder.” Apparently, we are always on the point of moral collapse, as a society. And apparently, it isn’t the government’s decision-making that is problematic: poor people are entirely responsible for the poor state of our country. Those who have the very least are to blame. That’s why they need such targeted austerity policies, to ensure they have even less. We can’t have the poor being rewarded with not being poor, that’s just bad for big business.

Under every Conservative government, we suddenly see the proliferation of bad sorts; cognitively biased and morally incompetent people making the wrong choices everywhere and generally being inept, non-resilient and deficient characters. The way to diagnose these problems of character, according to the government, is to establish whether or not someone is “hard working”. This is usually determined by the casting of chicken bones, and a quick look at someone’s bank balance. If it lies offshore, you are generally considered a jolly good sort.

If you need to claim social security, be it in-work or out-of-work support, then you are most definitely a “wrong sort”; a faulty person and therefore in need of some state treatment to put you right, just to ensure that your behaviours are optimal and aligned with politically defined neoliberal outcomes. Apparently, poor people are the new “criminal types.” The only cure, according to the government, is to make poor people even poorer, by a variety of methods, including a thorough, coercive nudging: a “remedial” income sanctioning and increased conditionality to eligibility for support; benefit cuts; increasing welfare caps and a systematic dismantling of the welfare state more generally,

Oh, and regular shaming, outgrouping, stigmatising and scapegoating in the meanstream media and political rhetoric, designed to create folk devils and moral panic.

The new benefit cap: a policy designed by the neoliberal rune casters

The regressive benefit cap will save a paltry amount of money in the short term. In the long term it will cost our health and social services many millions. It’s misleading of the government to claim that it will save the “tax payers” money, since most people needing to claim social security have worked and paid taxes too. VAT is also a tax, and last time I checked, people needing support because they lost their job or became sick or injured are not exempt from paying taxes. In fact the poorest families pay the highest proportion of their income in tax

We forget that people in poverty pay taxes because we forget how many different ways we are taxed:

  • VAT
  • Duties
  • Income tax
  • National Insurance
  • Council tax
  • Licences
  • Social care charges, and many others taxes
  • Bedroom tax

Of course there’s a stark contrast in the way the state coerces the poorest citizens into behaving “responsibly”, carrying the full burden of austerity, while there is an abject failure to rein in executive pay, or to tax the Conservative party paymasters, and recover the billions lost in revenue to the Treasury through tax havens.

Poor people get the bargain basement package of behavioural incentives – which is all stick and no carrots – whereas the wealthy get the deluxe kit, with no stick and plenty of financial rewards. 

Nearly a quarter of a million children from poor families will be hit by the extended household benefit cap due to be introduced this autumn, according to the government’s latest analysis of the impact of the policy. It will see an average of £60 a week taken out of the incomes of affected households that are already poor, pushing them even deeper into poverty. About 61% of those affected will be female lone parents.

The cap will damage the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children, and force already poor families to drastically cut back on the amount they spend on essential items to meet basic needs, such as food, fuel and clothing. Originally benefit rates were calculated to meet basic survival needs – covering the costs of food, fuel and shelter only. 

The new cap unjustifiably restricts the total amount an individual household can receive in benefits to £23,000 a year in London (£442 a week) and £20,000 in the rest of the UK (£385 a week). It replaces the existing cap level of £26,000. All of this support is dependent on whether or not you comply with the very complex conditionality criteria. The support can be withdrawn suddenly, in the form of a sanction, for any number of reasons, and quite often, because your benefit advisor simply has targets to reach in order to let you know that nothing at all may be taken for granted: eating, feeding your children, sleeping indoors and keeping warm in particular.  

The government claims the cap incentivises people to search for work, and says that 23,000 affected households have taken a job since the introduction of the first cap in 2013. However, the government uses “off flow” as a measurement of employment, which is unreliable, as studies have indicated many claimants simply vanish from record.

Worryingly, an audit in January this year found that the whereabouts of 1.5 million people leaving the welfare records each year is “a mystery.” The authors also raise concern that the wellbeing of at least a third of those who have been sanctioned “is anybody’s guess.” It’s not the first time these concerns have been raised.

It emerged in 2014, during an inquiry which was instigated by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee, that research conducted by Professor David Stuckler shows more than 500,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have disappeared from unemployment statistics, without finding work, since the sanctions regime was toughened in October, 2012.

This means that in August 2014, the claimant count – which is used to gauge unemployment – is likely to be very much higher than the 970,000 figure that the government is claiming, if those who have been sanctioned are included.

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: “The benefit cap restored fairness to the system by ending the days of limitless benefit claims and provides a clear incentive to move into work.”

However, firstly, social security is based on a national insurance contribution principle, and was already fair. Most people have worked and contributed to their own provision. Secondly, people in work are also poor. Those on low pay who need to claim additional support are also being sanctioned for “non-compliance”. In fact  much of our welfare spending goes towards supporting those people in work on low wages. We spend most on pensions, a large amount on in-work benefits and relatively little provision is for those out of work. The DWP don’t half chat some rubbish. A fair system would entail the government ensuring that employers pay adequate wages that cover rising living costs, instead of permitting employers to profit from our welfare state.

In a deregulated labour market, poorly paid workers are now held individually and entirely responsible for how much they earn, how many hours they work, and generally “progressing in work”. If they don’t “progress”, then what used to be an issue for trade unions and collective bargaining is now an issue addressed by punitive social security law, authoritarian welfare “advisors” and financial penalties.  

You can see where the incremental increases in the benefit cap are leading the public. The justifications and line of reasoning presented by the Conservatives are leading us down a cul-de-sac of rationale, where the welfare state is completely dismantled, and the reason given will be that this ensures “everyone works”, regardless of labour market conditions and the availability of reasonable quality and secure jobs that pay enough to support people, meeting their basic needs sufficiently to lift them out of poverty.

If these measures are intended to force people into work, this government’s self-defeating, never-ending austerity policy is hardly the ideal economic climate for job creation and growth, and where are the affordable social homes for the growing ranks of low paid workers in precarious financial situations because of increasing job insecurity and zero hour contracts? The gig economy is a political fig leaf.

An official evaluation of the cap by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2014 found the “large majority” of capped claimants did not respond by moving into work, and a DWP-backed study in Oxford published in June found that cutting benefit entitlements made it less likely that unemployed people would get a job. Not that we didn’t already know this. If people cannot meet their basic needs, then they simply struggle to survive and cannot be “incentivised” to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government need to read about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the Minnesota starvation experiment. (See Welfare sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work .)

Joanna Kennedy, chief executive of the charity Z2K, said: “Our experience helping those affected by the original cap shows that many of those families will have to reduce even further the amount they spend on feeding and clothing their children, and heating their home to avoid falling into rent arrears and facing eviction and homelessness.”

As Patrick Butler points out in the Guardian, the government have already been ordered to exempt carers from the cap after a judge ruled last year that it unlawfully discriminated against disabled people by capping benefits for relatives who cared for them full time. Ministers had argued that carers who looked after family members for upwards of 35 hours a week should be treated as unemployed.

A previous court ruling found that the benefit cap breached the UK’s obligations on international children’s rights because the draconian cuts to household income it produced left families unable to meet their basic needs. This is the fifth wealthiest nation in the world, and supposedly a first world liberal democracy.

The deputy president of the supreme court, Lady Hale, said in her judgment: “Claimants affected by the cap will, by definition, not receive the sums of money which the state deems necessary for them adequately to house, feed, clothe and warm themselves and their children.

As Stephen Preece from Welfare Weekly pointed out yesterday, the word vulnerable suggests that people are weak, when in fact they are only made vulnerable through the actions or inaction of those around them, including (and especially) the government. I agree. To label people as vulnerable displaces responsibility from government and diverts us from the reality and nature of the punitive policies aimed at poor citizens – this is political oppression. 

Ideological justification narratives and pseudoscience

I waded through the government document Welfare Reform and Work Act: Impact Assessment for the benefit cap. Basically the government use inane nudge language and their central aim is to “incentivise behavioural change” throughout the assessment. But they then claim that they can’t predict or accurately measure that. It is very difficult to measure psychobabble accurately though, it has to be said.

There are a lot of techniques of neutralisation and euphemisms peppered throughout the document. For example, taking money away from the poorest citizens is variously described as: “achieving fairness for taxpayers” (as previously stated, people claiming benefits have usually worked: they have and continue to pay taxes); “ensures there is a reasonable safety net of support for the most vulnerable” (by cutting it away further).and “strengthening work incentives”. 

For those alleged free riders claiming support because they fell on hard times, “doing the right thing” and “moving into work” is deemed to be the ultimate aim of the cap, regardless of whether or not the work is secure, appropriate, with adequate levels of pay to lift people out of poverty. Work, in other words, will set us free.

I also took the time and trouble to read the studies that the government cited as “evidence” to support their pseudoscientific claims. The government misquoted and misapplied the research they used, too. They made claims that were NOT substantiated by the scant research referenced. And there are many more studies that completely refute the outrageous and ideologically premised government claims made in this document. 

For example, Freud makes the claims that: “Children in households where neither parent is in work are much more likely to have challenging behaviour at age 5 than children in households where both parents are in paid employment. Growing up in a workless household is associated with poorer academic attainment and a higher risk of being not in education, employment and training (NEET) in late adolescence.”

The study cited was Barnes, M. et al. (2012) Intergenerational Transmission of Worklessness: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study and Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. Department for Education research report 234. It says:

“Though it must be stated that much of the association between parental worklessness and these outcomes was attributable to these other risk factors facing workless families. Parental worklessness had no independent effect on a number of other outcomes, such as children’s wellbeing (not being happy at school, being bullied and bullying other children), feelings of lack of control, becoming a teen parent, and risky behaviour. This evidence provides limited support for a policy agenda targeted only at getting parents back into work. ”

It is poverty, not “worklessness” that creates poor social outcomes. That is why around half of the people queuing at food banks are those in work. The biggest proportion of welfare support paid out is in-work benefits.

Freud also states that: “A lower cap recognises that many hard working families earn less than median earnings – a lower cap provides a strong work incentive.”

Actually, raising wages in line with the cost of living would be a far better incentive, instead of punishing unemployed people for the failings of a Conservative government that always oversees an increasingly desperate reserve army of labour, and ever-falling wages. 

Perhaps one of the most outrageous claims made in the document is that the cap is consistent with “UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” Those sick and disabled people in the ESA work-related activity group are not protected from the cap. The government is currently being investigated by the UN for “gross and systematic” abuses of the human rights of disabled people, because of the previous welfare “reforms” (a euphemism for cuts).

This is an authoritarian government that is coercing people into any low paid and insecure work, regardless of how suitable it is. It’s about dismantling the welfare state, bit by bit. It is about ensuring people are desperate so that people’s right to turn down jobs that are unsuitable, thus reducing any kind of scope for collective bargaining to improve working conditions and pay, is removed. It’s also about bullying people into doing what the government wants then to do, removing autonomy and choices. That isn’t “incentivising”, it’s plain and brutal state coercion. All bullies and tyrants are behaviourists. 

It’s impossible not to feel at least a degree of concern and outrage reading such incoherent, flimsy and glib rubbish from an ideologically-driven government waging a full on class war on the poorest citizens, and then claiming that is somehow “fair” to the “taxpayer”. And it’s noteworthy that there is a harking back to the discredited and prejudiced theories of Keith Joseph – “intergenerational worklessness” – which were debunked by the theorists’ OWN research back in the Thatcher era. It is being paraded as irrefutable fact once again. 

I’m expecting a government phrenology unit to be established soon.

And an announcement that the Department for Work and Pensions is to be renamed the Malleus Maleficarum.

220px-1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog


 

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Two-way mirrors, hidden observers: welcome to the Department for Work and Pensions laboratory

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I regularly write to raise concerns about the current government’s misuse of psychology in public policies and research. There has been a shift towards the formulation of targeted, prejudiced, class contingent policies which have the central aim of “changing behaviours”  and enforcing “compliance” and conformity. This behaviourist approach has some profound implications for democracy. It constrains autonomy and curtails the basic liberties of targeted citizens, it does not include safeguards or a space for citizens’ qualitative accounts and feedback, while also excluding them from any political consideration of their human rights. 

On the government website, a contract finder notice for the “Provision of Research Laboratory Facilities” for the Department for Work and Pensions says:

“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) requires research to be undertaken, in a research laboratory environment, with recipients of the Carers Allowance and recipients of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

In a typical lab situation DWP shall have one DWP researcher in a room with the participant and other DWP researchers (if appropriate) and invited observers behind a two way mirror evaluating what is happening. As well as viewing the interview they can also see the activity on the web screen via monitors in their room.

The proceedings are currently recorded on MP4 for subsequent use when research findings are being reported. The participants cannot see the people in the viewing facility though they know they are there. There needs to be flexibility to be able to undertake the research in the North West and Leeds and be able to recruit for participants to attend a Government Lab set up at Aviation House in London WC2B 6NH.” 

Northern Voices T/A The Talking Shop is a Manchester based market research and public opinion polling company that has been awarded the contract in June this year. This company will be paid up to £60,000 for experimenting on sick and disabled claimants, using covert observation from behind a two-way mirror, studying eye movements, facial expressions and body language. 

Eye movement measurements are frequently used, though controversially, in criminal psychology, too, as a somewhat unreliable method of “lie detection.” Questions arise regarding precisely how eye movements, perception and cognition are related, and to date, this question hasn’t been answered by academics. 

It struck me that the experimental set up is very reminiscent of the social psychology experiments conducted in the 60s and early 70s to study social conformity and obedience to authority. However, the welfare “reforms” were specifically designed to coerce people claiming welfare into conformity – “to do the ‘right thing'”-  and compliance with a harsh “conditionality” regime and ever-shrinking eligibility criteria. It’s hardly a secret that the New Right Conservatives and neoliberals have always loathed the welfare state, and along with the other social gains of our post-war settlement, it is being systematically dismantled.

The wider context is significant, both in terms of its impact on individual citizen’s experiences and behaviours, and on the way that theory is formulated to conflate and align citizen’s needs with neoliberal outcomes, and this is also reflected in how research is being designed and used.

Some context

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team has been testing libertarian paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various policy “treatments.” A lot of the actual research work is contracted out to private providers. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists and profit-driven private companies are less transparent in conducting behavioural research “interventions.” There are no ethical and safeguarding guidelines in place to protect participants.

Earlier this year I wrote about a Department for Work and Pensions Trial that was about “testing whether conditionality and the use of financial sanctions are effective for people that need to claim benefits in low paid work.” A secretly released document (which said: This document is for internal use only and should not be shared with external partners or claimants.) was particularly focused on methods of enforcing the “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security.

Evaluation of the Trial will be the responsibility of the Labour Market Trials Unit (LMTU). Evaluation will “measure the impact of the Trial’s 3 group approaches, but understand more about claimant attitudes to progression over time and how the Trial has influenced behaviour changes.”

Worryingly, claimant participation in the Trial was mandatory. There was no appropriate procedure to obtain and record clearly informed consent from research participants. Furthermore, the Trial is founded on a coercive psychomanagement and political approach to labour market constraints, and is clearly expressed as a psychological intervention, explicitly aimed at “behavioural change” and this raises some serious concerns about the lack of research ethics and codes of conduct in government research. It’s also very worrying that this “intervention” is to be delivered by non-qualified work coaches.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) have issued a code of ethics in psychology that provides guidelines for the conduct of research. Some of the more important and pertinent ethical considerations are as follows:

  • Informed Consent.

Participants must be given the following information:

  •  A statement that participation is voluntary and that refusal to participate will not result in any consequences or any loss of benefits that the person is otherwise entitled to receive.
  • Purpose of the research.
  •  Procedures involved in the research.
  •  All foreseeable risks and discomforts to the participant (if there are any). These include not only physical injury but also possible psychological.
  •  Subjects’ right to confidentiality and the right to withdraw from the study at any time without any consequences.

Protection of Participants

  • Researchers must ensure that those taking part in research will not be caused distress. They must be protected from physical and mental harm. This means you must not embarrass, frighten, offend or harm participants.
  • Normally, the risk of harm must be no greater than in ordinary life, i.e. participants should not be exposed to risks greater than or additional to those encountered in their normal lifestyles. Withdrawing lifeline support that is calculated to meet the costs of only minimum requirements for basic survival – food, fuel and shelter – as a punishment for non-compliance WILL INVARIABLY cause distress, harm and loss of dignity for the subjects that are coerced into participating in this Trial. Participants should be able to leave a study at any time if they feel uncomfortable.

Behavioural “rights” and the politics of moralising

Consent to a therapy or research protocol must possess a minimum of three features in order to be valid. These are: it should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject must be be adequately informed of the details.This raises some serious concerns about experimental social research, especially when it may involve people with mental health disabilities who may be highly vulnerable.

It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the nudge theory of “cognitive bias,” for example. The extended use of sanctions in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was originally advised by the Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) back in 2010. It was based on the manipulation of an alleged cognitive bias that we have – loss aversion – and designed as a method of coercing conformity to increasingly unreasonable state-imposed conditionality rules, and as punishment for the perceived “non-compliance” of unemployed people.

There is nothing to prevent a government deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies. How appropriate is it to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example? 

The fact that this government regards work as a “health outcome” should raise alarm bells. (Please see: Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records). The government have already stigmatised unemployment, and redefined it as a psychological disorder.

Furthermore, the research models being used are framed by a profoundly undemocratic conservative neopositivism, which emphasises directed quantitative data collection and excludes the accounts, experiences, narratives and language of research participants. Much of the research is prejudiced, and starts from an authoritarian premise that people experiencing socioeconomic problems do so because they make the “wrong choices” and that they need to be “incentivised to change their behaviours”.

An element of the “laboratory  research environment” research went ahead in March last year. It’s stated aim was to “to improve the Carer’s Allowance Digital Service.”  The recruitment brief specifies that:

“These self employed people shouldn’t have accounts prepared by an accountant however it’s mandatory that they bring with them details of their self-employment eg a log book or papers of incoming and outgoings. We also need these people to be looking after someone who has a disability.”

It’s become normalised that many millionaires avoid paying taxes and contributing to the society that they have gained so much from. I don’t see anyone intimidating them, demanding details of their “incoming and outgoings,” yet that would profit society far, far more.

Wouldn’t you think that if this were genuinely about supporting carers using software or accessing services online, it would be designed to be USER LED – a direct face-to-face approach would be the usual way, with an input from those service users, which is qualitative and much more reliable, authentic and useful than the account of a group of strangers hiding behind mirrored glass, observing people and applying controversial psychology techniques.

Measuring eye movements is usually coupled with other more inclusive qualitative methodologies, such as introspective verbal protocols, since used on its own, it is unreliable in that it fails to indicate specific kinds of cognitive processing or content. This dialogic approach, however, isn’t included in the government’s research brief. (Please see The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation.)

The central premise of justifications for “behavioural interventions” is that the general public has numerous cognitive biases that lead to “faulty” decision-making. Current research and interventions are largely aimed at the poorest citizens, however, exposing a government bias that wealthy people are somehow cognitively competent. Yet many of this powerful, offshore hoarding minority class want to see worker’s rights, welfare support and our public services dismantled.

Not a rational or civilised class, on the whole, then.

As I have previously stated, the behavioural approach removes people from the socioeconomic and political context that they inhabit and isolates them from meaningful and impacting socio-structural events and political decision-making, placing the burden of responsibility and obligation entirely within those who are suffering the inevitable systemic consequences of neoliberal policies. In such an economic system of “market forces” based on competition, there are invariably winners and losers. It’s hardly rational or fair to punish those who are simply adversely affected by an intrinsically flawed and unfair system of socioeconomic organisation for which there was never a consensus. It was simply imposed on the UK public, without any legitimate, informed consent.

Can you imagine the government carrying out this kind of research and stigmatising, intimidating methodology on billionaires interacting with their accountants, completing their tax returns or interacting with their offshore banks? No, I thought not. 

It’s noteworthy that current Nudge Unit policy is to keep those being targeted for nudges “naive” as people tend to temporarily alter their behaviour when they know they are being observed and that skews research results. In sociology and social psychology, this is called the Hawthorne effect.

However, that approach is profoundly incompatible with established ethical research frameworks, and fundamental human rights, which, as I’ve outlined, always specify a central requirement of participants’ informed consent.

Similarly, the starting premise of laboratory usability testing is that “what people say they do with products is not always what they actually do.” In other words, we cannot trust the public to tell us what they need.

Userbility testing, an American import, is designed to “target” users’ needs and preferences by observing their behaviour. However, a big part of the motivation for this kind of research is Building credibility for usability activities within an organization.” The government often use research like this to formulate justification narratives for controversial, coercive and punitive policies.

Democracy is meant to involve the election of a government that reflects on social problems objectively, recognises and serves public needs, and designs policy in response to what citizens actually need; it’s not about governments that coerce people to “change their behaviour” in accordance to a partisan, ideological agenda. We call the kind of government that does that “totalitarian.”

I am not the only person who is very concerned about this development.  

A spokesperson for Fightback 4 Justice said:

“This is the company that has won the tender experimenting with Carers claimants using body language techniques and 2 way mirrors. If anyone gets called into one of these meetings please get in touch as I’d be happy to attend. I am very very concerned about a potential breach of a person’s human rights here particularly where mental health is one of the claimants conditions. Nothing about this “study” seems ethical in my legal opinion. A room with a 2 way mirror and capacity for 12 people studying body language and facial expressions is wrong in so many ways, DWP are giving the wrong impression that claimants are potential criminals with this latest research in my view.” Michelle (legal advocate).

The Talking Shop’s research studios

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Related

The politics of blame and in-work conditionality

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy”

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

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

Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records

The Conservative approach to social research – that way madness lies

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

 


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