Tag: Positivism

Calculus Of Libertarian Paternalism

Max Ernst

German artist Max Ernst (1891 – 1976) incorporated a lot of sophisticated mathematical ideas into his works. Indeed, many Surrealists and Dadaists of the Anti-Tradition had a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and represented mathematics in a variety of astounding ways.

The 1942 picture, “Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidian Fly” shows a Young man observing a fly, through Euclidean triangle eyes. The fly executes a complex flight path leaving a trace behind it. That trace criss-crossing itself creates a large number of Non-Euclidian triangles. Quite literally, the Young Man is looking at a world with eyes that are utterly different to the reality of the World.

In mathematics, there are broadly three kinds of triangles: Hyperbolic, Euclidean, Elliptic. They each have three sides meeting at three corner angles and those features make them into triangles. An elliptic and hyperbolic triangle will not have corner angles adding up to one hundred and eighty degrees. Where anybody supposes that all triangles can only have angles adding up to one hundred and eighty degrees their calculations will be wrong for two types of triangles. Seeing the world through Euclidean Eyes is much the same as seeing the world through an ideological lense. Especially if the World has a different geometry. Looking at the Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidian Fly illustrates all three kinds of triangles and that gives resonance to the idea that the Young Man is intrigued. Anybody would be intrigued at the prospect that the World has hidden depths.

The assumption that all triangles are the same is wrong; but, not something that overly worries people. For enough practical situations, the Euclidean Triangle is acceptable. Good enough for Government Work. It seems obvious and has an intuitive appeal. People see triangles as having straight edges and one hundred and eighty degrees of angles. It makes sense. It is a default pattern of thought. It is what nudge theorists call choice architecture. No matter what you choose your choice will be determined by the assumption that the angles will always add up to one hundred and eighty degrees and that lines are always straight. It is the kind of inflexible thinking that Politicians of all Parties excel at: straight talking, clear thinking, up front. Sadly, the truth is the inability to address the variety in the world makes those politicians inflexible, authoritarian, and even counter-productive.

The inability to accept that, even if you do not know exactly how they work, there are Non-Euclidian triangles is something that prevents living in a world of surprises. Which is not to say that every surprise abolishes all that you know. This is a phenomenon that politicians of a certain sort use repeatedly. Mental gymnastics that present them as being flexible, dynamic, innovative where, in fact, they are inflexible, dull authoritarians. Nowhere is this more useful than in Paternalism.

Paternalism, in essence, tells the world that there is on kind of triangle. For enough practical situations, we can assume that Euclidean Triangles are the only Triangles. These situations do not include the sophisticated situation where there is rapid change and the world enters uncharted territory. Paternalism is not good at uncharted territory.

Paternalism is a political idea of limiting liberty or autonomy in a manner intended to promote the good of a person or group. That limitation of behaviour might be against or regardless of the will of a person. The Paternalist expresses an attitude of superiority: this is the correct way to do things. As a political idea, Paternalism has been unfashionable since the end of the Second World War. There is a small step from table manners to total war.

Telling people, especially people who are increasingly educated, that there is only one kind of triangle is nonsense. Paternalists classify themselves as soft or hard, pure or impure, moral or welfare; and, since the advent of nudge theory these have all been wrapped up into the notion of Libertarian Paternalism. Broadly Libertarian Paternalism is Paternalism where the subject of the Paternalism is influenced in their choices in a way that will make them better off, as judged by themselves. Libertarian Paternalism is about getting the whole world to buy into the notion that there is one, and only one, kind of triangle.

Which makes those who do not accept the nudge, metaphorically, into the wrong kind of triangle. Given there are three general kinds of geometry – Euclidean, Hyperbolic, and Elliptical – there is a two in three probability that a randomly selected triangle is the wrong kind of triangle. Which has a curiously powerful historical resonance for some people. Judging that a nudge is wrong for me places those with judgement in conflict with the Paternalist and the inevitable hardening of whatever powers the Paternalist possesses takes place. Libertarian Paternalism cannot help but become Authoritarian. Paternalism trumping Libertarianism for a very simple reason: Paternalists propose rule escalations and either the Libertarian accepts the escalation or the Paternalist escalates the coercion. There is no real free choice.

The modern paternalism has branded itself as nudge as if there was something harmless about it. In reality nudge relies on cognitive biases. There are around one hundred cognitive biases that have been identified by psychologists. These are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgement in other words: ways in which we assume we know what kind of triangle we are looking at. These cognitive biases result in fairly predictable outcomes. Nudge Theorists spend a lot of time designing decisions for Citizens to make around these cognitive biases which result in decisions that are not really free choices and may not even be rational. Indeed there is often a payoff for the Paternalist in having an irrational choice: the Citizen has made a choice and has no insight into why. Which ensures the Paternalist can narrate social reality simply by saying, “this is why you chose that”.

The list of cognitive biases is long and they are effective means to nudging people into taking the right decision. So, for example, the Default Effect is where, given a choice between several options, the tendency to favour the default one. This is frequently seen in computer systems where, for example, the default language is US-EN and needs to be changed. The subtle impact of this, for English Language Speakers, is that not changing the default US-EN to GB-EN, for example, results in software that is understandable but drives language use towards American semantics.

Then there is the Framing Effect: drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how that information is presented. So, for example, using US-EN and GB-EN rather than American English and British English helps to drive the conclusion that these are, somehow, dialects of the same language with equal linguistic value, rather than diverging languages in a struggle for existence. The list of cognitive biases is a list of ways to influence people: framing software use in US-EN has the subtle effect of making software be perceived as American, even though America is not the biggest writer of code in the world.

Cognitive biases are about getting things done: decisions made. They are not about rational decision making but about getting things done. In the word of the Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, they are about bullshit. The use of cognitive biases is not about saying something true or false but about getting things done. It is about Action. The principle of action replacing though has been central to the development of Totalitarianism for at least a century.

The danger of Paternalism is that it ceases being benevolent and becomes Total. In the practices of Nudge there is embodied a subtle yet obvious flaw: those doing the Nudging are not immune to the cognitive biases they use. They see the entire world as Euclidean Triangles – which, in a world with Elliptical and Hyperbolic triangles, amounts to confirmation bias. Confirmation Bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. Being in positions of power, those who Nudge are using Confirmation Bias to inform their creation of a Framing Effect and a Default Effect. The outcome is that policies are not evidence based, rational and democratic but prejudice based, irrational and paternalistic.

When Sunstein and Thaler proposed that Libertarian Paternalism was a good idea, they were doing so from a peculiar position of having access to legal, contract and finance skills. Libertarian Paternalism would, it seem, work in a community that had replaced society with enforceable contracts.

This kind of notion seeps into the way the Department for Work and Pensions treat Claimants. The Unemployed become Job Seekers thus taking advantage of the cognitive bias of focusing; and, the Job Seeker has a Job Seekers Agreement which, it turns out, is an actual contract for which the Claimant must fulfil all conditions, however arbitrary. This is where we begin to see how Nudge is also nudging the Department for Work and Pensions.

Job Seekers are viewed as being lumps of labour that can be switched in and out of the Economy mechanistically. This amounts to the cognitive bias of functional fixedness. Which separates the Claimant from any access to legal, contractual or finance resources implicit in the Sunstein and Thaler presentation of Nudge Theory. Which reduces the interaction between the Department and the Claimant to a Paternalistic relationship. Indeed, the nature of that relationship is reinforced by the elimination of legal aid: there is no recourse to effective contract drafting for the Claimant and the whole relationship is determined by who has the deepest pockets.

The Department of Work and Pensions is the clearest example of how Nudge becomes Authoritarianism. The elements that make Nudge workable have all been eliminated. There is no possibility of each Claimant negotiating a realistic Job Seekers Agreement and so the agreement will be dictated, to save time if nothing else. This highlights one of the cognitive biases of the Department: illicit transference – the notion that what is true of one claimant is true of all Claimants or what is true of Claimants collectively is also true of Claimants individually.

Because the Department of Work and Pensions has abandoned the evidence based work in favour of Observer-expectancy “Randomised Control Trials” – there is a veneer of scientific respectability. Yet, the Randomised Control Trials do not actually stand up to scrutiny. Which is evidenced by the consequent Departmental use of statistics. The Department of Work and Pensions has a poor reputation for statistics – being disciplined by the National Audit Office on several occasions – which highlights the Department’s predilection for cognitive biases such as Zero risk bias, Unit Bias, Stereotyping, and Status Quo Bias.

The clear outcome is that, once the capacity for all parties to a nudge to act in a libertarian fashion is removed, all that is left is Paternalism. It is a choice. A choice made in a choice architecture: the choice is transferred from the Claimant or the Citizen to the Department or the Government. Nudge is little more than the choice architecture of authoritarianism. This is no more evident than in the choice of Austerity.

The outcome of Austerity has been the rise of social murder – the killing of reasonably well defined groups such as Claimants – often at considerable cost, in order to sustain a cognitive bias. The multiple cognitive biases, of the Tories, used to support the claim that Markets solve everything are little more than the denial that there is more than one kind of triangle. Independent observers – such as UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston – have pointed out that Austerity is a choice that could be reversed ‘overnight’ for little cost. It is a choice. Made within a choice architecture created by Authoritarians.

The social murder carried out since 2010 is in the process of transforming society. Obedience is being presented as the default choice. In reality, the cognitive bias of System Justification, is driving the political, economic and social destruction of society and social murder is an acceptable outcome because “society will be reformed”.

It is the same notion that instruction to action – of taking back control – of keeping calm and carrying on – all signify. It is about remaking society in the image of some historical bubble: the cognitive biases of False Memory about some golden age, possibly in the 1940s or 1950s, where the world was somehow, magically, better. It was a world in which there was only one kind of triangle. It was also a world in which Max Ernst was fleeing totalitarians who wanted to kill him for painting the wrong kind of triangle.

Picture: “Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly”, Max Ernst, 1942.

Article by Hubert Huzzah

A critique of the government’s claimant satisfaction survey

“An official survey shows that 76% of people in the [PIP] system responded to say that they were satisfied. That itself is not a happy position, but it shows that her representation of people’s average experience as wholly negative on the basis of a Twitter appeal does not reflect the results of a scientific survey.”  Stephen Kerr, (Conservative and Unionist MP for Stirling), Personal Independence Payments debate, Hansard, Volume 635, Column 342WH, 31 January 2018 

“The latest official research shows that 76% of PIP claimants and 83% of ESA claimants are satisfied with their overall experience.” Spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Department for Work and Pensions Claimant Service and Experience Survey (CSES) is described as “an ongoing cross-sectional study with quarterly bursts of interviewing. The survey is designed to monitor customers’ satisfaction with the service offered by DWP and enable customer views to be fed into operational and policy development.”

The survey measures levels of satisfaction in a defined group of ‘customers’ who have had contact with the Department for Work and Pensions within a three-month period prior to the survey.

One problem with the aim of the survey is that satisfaction is an elusive concept – a subjective experience that is not easily definable, accessible or open to precise quantitative measurement. 

Furthermore, statistics that are not fully or adequately discussed in the survey report – these were to be found tucked away in the Excel data tables which were referenced at the end of the report – and certainly not cited by Government ministers, are those particularly concerning problems and difficulties with the Department for Work and Pensions that arose for some claimants. 

It’s worrying that 51 per cent of all respondents across all types of benefits who experienced difficulties or problems in their dealings with the Department for Work and Pensions did not see them resolved. A further 4 per cent saw only a partial resolution, and 3 per cent didn’t know if there had been any resolution.

In the job seeker’s allowance (JSA) category, some 53 per cent had unresolved problems with the Department and only 39 per cent had seen their problems resolved. In the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) group, 50 per cent had unresolved problems with the Department, and in the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) group, 57 per cent of claimants had ongoing problems with the Department, while only 33 per cent have seen their problems resolved. 

disatisfied

–  means the sample size is less than 40. 

A brief philosophical analysis

The survey powerfully reminded me of Jeremy Bentham’s Hedonistic Calculus, which was an algorithm designed to measure pleasure and pain, as Bentham believed the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to be a function of the amount of pleasure or pain that it produced.

Bentham discussed at length some of the ways that moral investigations are a ‘science’. There is an inherent contradiction in Bentham’s work between his positivism, which is founded on the principle of verification – this says that a sentence is strictly meaningful only if it expresses something that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical observation (establishing facts, which are descriptive) – and his utilitarianism, which concerns normative ethics (values, which are prescriptive). Bentham conflates the fact-value distinction when it suits his purpose, as do the current Government.

The recent rise in ‘happiness’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘satisfaction’ surveys are linked with Bentham’s utilitarian ideas and a Conservative endorsement of entrenched social practices as a consequence of this broadly functionalist approach. It’s not only a reflection of the government’s simplistic, reductionist view of citizens, it’s also a reflection of the reduced functioning and increasing rational incoherence of a neoliberal state. 

As we have witnessed over recent years, utilitarian ideologues in power tend to impose his/her vision of the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number,’ which may entail some negative consequences for minorities and socially marginalised groups. For example, the design of a disciplinarian, coercive and punitive welfare system to make ‘the taxpayer’ or ‘hard-working families’ happy (both groups being perceived as the majority). The happiness of those people who don’t currently conform to a politically defined norm doesn’t seem matter to the Government. Of course people claiming welfare support pay tax, and more often than not, paid tax before needing support.

Nonetheless, those in circumstances of poverty are regarded as acceptable collateral damage in the war for the totalising neoliberal terms and conditions of the ‘greater good’ of society, sacrificed for the greatest happiness of others. As a consequence, we live in a country where tax avoidance is considered more acceptable behaviour than being late for a job centre appointment. Tax avoidance and offshore banking is considered more ‘sustainable’ than welfare support for disabled people. 

This utilitarian problem, arising because of a belief that a state’s imposed paradigm of  competitive socioeconomic organisation is the way to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, also causes the greatest misery for some social groups. This is a problem that raises issues with profound implications for democracy, socioeconomic inclusion, citizenship and human rights. 

My point is that the very nature and subject choice of the research is a reflection of a distinctive political ideology, which is problematic, especially when the survey is passed off as ‘objective’ and value-neutral’.

There are certain underpinning and recognisable assumptions drawn from the doctrine of utilitarianism, which became a positivist pseudoscience in the late nineteenth century. The idea that human behaviour should be mathematised in order to turn the study of humans into a science proper strips humans down to the simplest, most basic motivational structures, in an attempt to reduce human behaviour to a formula. To be predictable in this way, behaviour must also be determined.

Yet we have a raft of behavioural economists complaining of everyone elses’ ‘cognitive bias’, who have decided to go about helping the population to make decisions in their own and society’s best interests. These best interests are defined by behavioural economists. The theory that people make faulty decisions somehow exempts the theorists from their own theory, of course. However, if decisions and behaviours are determined, so are the theories about decisions and behaviours. Behavioural science itself isn’t value-neutral, being founded on a collection of ideas called libertarian paternalism, which is itself a political doctrine. 

The Government have embraced these ideas, which are based on controversial assumptions. 

The current government formulates many policies with ‘behavioural science’ theory and experimental methodology behind them, which speaks in a distinct language of individual and social group ‘incentives’, ‘optimising decision-making’ and all for the greater ‘good of society’ (where poor citizens tend to get the cheap policy package of thrifty incentives, which entail austerity measures and having their income reduced, whereas wealthy citizens get the deluxe package, with generous financial rewards and free gifts.) 

There are problems with trying to objectively measure a subjectively experienced phenomena. There are major contradictions in the ideas that underpin the motive to do so. There is also a problem with using satisfaction surveys as a measure of the success or efficacy of government policies and practices. 

A little about the company commissioned to undertake the survey

The research was commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and conducted by Kantar Public UK –  who undertake marketing research, social surveys, and also specialise in consultancy, public opinion data, policy and also economy polling, with, it seems, multi-tasking fingers in several other lucrative pies

Kantar Public “Works with clients in government, the public sector, global institutions, NGOs and commercial businesses to advise in the delivery of public policy, public services and public communications.” 

Kantar Public will deliver global best practice through local, expert teams; will synthesise innovations in marketing science, data analytics with the best of classic social research approaches; and will build on a long history of methodological innovation to deliver public value. It includes consulting, research and analytical capabilities.” (A touch of PR and technocracy).

Eric Salama, Kantar CEO, commented on the launch of this branch of Kantar Public in 2016: “We are proud of the work that we do in this sector, which is growing fast. Its increasing importance in stimulating behavioural change in many aspects of societies requires the kind of expert resource and investment that Kantar Public will provide.”

The world seems to be filling up with self-appointed, utilitarian choice architects. Who needs to live in a democracy when we have so many people who say they’re not only  looking out for our ‘best interests’, but defining them, and also, helping us all to make “optimum choices” (whatever they may be). All of these flourishing technocratic businesses are of course operating without a shred of cognitive bias or self-consciousness of their own. Apparently, the whopping profit motive isn’t a bias at all. It’s only everyone else that is cognitively flawed. 

Based on those assumptions, what could possibly go wrong right?

I digress. 

The nitty-gritty

Ok, so having set the table, I’m going to nibble at the served dish. Kantar’s survey – commissioned by the Government – cited in the opening quotes – by the Government.  The quotes have been cited in the media, in a Commons debate and even presented as evidence in a Commons Committee inquiry into disability support (Personal Independence Payments and Employment and Support Allowance).

It seems that no-one has examined the validity and reliability of the survey cited, it has simply been taken at face value. It’s assumed that the methodology, interpretation and underlying motives are neutral, value-free and ‘objective’. In fact the survey has been described as ‘scientific’ by at least one Conservative MP.

There are a couple of problems, however, with that. My first point is a general one about quantitative surveys, especially those using closed questions. This survey was conducted mostly by telephone and most questions in the used questionnaire were closed

Some basic problems with using closed questions in a survey:

  • It imposes a limited framework of responses on respondents
  • The survey may not have the exact answer the respondent wants to give
  • The questions lead and limit the scope of responses 
  • Respondents may select answers which are simply the most similar to their “true” response – the one they want to give but can’t because it isn’t in the response options – even though it is different
  • The options presented may confuse the respondent
  • Respondents with no opinion may answer anyway
  • Does not provide us with information about whether or not the respondent actually understood the question being asked, or if the survey response options provided include an accurate capture and reflection of the respondents’ views.

Another problem which is not restricted to the use of surveys in research is the Hawthorne effect. The respondents in this survey had active, open benefit claims or had registered a claim. This may have had some effect on their responses, since they may have felt scrutinised by the Department for Work and Pensions. Social relationships between the observer and the observed ought to be assessed when performing any type of social analysis and especially when there may be a perceived imbalanced power relationship between an organisation and the respondents in any research that they conduct or commission.

Given the punitive nature of welfare policies, it is very difficult to determine the extent to which fear of reprisal may have influenced peoples’ responses, regardless of how many reassurances participants were given regarding anonymity in advance.

The respondents in a survey may not be aware that their responses are to some extent influenced because of their relationship with the researcher (or those commissioning the research); they may subconsciously change their behaviour to fit the expected results of the survey, partly because of the context in which the research is being conducted.

The Hawthorne Effect is a well-documented phenomenon that affects many areas of research and experiment in social sciences. It is the process where human subjects taking part in research change or modify their behaviour, simply because they are being studied. This is one of the hardest inbuilt biases to eliminate or factor into research design. This was a survey conducted over the telephone, which again introduces the risk of an element of ‘observer bias.’

Methodological issues

On a personal level, I don’t believe declared objectivity in research means that positivism and quantitative research methodology has an exclusive stranglehold on ‘truth’. I don’t believe there is a universally objective, external vantage point that we can reach from within the confines of our own human subjectivity, nor can we escape an intersubjectively experienced social, cultural, political and economic context.

There is debate around verificationism, not least because the verification principle itself is unverifiable. The positivist approach more generally treats human subjects as objects of interest and research – much like phenomena studied in the natural sciences. As such, it has an inbuilt tendency to dehumanise the people being researched. Much human meaning and experience gets lost in the translation of responses into quantified data – the chief goal of statistical analysis is to identify trends

An example of the employment of ‘objective’ and ‘value-neutral’ methods resulting in dehumanisation is some of the inappropriate questions asked during assessment for disability benefits. The Work and Pensions Select Committee received nearly 4,000 submissions – the most received by a select committee inquiry – after calling for evidence on the assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). 

The recent committee report highlighted people with Down’s syndrome being asked when they ‘caught’ it. Assessors have asked insulting and irrelevant questions, such as when someone with a progressive condition will recover, and what level of education they have.

This said, my own degree and Master’s, undertaken in the 1990s, and my profession up until 2010, when I became too ill to work, were actually used as an indication that I have “no cognitive problems” in 2017, after some 7 years of being unable to work because of the symptoms of a progressive illness that is known to cause cognitive problems. My driving licence in 2003 was also used as evidence of my cognitive functioning.

Yet I explained that have been unable to drive since 2004 because of my sensitivity to flickering (lamp posts, trees, telegraph poles have a strobe light effect on me as the car moves) which triggers vertigo, nausea, severe coordination difficulties, scintillating scotoma and subsequent loss of vision, slurred and incoherent speech, severe drowsiness, muscle rigidity and uncontrollable jerking in my legs. I usually get an incapacitating headache, too. I’m sensitive to flashing or flickering lights, certain patterns such as ripples on a pond, some black and white stripe patterns and even walking past railings on an overcast day completely incapacitates me. 

The PIP assessment framework is claimed to be ‘independent, unbiased’ and objective.’ Central to the process is the use of ‘descriptors’, which are a limited set of criteria used to ‘measure’ the impact of the day-to-day level of disability that a person experiences. Assessors use objective methods such as “examination techniques, collecting robust evidence, selecting the correct descriptor as to the claimant’s level of ability in each of the 10 activities of daily living and two mobility activities, and report writing.”  They speak the language of positivism with fluency.

However, positivism does not accommodate human complexity, vulnerability and context very well. In an assessment situation, the assessor is a stranger to the person undergoing the assessment. How appropriate is it that a stranger assessing ‘functional capacity’ asks disabled people why they have not killed themselves? Alice Kirby is one of many people this happened to.

She says: “In this setting it’s not safe to ask questions like these because assessors have neither the time or skills to support us, and there’s no consideration of the impact it could have on our mental health.

The questions were also completely unnecessary, they were barely mentioned in my report and had no impact on my award.”

So, not only an extremely insensitive and potentially risk-laden question but an apparently pointless one. 

It may be argued that some universal ‘truths’ such as the importance of ‘impartiality’, or ‘objectivity’ are little more than misleading myths which allow practitioners and researchers alike to claim, and convince themselves, that they behave in a manner that is morally robust and ethically defensible.

A brief discussion of the methodological debate  

Quiz 1 Quiz 2 Quiz 3 All Quizzes

Social phenomena cannot always be studied in the same way as natural phenomena, because human beings are subjective, intentional and have a degree of free will. One problem with quantitative research is that it tends to impose theoretical frameworks on those being studied, and it limits responses from those participating in the study. Quantitative surveys tend not to capture or generate understanding about the lived, meaningful experiences of real people in context.

There are also distinctions to be made between facts, values and meanings. Qualitative researchers are concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding  rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena and attempting to establish basic cause and effect relationships.

Qualitative research tends to be exploratory, potentially illuminating underlying intentions, responses, beliefs, reasons, opinions, and motivations to human behaviours. This type of analysis often provides insights into social problems, helps to develop ideas and establish explanations, and may also be used to formulate hypotheses for further quantitative research.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) in sociology, for example, is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many social researchers recognising the value of both means of data and evidence collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism.

Qualitative methods of research tend to be much more inclusive, detailed and expansive than quantitative analysis, lending participants a dialogic, democratic and first hand voice regarding their own experiences.

The current government has tended to dismiss qualitative evidence from first hand witnesses of the negative impacts of their policies – presented cases studies, individual accounts and ethnographies – as ‘anecdotal.’ This presents a problem in that it stifles legitimate feedback. An emphasis on positivism reflects a very authoritarian approach to social administration and it needs to be challenged.

A qualitative approach to research is open and democratic. It potentially provides insight, depth and richly detailed accounts. The evidence collected is much more coherent and comprehensive, because it explores beneath surface appearances, and reaches above causal relationships, delving much deeper than the simplistic analysis of ranks, categories and counts. It provides a reliable and rather more authentic record of experiences, attitudes, feelings and behaviours, it prompts an openness and is expansive, whereas quantitative methods tend to limit and are somewhat reductive.

Qualitative research methods encourage people to expand on their responses and may then open up new issues and topic areas not initially considered by researchers.

Government ministers like to hear facts, figures and statistics all the time. What we need to bring to the equation is a real, live human perspective. We need to let ministers know how the policies they are implementing directly impact on their own constituents and social groups more widely.

Another advantage of qualitative methods is that they are prefigurative and bypass problems regarding potential power imbalances between the researcher and the subjects of research, by permitting participation (as opposed to respondents being acted upon) and creating space for genuine dialogue and reasoned discussions to take place. Research regarding political issues and policy impacts must surely engage citizens on a democratic, equal basis and permit participation in decision-making, to ensure an appropriate balance of power between citizens and the state.

Quantitative research draws on surveys and experimental research designs which limit the interaction between the investigator and those being investigated. Systematic sampling techniques are used, in order to control the risk of bias. However not everyone agrees that this method is an adequate safeguard against bias.

Kantar say in their published survey report: “As the Personal Independence Payment has become more established and its customer base increased, there has been an increase in overall satisfaction from 68 per cent in 2014/15 to 76 per cent in 2015/16. This increase is driven by an increase in the proportion of customers reporting that they were ‘very satisfied’ which rose from 25 per cent in 2014/15 to 35 per cent in 2015/16.

Sampling practices

The report states clearly: “The proportion of Personal Independence Payment customers who were ‘very dissatisfied’ fell from 19 per cent to 12 per cent over the same period. 

Then comes the killer: “This is likely to be partly explained by the inclusion in the 2014/15 sample of PIP customers who had a new claim disallowed who have not been sampled for the study since 2015/16. This brings PIP sampling into line with sampling practises for other benefits in the survey.

In other words, those people with the greatest reason to be very dissatisfied with their contact with the Department for Work and Pensions  – those who haven’t been awarded PIP, for example – are not included in the survey. 

This introduces a problem in the survey called sampling bias. Sampling bias undermines the external validity of a survey (the capacity for its results to be accurately generalised to the entire population, in this case, of those claiming PIP). Given that people who are not awarded PIP make up a significant proportion of the PIP customer population who have registered for a claim, this will skew the survey result, slanting it towards positive responses.

Award rates for PIP (under normal rules, excluding withdrawn claims) for new claims are 46 per cent. However, they are at 73 per cent for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reassessment claims. This covers PIP awards made between April 2013 and October 2016. Nearly all special rules (for those people who are terminally ill) claimants are found eligible for PIP. 

If an entire segment of the PIP claimant population are excluded from the sample, then there are no adjustments that can produce estimates that are representative of the entire population of PIP claimants.

The same is true of the other groups of claimants. If those who have had a new claim disallowed (and again, bearing in mind that only 46 per cent of those new claims for PIP resulted in an award), then that excludes a considerable proportion of claimants registering across all types of benefits who were likely to have registered a lower level of satisfaction with the Department because their claim was disallowed. This means the survey cannot be used to accurately track the overall performance of the Department or monitor in terms of whether it is fulfilling its customer charter commitments.

The report clearly states: “There was a revision to sample eligibility criteria in 2014/15. Prior to this date the survey included customers who had contacted DWP within the past 6 months. From 2014/15 onwards this was shortened to a 3 month window. This may also have impacted on trend data.” 

We have no way of knowing why those peoples’ claim was disallowed. We have no way of knowing if this is due to error or poor administrative procedures within the Department. If the purpose of a survey like this is to produce a valid account of levels of ‘customer satisfaction’ with the Department, then it must include a representative sample of all of those ‘customers’, and include those whose experiences have been negative.

Otherwise the survey is reduced to little more than a PR exercise for the Department. 

The sampling procedure is therefore a way of only permitting an unrepresentative  sample of people to participate in a survey, who are likeliest to produce the most positive responses, because their experiences have been of a largely positive outcome within the survey time frame. If those who have been sanctioned are also excluded across the sample, then this will also hide the experiences and comments of those most adversely affected by the Department’s policies and administration procedures, again these are claimants who are the likeliest to register their dissatisfaction in the survey. 

Measurement error occurs when a survey respondent’s answer to a survey question is inaccurate, imprecise, or cannot be compared in any useful way to other respondents’ answers. This type of error results from poor question wording and questionnaire construction. Closed and directed questions may also contribute to measurement error, along with faulty assumptions and imperfect scales. The kind of questions asked may also have limited the scope of the research.

For example, there’s a fundamental difference in asking questions like “Was the advisor polite on the telephone?” and “Did the decision-maker make the correct decision about your claim?”. The former generates responses that are relatively simplistic and superficial, the latter is rather more informative and tells us much more about how well the DWP fulfils one of its key functions, rather than demonstrating only how politely staff go about discussing claim details with claimants. 

This survey is not going to produce a valid range of accounts or permit a reliable generalisation regarding the wider populations’ experiences with the Department for Work and Pensions. Nor can it provide a template for a genuine learning opportunity and committment to improvement for the Department.

With regard to the department’s Customer Charter, this survey does not include valid feedback and information regarding this section in particular:

Getting it right

We will:
• Provide you with the correct decision, information or payment
• Explain things clearly if the outcome is not what you’d hoped for
• Say sorry and put it right if we make a mistake 
• Use your feedback to improve how we do things

One other issue with the sampling is that the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) groups were overrepresented in the cohort. 

Kantar do say: “When reading the report, bear in mind the fact that customers’ satisfaction levels are likely to be impacted by the nature of the benefit they are claiming. As such, it is more informative to look at trends over time for each benefit rather than making in-year comparisons between benefits.” 

The sample was intentionally designed to overrepresent these groups in order to allow “robust quarterly analysis of these benefits”, according to the report. However, because a proportion of the cohort – those having their benefit disallowed – were excluded in the latest survey and not the previous one, so cross comparision and establishing trends over time is problematic. 

To reiterate, the report also says: “When reading the report, bear in mind the fact that customers’ satisfaction levels are likely to be impacted by the nature of the benefit they are claiming. As such, it is more informative to look at trends over time for each benefit rather than making in-year comparisons between benefits.” 

With regard to my previous point: “Please also note that there was a methodological change to the way that Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payment customers were sampled in 2015/16 which means that for these benefits results for 2015/16 are not directly comparable with previous years.” 

And: “As well as collecting satisfaction at an overall level, the survey also collects data on customers’ satisfaction with specific transactions such as ‘making a claim’, ‘reporting  a change in circumstances’ and ‘appealing a decision’ (along with a number of other transactions) covering the remaining aspects of the DWP Customer Charter.These are not covered in this report, but the data are presented in the accompanying data tabulations.” 

The survey also covered only those who had been in touch with DWP over a three month period shortly prior to the start of fieldwork. As such it is a survey of contacting customers rather than all benefits customers.

Again it is problematic to make inferences and generalisations about the levels of satisfaction among the wider population of claimants, based on a sample selected by using such a narrow range of characteristics.

The report also says: “Parts of the interview focus on a specific transaction which respondents had engaged in (for example making a claim or reporting a change in circumstances). In cases where a respondent had been involved in more than one transaction, the questionnaire prioritised less common or more complex transactions. As
such, transaction-specific measures are not representative of ALL transactions conducted by DWP”.

And regarding subgroups: “When looking at data for specific benefits, the base sizes for benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance (circa 5,500) are much larger than those for benefits such as Carer’s Allowance and Attendance Allowance (circa 450). As such, the margins of error for Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance are smaller than those of other benefits and it is therefore possible to identify relatively small changes as being statistically significant.”

Results from surveys are estimates and there is a margin of error associated with each figure quoted in this report. The smaller the sample size, the greater the uncertainty.

In fairness, the report does state: “In the interest of avoiding misinterpretation, data with a base size of less than 100 are omitted from the charts in this report.” 

On non-sampling error, the report says: “Surveys depend on the responses given by participants. Some participants may answer questions inaccurately and some groups of respondents may be more likely to refuse to take part altogether. This can introduce biases and errors. Nonsampling error is minimised by the application of rigorous questionnaire design, the use of skilled and experienced interviewers who work under close supervision  and rigorous quality assurance of the data.

Differing response rates amongst key sub-groups are addressed through weighting. Nevertheless, it is not possible to eliminate non-sampling error altogether and its impact cannot be reliably quantified.”

As I have pointed out, sampling error in a statistical analysis may also arise from the unrepresentativeness of the sample taken. 

The survey response rates were not discussed either. In the methodological report, it says: “In 2015/16 DWP set targets each quarter for the required number of interviews  for each benefit group to either produce a representative proportion of the benefit group in the eventual survey or a higher number of interviews for sub-group analysis where required. It is therefore not strictly appropriate to report response rates as fieldwork for a benefit group ceased if a target was reached.” 

The Government says: “This research monitors claimants’ satisfaction with DWP services and ensures their views are considered in operational and policy planning.” 

Again, it doesn’t include those claimants whose benefit support has been disallowed. There is considerable controversy around disability benefit award decisions (and sanctioning) in particular, yet the survey does not address this important issue, since those experiencing negative outcomes are excluded from the survey sample. We know that there is a problem with the PIP and ESA benefits award decision-making processes, since a significant proportion of those people who go on to appeal DWP decisions are subsequently awarded their benefit.

The DWP, however, don’t seem to have any interest in genuine feedback from this group that may contribute to an improvement in both performance and decision-making processes, leading to improved outcomes for disabled people.

Last year, judges ruled 14,077 people should be given PIP against the government’s decision not to between April and June – 65 per cent of all cases.  The figure is higher still when it comes to ESA (68 per cent). Some 85 per cent of all benefit appeals were accounted for by PIP and ESA claimants.

The system, also criticised by the United Nations because it “systematically violates the rights of disabled persons”, seems to have been deliberately set up in a way that tends towards disallowing support awards. The survey excluded the voices of those people affected by this government’s absolute callousness or simple bureaucratic incompetence. The net effect, consequent distress and hardship caused to sick and disabled people is the same regardless of which it is.

Given that only 18 per cent of PIP decisions to disallow a claim are reversed  at mandatory reconsideration, I’m inclined to think that this isn’t just a case of bureaucratic incompetence, since the opportunity for the DWP to rectify mistakes doesn’t result in subsequent correct decisions, in the majority of cases, for those refused an award. 

Without an urgent overhaul of the assessment process by the Government, the benefit system will continue to work against disabled people, instead of for them.

The Government claim: “The objectives of this research are to:

  • capture the views and experiences of DWP’s service from claimants, or their representatives, who used their services recently
  • identify differences in the views and experiences of people claiming different benefits
  • use claimants’ views of the service to measure the department’s performance against its customer charter

The commissioned survey does not genuinely meet those objectives.

Related

DWP splash out more than £100m trying to deny disabled people vital benefits

Inquiry into disability benefits ‘deluged’ by tales of despair

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

Thousands of disability assessments deemed ‘unacceptable’ under the government’s own quality control scheme

Government guidelines for PIP assessment: a political redefinition of the word ‘objective’

PIP and ESA Assessments Inquiry – Work and Pensions Committee

 

There is an alternative reality being presented by the other side. The use of figures diminishes disabled peoples’ experiences.”

 


 

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The ‘cognitive bias’ of behavioural economics and neuropolitics

technocracy

Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to developing the field of behavioural economics last month. Thaler, and legal theorist, Cass Sunstein, who co-authored Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (2008), have popularised the ideas of libertarian paternalism, which is basically founded on the idea that it is both possible and legitimate for governments, as well as public and private institutions, to affect and change the behaviours of citizens while also [controversially] “respecting freedom of choice.”

Regular readers will know that I don’t like behavioural economics and its insidious and stealthy creep into many areas of public policy and political rhetoric. The lack of critical debate about the application of libertarian paternalism (which is itself a political doctrine) via policies which are designed as systems of political “incentives” at the very least ought to have generated a sense of disquiet and unease from the public and academics alike. 

Using “psychological insights” in public policy – which amount to little more than cheap political techniques of persuasion – no matter how well-meaning the claimed intention is – amounts to a frank state manipulation of the perceptions and behaviours of the public, without their informed consent. 

Furthermore, the application of libertarian paternalist policies is prejudiced – it’s asymmetric because the embedded “nudges” are allegedly designed to target “help” at people who are deemed to behave irrationally; those who don’t make “optimal” decisions and so are not advancing their own or wider society’s interests, while the state interferes only minimally with people who are deemed to behave “rationally”. 

Of course, by some extraordinary coincidence, those who are regarded as behaving rationally are in the minority – they happen to be the very wealthiest citizens. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that behavioural economics is simply a reverberation from within a totalising New Right neoliberal echo chamber. Of course it follows that poverty is the result of the cognitive “deficits” of the poor.

The government would have you believe that poverty has nothing to do with their programme of austerity, their socioeconomic policies, which are generous and indulgent towards the very wealthy, at the expense of the poorest citizens, and the subsequent steeply rising socioeconomic inequality. It’s because of the faulty decision-making of those in poverty.

The political shift back to a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce established power relations and perpetuate another layer of prejudice and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are “best” for poor citizens, who are assumed to lack cognitive skills or “bandwidth” (basic cognitive resources). 

It seems to me that the behavioural economists have colluded with the Conservatives in an ideological re-write of the principles of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. They say, for example:

“Research shows that money worries can absorb cognitive bandwidth, leaving less cognitive resources to make optimal decisions.”

“Absorb cognitive bandwidth”? What a load of technocratic psychobabbling and politically expedient tosh.

The solution to the problem of people’s widespread “money worries” isn’t nudge – which is simply more ideology to prop up existing ideology. The answer is to increase the income of those struggling with financial difficulties after seven years of austerity, stagnant wages and a rising cost of living. No amount of nudging poor people will redistribute wealth or reverse the effects of bad political decision-making.   

Maslow said that hunger, homelessness, being unable to keep warm – problems arising when we don’t have resources to meet our basic physical needs – means that our cognitive priorities are reduced to that of just survival. It means that we can’t fulfil our other “higher level” needs until we address our survival prerequisites. So looking for work and meeting compliance and welfare conditionality commitments by jumping through the endless ordeals that the Department for Work and Pensions put in people’s path to “nudge”  them away from social security isn’t going to happen.

I shouldn’t have to say this in 2017, but I will: people have to meet their needs for food, fuel and shelter, or they will simply die. That’s a pretty all-consuming attention grabber. Or struggling to survive absorbs all of a person’s “cognitive bandwidth” if you prefer. It takes up all of your time and effort and becomes your only priority. It’s hardly rocket science, yet the government and their team of behavioural economists seem to be deliberately failing to grasp this fundamental, empirically verified fact. Rather than addressing the socioeconomic and political reasons for poverty, the emphasis is on intrusive state tinkering with the psychological effects of poverty. 

Maslow once said that “The good or healthy society would then be defined as one that permitted people’s highest purposes to emerge by ensuring the satisfying of all their basic needs.”

Instead in the UK, the government employs a Nudge Unit to define how and justify why the UK is a shamefully regressive place where many ordinary citizens are hungry, homeless and without the essential necessities to live. That’s because of neoliberal policies that create crass inequalities, by the way, and has nothing to do with people’s “cognitive bandwidth” or their “optimal” decision-making capacities. 

Behavioural economics makes the political problem of poverty one of poor people’s decision-making capacity, whereas Maslow saw the problem for what it is – a lack of financial resources to meet basic needs. The answer isn’t to mess about nudging or “incentivising” people, and labelling them as “cognitively incompetent”: it is simply to ensure everyone has enough to eat, has shelter and can keep warm. It’s pretty simple, really, no excuses and no amount of managementspeak and psychobabble may exempt a government from ensuring citizens’ basic survival needs are met. Especially in a very wealthy, developed democracy. 

From the government’s perspective, poor people cause poverty. Apparently the theories and “insights” of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. Nor do behavioural economists bother with the “cognitive bias” of the hoarding wealthy, or those whose decisions caused the global crash and Great Recession and the subsequent political decision-making that led to austerity, more aggressive neoliberalism, exploitatively low, stagnating wages and a punitive welfare state that disciplines and punishes citizens, rather than providing for their basic survival needs – which was its original purpose.

No-one is nudging the nudgers. 

Conservative policies are extending a behavioural, cognitive and decision-making hierarchy that simply reflects the existing and increasingly steep hierarchy of power and wealth and reinforces competitive individualism and the unequal terms and conditions of neoliberalism. Behavioural economics has simply added another facet to traditional Conservative class-based prejudice, and a prop for the Conservatives’ profound ideological dislike of the welfare state and other public services.

It’s not “science”, it’s ideology paraded as science 

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing libertarian paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. There are ethical issues arising from the use of randomised control trials (RCTs) to test public policies on an unsuspecting population. While medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting research and testing public policy interventions.

Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed.

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 theory of “loss aversion,” for example. (See The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists.) Furthermore, the experiments are shaped by certain underpinning assumptions. They are not value-free, as claimed.

There is of course nothing in place to prevent a government from deliberately exploiting a theoretical perspective and 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?

Conversely, how appropriate is it to frame illness and disability purely in terms of  individuals’ “faulty” perceptions and behaviours? The de-medicalisation of illness and disability is also a part of the Conservatives’ behaviourist turn, which is part of a justification narrative for the dismantling of support services and social security for ill and disabled people who are unable to work. (I’ve written at length about this here – Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper.)

I guess if the government’s purposeful behavioural modification ordeals fail and you die, then at least the state will know that you were “genuinely” in need of support, after all. This logic operates rather like a medieval inquisitional technique, embedded at the core of the Kafkaesque Work Capability Assessment. The government inform us that this is necessary to aim at sifting out those “most in need” so that the government may “target” support provision to “ensure” that this ever-changing, politically redefined and shrinking group of “those most in need” are somehow distinguished from among the much larger group of those who are, in fact, most in need of support.

The government cannot see the woods because they are so busy indiscriminately pruning and felling the trees. 

Most people lacking a strong masochistic tendency would not try to claim disability support unless they desperately needed to. The very tiny minority of fraudulent claimants (less than 0.7%, and some of that tiny percentage includes bureaucratic errors) are unlikely to be deterred by the introduction of ordeals to the social security system, yet this vicious tactic was suggested by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) among others, to “deter fraud.”

However, byzantine “eligibility tests”, an authoritarian monitoring regime to coerce conformity and compliance of social security recipients, and a “robust” shaming and prosecution policy deter “genuine” applicants. Such processes are extremely intrusive, punitive and ultimately serve to reinforce public and political prejudices.  

Only those who are truly needy and disadvantaged would tolerate this level of state inflicted, coercive, aggressive and crude behaviourism for the provision of completely inadequate levels of support, through public shaming and through frequent, intrusive administrative forays into their personal lives. 

Governments in neoliberal countries portray welfare support as “profligacy” – an “unsustainable” big state over-indulgence – and couple that with a narrative founded on an inextricable dichotomy – that of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Of course this is intentionally socially divisive: it purposefully marginalises and stigmatises those needing support, while creating resentment among those who don’t.   

The behaviourist perspective of structured ordeals as a deterrent is the same thinking that lies behind welfare sanctions, which are state punishments entailing the cruel removal of lifeline income for “non-compliance” in narrowly and rigidly defined “job seeking behaviours.” Sanctions are also described as a “behavioural incentive” to “help” and “encourage” people into work – the very language being used to describe the punitive actions of the state is also a nudge.

Behavioural linguistic techniques are being used to extend the view that state inflicted punishment is somehow in your best interests. It also serves to deny people’s accounts and experiences of punitive and unfair state interventions resulting in often harrowing adverse outcomes.

People who are ill, it is proposed, should be sanctioned, too, which would entail having their lifeline basic health care removed. Apparently, this stripping away of public services is also for our own good. 

The welfare state originally arose to ensure citizens can meet their basic survival needs. Now it is assumed that those who need social security are psychologically abnormal or inept, and have fundamental character flaws (“undeserving”). Social security is no longer about ensuring minimal standards of living, the government is now preoccupied with disciplining the “feckless” poor, apparently aiming to punish them out of poverty.   

On the face of it, welfare policy has been perceived over recent years as facing the challenge of balancing the three goals of keeping costs low, providing sufficient standards of living, and ensuring “work incentives.” This has sometimes been referred to as the “iron triangle” of welfare reform. The term reflects the difficult implicit trade-off between these three conflicting aims. It’s perceived that improvement of one dimension is usually gained only at the expense of weakening another. 

Neoliberal governments have tended to use aims one and three to justify the prioritisation of the second aim, which entails the lowering of costs “on the taxpayer” by lowering the standard of living for welfare recipients, in order to “incentivise” them to find work. The shift to behavioural explanations of poverty – that people need incentives to find a job in the first place – doesn’t, however, stand up to much scrutiny once we see that a large proportion of welfare spending actually goes towards supplementing low wages for those in work. The largest proportion of welfare spending is on pensions. The proportion of the welfare budget taken up by people who are unemployed is very small.

Image result for welfare spending uk pie chart

In the UK, the government have also introduced behaviourist in-work sanctions for people who “fail to progress” in work. Yet most wages are decided by employers, not employees. It’s not as if we have a government that values collective bargaining and the input of trade unions, after all. That’s a policy, therefore, that simply sets people up for sanctioning. It’s irrational and needlessly cruel.

It’s worth keeping in mind that social security constitutes a country’s lowest income security net. The levels of welfare benefits were originally calculated to meet only essential needs, providing sufficient income to cover the costs of just food, fuel and shelter, and are therefore directly related to the very minimum standards of living. 

Criticism of the “scientific” methodology of behavioural economics: promoting neoliberal outcomes and neurototalitarianism

“Epistemic governance” refers to the cognitive and knowledge-related paradigms that underlie a society. Behavioural economists have presented randomised control trials (RCTs) as providing “naively neutral” evidence of what policy interventions work, but this is misleading. RCTs are advocated as an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome in a narrow context.

One concern about the use of RCTs in public policy-making is that this method is being promoted as the “gold standard” in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research. Quantitative methodology significantly reduces the scope for citizen feedback and detailed accounts of their experiences. The issues of interpretation and meaning are lost in the desire to “tame complexity with numbers”. Such a non-prefigurative (insofar as it is founded on hierarchical values and doesn’t tend to reflect cultural diversity), non-dialogic approach is profoundly incompatible with democratic principles. 

As libertarian paternalism is specifically designed to lead to predetermined outcomes in terms of the behaviours it aims to produce – and it’s also constructed a rather miserable and prejudiced narrative of some humans’ cognitive capabilities (only poor people, reflecting traditional Conservative prejudices) – a major concern is that the predetermined structuring of choice, together with “re-normalisation” strategies, exclude the potential for public engagement and participation in debates concerning what choices and collective normative changes are actually beneficial, fair, desirable, appropriate, safe, right and wrong.

And of course, that raises a serious question about what constitutes “evidence”? 

It’s not so long ago that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) manufactured evidence, using fake testimonies, claiming that people actually felt they had benefitted from welfare sanctions. Yet when pressed regarding the authenticity of the testimonies, the DWP then claimed: 

“The photos used are stock photos and along with the names do not belong to real claimants. The stories are for illustrative purposes only. We want to help people understand when sanctions can be applied and how they can avoid them by taking certain actions. Using practical examples can help us achieve this.” 

Those “testimonies” were neither practical nor genuine “examples”.

Academic research, statements from charities and support organisations, the evidence from the National Audit Office, and many individual case studies detailing severe hardship and harm to citizens because of welfare sanctions, have been presented to the government, all of which indicate that the use of financial penalties and harsh conditionality in administering social security does not help people into work. This evidence has been consistently discounted by the government, with claims that the statements are “politically biased” or that “no causal link between policy and adverse effects has been established”. The government have frequently dismissed citizens’ accounts of their harrowing experiences of sanctions as “anecdotal evidence”.

In this respect, libertarian paternalism may be seen as a form of neurototalitarianism. It’s a form of governance that imposes needs and requirements on citizens without any democratic engagement, without acknowledgement or recognition of citizen’s agency, identity, and their own self-defined needs. 

Although advocates of RCTs have argued that this methodology excludes the unverified claims of “experts” in policy making, it ought to be noted that behavioural economists are nonetheless self-made “experts”, with their own technocratic language and mindset, and their “knowledge” of what human behaviours, cognitive strategies and perceptions are “optimal” and serve the “best interests” of the majority of citizens.

Behavioural economics isn’t “science”: it’s founded on a premise of economic moralism. Nudge is all about “encouraging” citizens to behave in social ways relying on market “incentives”, as opposed to regulations. It’s the invisible hand of the state, where increasing privatisation, deregulation, austerity and the shrinking state corresponds with increasing psychoregulation of citizens.

Yet if anything, behavioural economics has highlighted that the neoliberal state is fundamentally flawed – that there are major limitations of the magical thinking behind the “markets-know-best” politics. 

In their critique of the economic rational-behaviour model, libertarian paternalists nonetheless advocate a perspective of rules, adjustments and remedies that ultimately serve to simply modify behaviours to fit the rational-behaviour model – which describes society in terms of self-interested individuals’ actions as explained through rationality, in which choices are consistent because they are made according to personal preference – to deliver the same neoliberal outcomes, by nudging public decision-making from that based on cognitive bias towards those decisions which are deemed cognitively rational. And what passes as “cognitively rational” is defined in terms of economic outcomes, by the neoliberal state.

This of course overlooks the limits on choice that neoliberal policies themselves impose, within in a system constrained by competitive individualism and “market forces”. It also assumes that the choice architects know what our best interests actually are. 

The state is seen as acting to “re-rationalise” citizens: recalibrating perceptions, cognition and behaviours but without engaging with citizens’ rational processes. One criticism of behavioural economics is that it bypasses rational processes altogether, acting below our level of awareness, and as such, it doesn’t offer opportunities for learning and reflection. It’s more about a stimulus-response type of approach. 

In a paper called Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policy (Halpern et al., 2004) a group of libertarian paternalists, touting for business, outline a moral argument in which state policies increasingly should “cajole” people in the direction of personal responsibility and choice, since it is said that such an approach “strengthens individual character” and “moral capacity”, following a parental rationale of a distinctly Conservative disciplinary notion of “tough love” (p. 7).

A patchwork of theories on the ecology of behaviour change are discussed in the report: Ivan Pavlov and Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s outdated accounts of an authoritarian brand of behaviourism and conditioning, adaptation and rewards; Robert Cialdini’s business treatise on marketing, influence, compliance, and automatic behaviour patterns; the work of behavioural economists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1974) on heuristics; and community theories of behaviour, including concepts such as capability, social networks, social capital and social marketing (from Bourdieu, Coleman, Putnam – all cited in Halpern et al., 2004).

The role of the state here is seen not as a service provider to fulfil citizens’ needs, but as an “enabler”, and a public relations service for neoliberalism. The state has become an ultimate re-calibrator of citizens’ perceptions, attitudes, expectations, values and behaviours within the narrow confines of a neoliberal context.

Furthermore, Halpern says of nudge: “it enables public goods to be provided with a lower tax burden.” Describing tax as a “burden” is a form of default setting. Tax may also be seen as an essential public finance mechanism which is essential to economic and social development, providing sufficient revenue to support the productive and redistributive functions of the state. There is also an assumption that cheaper public goods are desirable, and will maintain their functional capacity and social benefits. 

David Cameron’s “Big Society”, the Conservatives’ shift from a rights-based society, to one that entails “citizen responsibilities”, and of course their “low tax low, welfare” perspective are all designs from the libertarian paternalist’s template. Although nudge has been sold in the UK as a way of reducing state intervention, such policies have in reality become more about justifying the increasing intrusion of the state in our everyday life. 

As I’ve hinted, nudge is about much more than changing behaviours based on cognitive bias to promote state defined citizens’ interests. It is also used to “reset” the public’s normative expectations, and for the promotion and inculcation of a fresh set of normative values of personal responsibility, self-help and self-discipline, claimed to be required in order to fulfil policy goals and justify interventions. Nudge is therefore reshaping public expectations regarding a “new relationship” between citizen and the state, where the burden of obligation is being increasingly and disproportionately placed on the poorest citizens.

Appeals to evidence-based policymaking are particularly misleading when they take out the context for interpreting specific forms of evidence. Libertarian paternalism is an imprecise theoretical approach to governance, and has resisted attempts to definitively codify its principles. 

It seems to be a blend of social marketing techniques, psycholinguistics, psychographics, habituation and (re-)normalisation strategies. Libertarian paternalism draws heavily on psychology, capitalising on our dispositions, manipulating choices, perceptions  and behaviours, by using a neuropolitical approach to fulfil neoliberal outcomes. Some of us have also dubbed this approach “neuroliberalism.”

Appeals to evidence in policymaking and debate are also frequently met with further questions on what sort of evidence counts, what it means – how the evidence is to be interpreted, what evidence is credible and importantly, how the policy question is defined and framed in the first place. As I’ve discussed, claims of “evidence” rest on tacit assumptions made in a specific context, so their transferability to another context is controversial. 

Nudge fails to accommodate a range of diverse knowledge sources, public accounts and it does nothing to address the underlying assumptions embedded in behavioural economics, or those of policy-makers using it as a tool to fulfil their own aims and objectives, nor does it acknowledge its own limitations. It fails to acknowledge and reflect different epistemic (relating to knowledge and/or to the degree of its validation) and ethical concerns. Nudge doesn’t accommodate democratic dialogue with, and alternative accounts from, other experts, and most importantly, from citizens. 

This means that any arising new evidence that may challenge the validity and reliability of behavioural economics theory is generally discounted, regardless of the nature and quality of that evidence. And a further problem is that new evidence also requires its own expert interpretation and assessment.

This is a key problem of epistemic governance. The production of evidence for policymaking should also be governed. Evidence is marshalled, interpreted and made to fit policy frameworks by experts. Those advocating the use of RCTs are experts,  specialising in a highly codified form of knowledge, which is not easily accessible to the general public. The claim is that behavioural economics and the findings of RCTs are relevant to policy. This raises some fundamental questions, then, about who counts as an expert, what counts as expertise and similarly, we definitely need to keep asking: what does and does not count as evidence? 

My point is that epistemic governance – the production of knowledge for governance – also needs be governed. It’s a point that others who research policy have also raised.

In order for research data to be of value and of use, it must be both reliable and valid. Reliability refers to the replicability and repeatability of findings. If the study were to be done a second time, would it yield the same results? If so, the data are reliable. If more than one person is observing behaviour or some event, all observers should agree on what is being recorded in order to claim that the data are reliable. Validity refers to the credibility of the research. Are the findings genuine? If a test is reliable, that does not mean that it is valid.

In order to determine cause and effect relationships, three basic conditions must be met:

  1. co-occurrence
  2. correct sequence or timing
  3. ruling out other explanations or “third factors/variables.”

The production of evidence, via testable hypotheses, to verify “knowledge” is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political context of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge is interpreted and given meanings.

I may have laboured the point, but it is a very important one. What counts as “evidence” is defined by the frame of reference, which also shapes which hypotheses are formulated and tested. I have already discussed how other forms of empirical evidence are discounted. The government have all too frequently used the quip “There is no evidence of causality between policy and stated events”.

Yet the Conservatives have refused to monitor the impact of their “reforms”, and have intentionally overlooked the important point that correlation often implies causation. Without conducting further investigation and examining the evidence, the government has no grounds whatsoever to dismiss the possibility of a causal relationship. It seems the government only value the principles of positivism when it comes to confronting other people’s knowledge and evidence that conflicts with their own.

Confirmation bias

To come at these problems from a slightly different angle, it’s worth considering the role of confirmation bias in knowledge production, which is the tendency to search for, select, favor, interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs, expectations, prejudices, theories and hypotheses because we want them to be true. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning

Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence (a person’s subjective confidence in his or her judgements is reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgements.) Iain Duncan Smith provided many memorable examples of cognitive bias. In July 2013, Duncan Smith was found by Andrew Dilnot, then Head of the UK Statistics Authority, to have broken their Code of Practice for Official Statistics for his and the DWP’s use of figures in support of, and to justify government policies.

Dilnot also stated that, following an earlier complaint about the handling of statistics by Duncan Smith’s Department, he had previously been told: “that senior DWP officials had reiterated to their staff the seriousness of their obligations under the Code of Practice and that departmental procedures would be reviewed”. 

Duncan Smith’s defence was that: “You cannot absolutely prove those two things are connected – you cannot disprove what I said. I believe this to be right.” Pseudoscience has thrived using similar arguments: propositions are presented as fact and assumed to be true unless you can actually prove otherwise. Unicorns, telekinesis, gnomes and angels exist because I can’t prove they don’t. 

This led Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, to accuse the Conservative Party of going beyond spin and the normal political practice of cherry picking of figures, to the act of actually “making things up” with respect to the impact of government policy on employment and other matters. 

“I believe I’m right” is an example of someone more certain that they are correct than they deserve to be, and this authoritarian approach can maintain or even strengthen beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It demonstrates a government that is simply digging in the trenches of ideology.

Flawed decision-making due to such biases have commonly arisen in political and organisational contexts. Yet it is public, not political behaviours, that have come to be regarded as “adaptive” to fit highly partisan political frames of reference. Apparently it’s only citizens who make mistakes in their decision-making, and whose behaviours need to be rectified.

We are being told that a lot of what we think is wrong. This is the foundation on which the shift in political emphasis from macro-level interventions to micro-level psychointerventions rests. Yet without exploring alternative and comparative forms of knowledge, this is simply conjecture in justification of the mass provision of state perceptions, behaviours and endorsed lifestyles, not verified fact. 

Nudging neoliberalism

Behavioural economics has roots in the work of Herbert Simon –  another winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978 – on bounded rationalityand grew enormously under the attention of Daniel Kahneman – another Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences winner – and Amos Tversky (1979), who argued that there are two broad features of human judgment and decision-making: various errors in coding mechanisms known as heuristics and biases, that lead to violations of the “laws” of logic and consistency. All of which differs from the neoclassical rational choice economic model, which portrays self-interested actors making rational choices in the market place. 

The prize in Economics is not one of the original Nobel Prizes, it wasn’t bequeathed by and instituted through Alfred Nobel‘s will. It was controversially established in 1968 through a donation from the Swedish Central Bank, on the bank’s 300th anniversary. In the late 1960s, Sweden’s central bank was actively campaigning for the country to pursue a more “market-friendly” approach, and the prize, which was established in 1968 to commemorate the bank’s 300th anniversary, became a tool with which to support this campaign. Of course, the prize gives economists a stamp of approval for the general public and politicians alike, legitimising their entire philosophy. 

Of the 74 laureates so far, 28 are affiliated with the University of Chicago, home of neoliberalism. Among those 28 winners are the early champions of neoliberalism, such as Milton Friedman and Friedrick Hayek. In fact the award has continually reinforced an ideology of the primacy of the “free market.” Hayek and Friedman lent great prestige to the cause of neoliberalism, which has contributed greatly to the creation of a rightward shift in the intellectual and political climate in western democracies.

Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have been powerfully influenced by neoliberal economists. Thatcher’s first encounter with Hayek, for example, came when he published The Road to Serfdom in 1944. She read it as an undergraduate at Oxford, where it became a formative part of her authoritarian, distinctive and enduring outlook. She was radicalised at the age of 18.  

One area of influence on Thatcher’s New Right policy in particular was Hayek’s low regard of trade union power and collective wage bargaining, he saw it as the primary reason for the UK’s economic difficulties (inflation) during the 70s, stating:

“There can indeed be little doubt to a detached observer that the privileges then granted to the trade unions have become the chief source of Britain’s economic decline.” 

The incoming Labour government in 1974 were also blamed for failing to curb the unions during the inflation crisis. However, major contributing factors to the growth of inflation were rapidly rising oil prices, which increased by 70%, tripling in the early 1970s, and the “Barber Boom and Bust”. In the 1972 budget, the Conservative chancellor, Anthony Barber, oversaw a major deregulation and liberalisation of the banking system, replaced purchase tax and Selective Employment Tax with Value Added Tax, and also relaxed exchange controls.

During his term, the economy suffered due to stagflation and industrial unrest, including a miners strike which led to the Three-Day Week. In 1972 he delivered a budget which was designed to return the Conservatives to power in an election expected in 1974 or 1975. This budget led to a period known as “The Barber Boom”.

The measures in the budget, which included a growth in credit (due to bank deregulation and liberalisation) and consumer spending, which helped create a consumer bubble, led to high inflation, rising living costs and subsequent wage demands from public sector workers. The Conservatives, however, were not returned to office, and Labour were left to deal with rising inflation subsequently, until Thatcher’s government took office.

Hayek pressed Thatcher to quickly cut public expenditure, urging her to balance the budget in one year rather than five – and (unbelievably) to follow more closely the example of Pinochet’s Chile. 

Under successive Conservative governments, and to some extend, under Blair’s New Labour, our society has been increasingly organised on overarching and totalising neoliberal principles. Socioeconomic conditions in the UK have fostered a hierarchical, unequal, competitive and above all, adversarial society, for many. 

Wealth is a private matter, whereas “national debt” has become public responsibility. The poorest citizens carry the largest burden of the debt, under the guise of austerity, which, the government claim, is an economic “necessity.” We are told there is no alternative. Any challenge to this ideological preference is met with contempt, and derisive comments that any policy entailing a shift from free market thinking and competitive individualism towards a more equitable, collectivist socioeconomic organisation is economically “incompetent”, “dangerous” and would require a “magic money tree” to “fund” it. Neoliberalism is held up as the ONLY choice we have regarding our socioeconomic organisation. Behavioural economics simply endorses and extends this hegemonic view.

Austerity is actually central to neoliberal economic strategy, and is one consequence of  right-wing libertarian “small state” dogma. Paradoxically, the role of the Conservative state has expanded rather than shrank, and is now all about enforcing public compliance and conformity within a socioeconomic system that is failing them, and the maintenance of strategies of fear, diversion, disempowerment, social divisions, a politically manufactured “scarcity”, a lowering of public expectations and the formulation of “deterrents.” And the institutionalisation of techniques of persuasion, public relations strategies and propaganda, to prop up and maintain the status quo.

The Conservative’s answer to the social injuries inflicted by their overarching, aggressive neoliberalism is to apply the sticking plaster of more increasingly aggressive neoliberalism.

The behaviourist turn reflects a subtle form of psychoauthoritarianism, which is all about enforcing neoliberalism.

Some people were critical of the fact that Hayek shared the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Gunnar Myrdal for his “pioneering work in the theory of money and economic fluctuations and … penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.” Milton Friedman was awarded the 1976 prize in part for his work on monetarism. Awarding the prize to Friedman caused international protests. Friedman was accused of supporting the military dictatorship in Chile because of the relationship of economists of the University of Chicago to Pinochet.

Nudge is a technocratic and authoritarian solution to the terminal condition of neoliberalism. Nudge is being used to prop up a failing brand of particularly virulent Conservative end-stage capitalism. It’s basically the PR, packaging, marketing and advertising industry for, and enforcement of, neoliberalism. Because neoliberalism can’t sell itself to the public.

Ask General Augusto Pinochet. He used the “caravan of death” method of selling the “economic miracle” – neoliberalism – to the populace of Chile. He felt that in order to market the market economy, he simply had to kill all of his political opponents. The Rettig Commission puts the count of murdered individuals at approximately 3,000 during the 17-year Pinochet’s military junta

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Behavioural economics provides the government with more subtle form of authoritarianism that is about psychological coercion. But citizens are nonetheless dying as a consequence of government policies.

Technocracy

Although traditionally, decisions made by technocrats are based on information derived from methodology rather than opinion, in the UK, behavioural economists, or at least those using behavioural economics in policy, tend to make decisions derived from ideology. 

Technocracy became a popular movement in the United States during the Great Depression when it was held that technical professionals, like engineers and scientists, would have a better understanding than politicians regarding the economy’s inherent complexity. Technocracy often arises during economically turbulent periods. In the states, we saw the rise of cybernetic and system models of society, from the likes of Talcott Parsons.

We also saw the development of political behaviouralism, a political pseudoscience that did not represent or reflect “genuine” political research. Instead, empirical consideration took precedence over normative and moral examination of politics. (See the is/ought distinction and naturalistic fallacy for further discussion on the key problems with this approach.)

Behaviouralism emphasised “an objective, quantified approach” to explain and predict political behaviours. It is associated with the rise of the behavioural sciences, modelled after the natural sciences. Behaviouralists also claimed they can explain political behaviour from an “unbiased, neutral” point of view.

Of course, behaviouralism is often most often attributed to the work of University of Chicago professor Charles Merriam who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s following the Great Depression.

The more things change, it seems the more they stay the same.

Behaviouralism was also founded on an insistence on distinguishing between facts and values. Quantitative evidence versus the abstract and the “anecdotal”. Sound familiar?

However, there’s also a difference between facts and meanings, human behaviours are meaningful and purposeful, human agency arises in contexts of intersubjectively shared meanings, from which there is no cultural or mind-independent, objective vantage point from which we may observe with value neutrality. And surely, abstract values such as “freedom”, “democracy” and “equality” are necessarily central to political discourse. Democratic politics must necessarily draw on the qualitative and the normative dimensions of social realities. 

Behaviouralism was an inevitable consequence of positivism. Auguste Comte (1798-1857,) who was regarded by many as the founding father of social sciences, particularly sociology, and who coined the term positivism,” was a Conservative. He believed social change should happen only as part of an organic, gradual evolutionary process, and he placed value on traditional social order, conventions and structures. Although the notion of positivism was originally claimed to be about the sovereignty of positive (verified) value-free, scientific facts, its key objective was politically Conservative. Positivism in Comte’s view was “the only guarantee against the communist invasion.” (Therborn, 1976: 224).

The thing about the fact-value distinction is that those who insist on it being rigidly upheld the most generally tend to use it the most to disguise their own whopping great ideological commitments. In psychology, we call this common defence mechanism splitting. It’s a very traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of ranking, priority and order, to assure their own ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many who are exiled from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Comte’s starting point is the same as Hayeks, (another Nobel prize economist), namely the existence of a spontaneous order. It’s a Conservative ideological premise, and this is one reason why the current neoliberal  government embrace the notion of positivism without any acknowledgement of its controversies.  

Behaviouralism was a political, not a scientific concept. Moreover, since behaviouralism is not a research tradition, but a political movement, definitions of behaviouralism follow what behaviouralists wanted. Behaviouralists believe “truth or falsity of values (such as democracy, equality, and freedom, etc.) cannot be established scientifically and are beyond the scope of legitimate inquiry. They are therefore dismissed from legitimate consideration.

Christian Bay believed behaviouralism was a pseudopolitical science and that it did not represent “genuine” political research. Bay objected to empirical consideration taking precedence over normative and moral examination of politics.

In sociology, interpretivist researchers assert that the social world is fundamentally unlike the natural world insofar as the social world is meaningful in a way that the natural world is not. As such, social phenomena cannot be studied in the same way as natural phenomena. Interpretivism is concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing, ranking and measuring social phenomena, and establishing basic cause and effect relationships. 

Behaviouralism initially represented a movement away from “naive empiricism“, but as an approach, it has been criticised for its naive scientism. Additionally, some critics believe that the separation of fact from value makes the empirical study of politics impossible.

Positivist politics was discarded half a century ago, as a reactionary and totalitarian doctrine. It is true to say that, in many respects, Comte was resolutely anti-modern, and he also represents a general retreat from Enlightenment humanism. His somewhat authoritarian positivist ideology, rather than celebrating the rationality of the individual and wanting to protect people from state interference, instead fetishised the scientific method, proposing that a new ruling class of authoritarian technocrats should decide how society ought to be run, and how people should behave. 

Which brings us back to the present. This is a view that the current government, with their endorsement and widespread experimental application of nudge theory, would certainly subscribe to.

History has witnessed the “scientific” theories of Darwin politically caricatured and applied to policy-making and society. We also witnessed the terrible conclusion of social Darwinism, as it inspired and underpinned the eugenics movement, which clearly played a critical role in the terrible genocide programmes, instigated and implemented by the technocratic government in Nazi Germany.

Leading Nazis, and early 1900 influential German biologists, revealed in their writings that Darwin’s theory and publications had a major influence upon Nazi race policies. The ideal that “all people are created equal”, which came to dominate Western ideology through human rights legislative frameworks, arising following the Second World War in response to the atrocities, has not been universal or constant among nations and cultures. Now, here in the UK, it has once again been replaced by neoliberal ideals of market place individualism and competition for “scarce” resources. 

The first formulation of the term “Nudge” and associated principles was developed in cybernetics by James Wilk around 1995 and described by Brunel University academic D. J. Stewart as “the art of the nudge” (sometimes referred to as micronudges.)

Nudge is founded on a variety of cognitive theories, and its methodology has been largely experimental. (See The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work, for example.)

However, important questions have been raised about this approach as it has been advanced in both theory and practice. The recent adoption of wholesale experimentation by governments on a naive public, for example by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, the government of New South Wales, and others (Haynes et al, 2012) has attracted attention. In particular, the ethical implications of conducting experiments and the practical issues of their implementation raise important challenges around the maintenance of internal and external validity and the often competing demands of scientists and political decision-makers.

Behavioural economics has been used as a political legitimation of punitive welfare policies, entailing the removal of support for food, fuel and shelter, in the form of welfare sanctions. The government have refused to listen to evidence that challenges the basis of their justification. Nudge is being used as an authoritarian tool to ensure public conformity with inhumane policies and a neoliberal agenda. 

It also extends a supremacist view, in that the public are regarded as “cognitively incompetent”, the theories rest on the assumption that most people don’t know how to act in their own best interests, whatever those interests may be. Yet those formulating the nudges are somehow adept at making decisions and at deciding what is in our “best interests”. 

The coming of the policy lab and the legitimisation of political experimentation

Psychopolicy platforms are not simply the owners of information but are fast becoming owners of the infrastructures of society, too. Nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s become a technocratic fix – pseudo-psychology that doubles up as “common sense”, aimed at maintaining the socioeconomic order. It’s become a naturalised approach to public policy. 

How can behavioural economists claim objectivity when they are active participants within the (intersubjectively constructed) cultural, political, economic and social environment, sharing the same context that allegedly shapes everyone else’s perceptions, conceptions, cognitive capacities and behaviours? 

How exactly does behavioural economics itself miraculously transcend the reductionist and deterministic confines of bounded rationality, cognitive bias, and escape the stimulus-response chain? If all behaviours are determined, then so are political, psychological and economic theories and policies. And so is the pursuit of “objective” evidence.

As well as shaping behaviour, the psychopolitical messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not verifiably or reliably rational: they reflect and are shaping, for example, an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for welfare “reform”, austerity, the “efficient” small state and also, are being used to legitimise these policy directions. Behavioural economics theory is even being used to “re-educate” our children as to how and who they should be.

Public and “social innovation” labs are enjoying enormous and lucrative political popularity. Nesta’s Innovation Lab has become a key player in the global circulation of policy lab ideas, and a connective node in a variety of lab networks. The Cabinet Office has established Policy Lab UK, a lab at the centre of government. GovLab in New York, MindLab in Denmark, and many others are now part of a global movement of organisations seeking to apply “radically new methods” to the practices of government

Social-emotional learning (SEL) encompasses concepts such as character, education, growth, mindset, “resilience”, “grit”, perseverance, so-called non-cognitive or non-academic and other mass marketed traditional and ghastly public school values, “personal qualities” and “competences.”  

In the last couple of years, social-emotional learning has emerged as a key policy priority from the work of international policy influencers such as the OECD and World Economic Forum; psychological entrepreneurs such as Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab” and Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” work; venture capital-backed philanthropic advocates (e.g. Edutopia); powerful lobbying coalitions (CASEL) and institutions (Aspen Institute) and government agencies and partners, especially in the US (for example, the US Department of Education “grit” report of 2013) and in the UK: in 2014 an all-party parliamentary committee produced a sanctimoniousCharacter and Resilience Manifesto” in partnership with the Centre Forum think tank, with the Department for Education following up with funding for schools to outsource the development of character education programmes.

Apparently social mobility depends on the characters of people in a society, and has nothing to do with access to opportunities and socioeconomic inequalities. The Manifesto says: “Character and Resilience are major factors in social mobility but are often overlooked in favour of things which are more tangible and easier to measure.” Or more obvious and strongly correlated.

Social-emotional learning theory is the product of a fast policy network of “psy” entrepreneurs, global policy advice, media advocacy, philanthropy, think tanks, technology research and development and venture capital investment.

Together, this alliance have produced shared narratives and vocabularies, aspirations, and offers techniques of quantification of the “behavioural indicators” of classroom behaviours that correlate to psychologically defined categories of character, mindset, grit, and other personal qualities defined by social-emotional learning theory.

As Agnieszka Bates has argued in The management of ‘emotional labour’ in the corporate re-imagining of primary education in England, that psychological advocates of SEL have conceptualized character as determined, but malleable, as well as measurable. SEL defines and manages the character skills that are most valuable to the labour market. As such, she describes SEL as a psycho-economic fusion of economic goals and psychological discourse in a corporatized education system. Specific algorithms and metrics have already been devised by prominent psycho-economic centres of expertise to measure the economic value of social-emotional learning. 

Policies that prioritise “resilience” tend to put the onus of inequalities, poverty and other difficult circumstances and disaster responses on individuals rather than collective, publicly coordinated efforts. Tied to the emergence of neoliberal discourse, the political promotion of  individual citizens’ resilience diverts attention away from governmental responsibility and towards localised, laissez-faire responses. How the term “resilience” or “grit” is defined affects research focuses; different or insufficient definitions will lead to inconsistent research about the same concepts.

Research on resilience has become more heterogeneous in its outcomes and measures, convincing some researchers to abandon the term altogether due to it being attributed to all outcomes of research where results were more positive than expected. Other researchers have pointed to cultural relativity, for example, in the area of indigenous health, where they have shown the impact of culture, history, community values, and geographical settings on resilience in indigenous communities.

Another problem with this type of character education is that it promotes an amoral and careerist “looking out for number one” perspective. This is simply neoliberal competitive individualism in the guise of psychological constructs, rather than being tethered to, say, social conscience or moral imperatives. Achievement is narrowly defined as an endless competition for money, status, highly specific types of “success” and the next win. 

It’s an important distinction, because while it’s fair to acknowledge that it takes grit, courage and self-control to be a successful doctor, teacher or social worker, exactly the same could be said about a suicide bomber or mass murderer. I‘m sure many psychopaths and villians would have scored extremely well in such character assessments, being gritty, extremely hard-working, resilient, supremely self-controlled, charming and wildly optimistic.

Empathy, justice, collectivism and public service seem to be conspicuously absent in the educational shopping list of desirable dog eat dog character traits.

It’s difficult to miss the major influence of Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s Character Strengths and Virtues, which was a major contribution to the methodological study of “positive psychology,” embedded in SEL. Given their focus on “improving human functioning” and “wellbeing”, positive psychology is closely related to “coaching psychology.”

However, Seligman and Peterson’s 24 “character strengths” were derived from religious and philosophical texts, and not from empirical evidence or scientific discourse, it could be argued that opinion has shaped research here rather than research shaping opinion. Furthermore, most of the 24 strengths do not have significant association with all positive outcomes and various studies yield contradictory results. Additionally, some empirical studies show that development of some character strengths can lead to degradation of other strengths. 

In Positive Psychology: A Foucauldian CritiqueMatthew McDonald and Jean O’Callahan argue that the “character strength” approach reflects a new political system of surveillance that risks creating an unintended consequence: disillusionment and alienation in much the same way that the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has achieved by marginalising those whose characters do not conform to society’s norms”. Moreover, it is a new regulatory tool for selection, control, and discrimination in the workplace, just as “personality measures” have been used in the past.

The authors further argue that such an approach may influence organisational culture by manipulating employee identity to control and coerce their workforce into more productive modes of functioning. Finally, they believe that Strength-Approaches support neoliberalism in treating the social domain as an economic domain, to promote self-governance, self-reliance and thus serves as tool in the implementation of current workplace policy and welfare “reform” in a number of Western nations, especially the US and UK.

The authors say that positive psychology privileges particular modes of functioning by classifying and categorising character strengths and virtues, supporting a neoliberal economic and political discourse, and has an “adversarial dialogue, with humanistic psychology.” 

Central to antihumanism more generally is the view that concepts of “human nature” “man”, or “humanity” should be rejected as historically relative or metaphysical. Nietzsche argues in Genealogy of Morals that human rights exist as a means for the weak to constrain the strong; as such, they do not facilitate the emancipation of life, but instead, deny it.

However, human rights were formulated to ensure that the powerful are accountable to citizens, and promote the idea that all life has equal worth, regardless of social status. “Constraining” genocide is not only acceptable, it’s desirable. 

Humanist Tzvetan Todorov identified within modernity a trend of thought which emphasises science and within it, the trend towards a deterministic view of the world. He clearly identifies positivist theorist Auguste Comte as an important proponent of this view. 

For Todorov Scientism does not eliminate the will but decides that since the results of science are valid for everyone, this will must be something shared, not individual. In practice, the individual must submit to the collectivity, which “knows” better than he does.” The autonomy of the will is maintained, but it is the will of the group, not the person…scientism has flourished in two very different political contexts…The first variant of scientism was put into practice by totalitarian regimes.” (The Imperfect Garden. 2001. Pg. 23)

Positivism is a form of epistemological totalitarianism. It is an outdated view that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws, and that all authentic knowledge is that which is verified.

However, the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Positivism tends to present superficial and descriptive rather than meaningful, in-depth and explanatory accounts of social events and phenomena. In psychology, behaviourism has been the doctrine most closely associated with positivism. Behaviour from this perspective can be described and explained without the need to make ultimate reference to mental events, emotions or to internal psychological processes. Psychology is, according to behaviourists, the isolated “science” of behaviour, and not the mind.

This approach, which has no regard for human reasoning, meanings and phenomenological experience, is echoed in behavioural economics, which generally doesn’t engage with people at the level of conscious awareness and rationality. It is claimed that nudges only work “in the dark,” as it were.

While positivists more generally locate causal relationships at the level of observable surface events, critical realists locate them at the level of deeper, underlying generative mechanisms. For example, in science, gravity is an underlying mechanism that is not directly observable, but it does generate observable effects. In sociology, on a basic level, Marx’s determining base (which determines superstructure) may be regarded as a generative mechanism which gives rise to emergent and observable properties. 

A RCT is a positivist research model in which people are randomly assigned to an intervention or a control (a group with no intervention) and this allows narrow comparisons to be made. Widely accepted as the “gold standard” for clinical trials, the foundation for evidence-based medicine, RCTs are used to establish causal relationships. These kinds of trials usually have very strict ethical safeguards to ensure the fair and ethical treatment of all participants, and these safeguards are especially essential in government trials, given the obvious power imbalances and potential for abuse. A basic principle expressed in the Nuremberg Code is the respect due to persons and the value of a person’s autonomy. And life.

Epistemology is the study or theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits, reliability and validity. It’s invariably linked with how a researcher perceives our relationship with the world and what “social reality” is (ontology), and how we ought to investigate that world (methodology).

For example, in sociology, some theorists hold that social structures largely determine our behaviour, and so behaviour is predictable and objectively measurable, others emphasise human agency, and believe that we shape our own social reality to a degree, and that it’s mutually and meaningfully negotiated and unfixed. Therefore, detail of how we make sense of the world and navigate it is crucially important, and so is the context.  Behavioural economics and any form of epistemic governance must surely accommodate and reflect this complexity and plurality of perspective.

Neoliberalism is failing. It’s not failing because populations lack rationality, cognitive capacity or “character”: it’s failing because neoliberalism itself doesn’t accommodate and reflect rationality, nor does it fulfil even basic public needs. It places limits on human development and stifles potential.

The political response is also irrational and reflects cognitive bias. The response, so far, has been aimed at coercing citizens to “adapt” to a failing socioeconomic policy framework, rather than to change the framework itself.

Image result for chomsky neoliberalism

 

 


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

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Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.

However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies 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 detached from public interests and needs.

The merits of quantitative analysis

The government have denied there is a causal link between their welfare policies, austerity measures and an increase in mental distress, premature death and suicide. However, ministers cannot deny there is a clear and well-established correlation, which warrants further research. But the government are hiding behind a distinction often made by researchers, to avoid accountability and to deny any association at all between policy and policy impacts. That’s just plain wrong.

Correlation isn’t quite the same as causality. When researchers talk about correlation, what they are saying is that they have found a relationship between two (or more) variables. “Correlation does not mean causation” is a quip that researchers and quite often, the government, chucks at us to explain that events or statistics that happen to coincide with each other are not necessarily causally related.

However, the possibility of causation isn’t refuted by political denial or somehow invalidated by the establishment of a correlation. Quite the contrary. Indeed an established association implies there may also be a causal link. To prove causation, further research into the association between variables must be pursued. So, care should be taken not to make an assumption that correlation never implies causation, because it quite often does indicate a causal link.

Correlations between two things may be caused by a third factor that affects both of them. This sneaky, hidden third factor is called a confounding variable, or sometimes, simply a confounder.

However, a lot of social research tends to indicate and discuss a correlation between variables, not a direct cause and effect relationship. Researchers are inclined to talk cautiously about associations.

It’s worth bearing in mind that establishing correlation is crucial for research and shows that something needs to be examined and investigated further. That’s precisely how we found out that smoking causes cancer, for example – through repeated findings showing an association (those good solid, old fashioned science standards of replicability and verification). It is only by systematically eliminating other potential associations – variables – that we can establish causalities.

The objective of most research or scientific analysis is to identify the extent to which one variable relates to another variable and the direction of the association. If there is a correlation then this guides further research into investigating whether one action causes the other. Statistics measure occurrences in time and can be used to calculate probabilities. Probability is important in research because measurements, observations and findings are often influenced by variation. In addition, probability theory provides the theoretical groundwork for statistical inference.

Statistics are fundamental to good government; to the delivery of public services and to decision-making at all levels of society. Statistics provide parliament and the public with a window on the work, performance and intentions of a government. Such data allows for the design of policies and programmes that aim to bring about a desired and stated outcome, and permits better targeting of resources. Once a policy has been implemented it is necessary to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the policy to determine whether it has been successful in achieving the intended outcomes. It is also important to evaluate whether services (outputs) are effectively reaching those people for whom they are intended. Statistics play a crucial role in this process. So statistics, therefore, represent a significant role in good policy-making, monitoring and political accountability. The impact of policy can be measured with statistics.

So firstly, we need to ask why the government are not doing this.

If policy impacts cannot be measured then it is not good policy.

Ensuring accuracy and integrity in the reporting of statistics is a serious responsibility. In cases where there may not be an in-depth understanding of statistics in general, or of a particular topic, the use of glossaries, explanatory notes and classifications ought to be used to assist in their interpretation.

Statistics can be presented and used in ways that may lead readers and politicians to draw misleading conclusions. It is possible to take numbers out of context, as Iain Duncan Smith, amongst others, is prone to do. However, official statistics are supposed to be produced impartially and free from political influence, according to a strict code of practice. This is a government that systematically breaches the code of conduct. See: List of official rebukes for Tory lies and statistical misrepresentations, for example.

We need to ask why the government refuses to conduct any research into their austerity policies, the impacts they are having and the associated mental distress, physical harm, deaths and suicides.

Without such research, it isn’t appropriate or legitimate to deny a causal link between what are, after all, extremely punitive, targeted, class-contingent policies and an increase in adverse consequences, such as premature mortality rates.

It isn’t unreasonable to be concerned about policies that are targeted to reduce the income of social groups already struggling because of limited resources, nor is it much of an inferential leap to recognise that such policies will have some adverse consequences.

In social research, traditionally, quantitative methods emphasise maintaining objectivity, and aim to keep social inquiries “value-free.” However, the area of study is intentionally selected by researchers, funded by interested parties and there are problems related to the connection between observation and interpretation. Perhaps every observation is an interpretation, since “facts” are seen through a lens of perceptions, pre-conceptions and ideology. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation choose to study poverty. Cynical Iain Duncan Smith simply changes the definition of it.

The importance of qualitative research: who are the witnesses?

Social phenomena cannot always be studied in the same way as natural phenomena, because human beings are subjective, intentional and have a degree of free will. One problem with quantitative research is that it tends to impose theoretical frameworks on those being studied, and it limits responses from those participating in the study.

Social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically, there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context.

There are also distinctions to be made between facts, values and meanings. Qualitative researchers are concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena and establishing basic cause and effect relationships. Qualitative research tends to be exploratory, potentially illuminating underlying intentions, responses, beliefs, reasons, opinions, and motivations to human behaviours. This type of analysis often provides insights into social problems, helps to develop ideas and establish explanations, and may also be used to formulate hypotheses for further quantitative research.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) in sociology, for example, is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many social researchers recognising the value of both means of data and evidence collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism.

Qualitative methods tend to be much more inclusive than quantitative analysis, lending participants a dialogic, democratic and first hand voice regarding their own experiences.

The current government have tended to dismiss qualitative evidence from first hand witnesses of the negative impacts of their policies – presented cases studies, individual accounts and ethnographies – as “anecdotal.” However, that is a very authoritarian approach to social administration and it needs to be challenged. 

The most rigid form of quantitative research, associated with positivism, is a traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of priority, worth and order, to assure ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many of us that are being systematically exiled from it.

Neither positivism nor Conservatism extend an acknowledgement, recognition or account of human diversity – which is among our greatest assets, after all. It’s a curious ideological tension for neoliberal Conservatives: they value competitive individualism on the one hand, but have such rigid ideas about pluralism and social group deviations from imposed, value-laden norms, on the other. 

Competitive individualism is a form of individualism that arises from competitive systems, rather than co-operative, collective ones. The function of the system is to maintain inequality in the society and fields of human engagement. Neoliberals believe that competition acts as an incentive to people’s behaviours, encouraging a “race to the top”. Those at the top then ‘trickle down’ wealth to benefit the poorest’, according to this behaviourist theory. But of course that hasn’t happened.

In any system of competition, there are inevitably relatively few ‘winners’ and rather more ‘losers’. Such is the logic of competition. And most people don’t share their trophies with others.

The competition is rigged in any case, since the Conservatives are not too keen on equality of opportunity. Such is the logic of elitism. 

The Conservatives don’t like social individualism, difference or diversity within society.  For them, the only individualism worth anything is that defined and categorised by how much money you have.  A ‘good citizen’ is wealthy. The logic follows that they must be ‘good’ to be so wealthy, after all.  Such is the politically convenient circular argument of meritocracy. 

In the current context, the Conservatives’ approach to ‘research’ is tantamount to a politically extended epistemological totalitarianism. (Epistemology is an important and underpinning branch of philosophy that extends various theories of the nature and grounds of knowledge in the social sciences, particularly with reference to its limits, reliability and validity.) It’s merely politically convenient to use a discredited positivist approach to policy-making, because such pseudoscientific narratives can be used to legitimise and impose virtually any policy.  Pseudoscience was once used to justify eugenic policies, after all. This is an approach that purposefully excludes citizens’ accounts. It’s authoritarian.

However, a qualitative approach to research potentially provides insight, depth and richly detailed accounts. The evidence collected is much more coherent and comprehensive, because it explores beneath surface appearances, and reaches above causal relationships, delving much deeper than the simplistic analysis of ranks, categories and counts. It provides a reliable and rather more authentic record of experiences, attitudes, feelings and behaviours, it prompts an openness and is expansive, whereas quantitative methods tend to limit and are somewhat reductive. Qualitative research methods encourage people to expand on their responses and may then open up new issues and topic areas not initially considered by researchers. 

As such, qualitative methods are prefigurative and bypass problems regarding potential power imbalances between the researcher and the subjects of research, by permitting participation and creating space for genuine dialogue and reasoned discussions to take place. Research regarding political issues and policy impacts must surely engage citizens on a democratic, equal basis and permit participation in decision-making, to ensure an appropriate balance of power between citizens and the state.

That assumes, of course, that governments want citizens to engage and participate. There is nothing to prevent a government deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies, and to avoid democratic accountability, transparency and public safeguards. 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? This is happening and needs to be challenged.

Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel, amongst other ministers, claim that we cannot make a link between government policies and the increasing number of deaths of sick and disabled people. There are no grounds whatsoever for their claim. There has been no cumulative impact assessment or monitoring of welfare policies, no inquiry, no further research regarding an established correlation and a longstanding refusal from the Tories to undertake any of these. There is therefore no evidence for their claim.

Such political denial is oppressive – it serves to sustain and amplify a narrow, hegemonic political narrative, stifling pluralism and excluding marginalised social groups, excluding alternative accounts of citizen’s experiences, negating counternarratives; it sidesteps democratic accountability, stultifies essential public debate, obscures evidence and hides politically inconvenient, exigent truths. Denial of causality does not reduce the probability of it, especially in cases where a correlation has been well-established and evidenced.

So, how do we address these issues?

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

Government ministers like to hear facts, figures and statistics all the time. What we need to bring to the equation is a real, live human perspective. We need to let ministers know how the policies they are implementing and considering directly impact ourselves, their constituents and social groups more widely. One of the most powerful things we can do to make sure the government listens to our concerns is to engage and support the organisation of family, friends, neighbours and wider communities. While many people regard state or national-level politics as an intractable mess that’s impossible to influence, collective voices really do make a difference. The best weapon of influence we have is meticulous documentation of our experiences.

Once upon a time, policy was a response from government aimed at meeting public needs. It was part of an intimate democratic dialogue between the state and citizens. Traditional methods of participating in government decision-making include:

  • political parties or individual politicians
  • lobbying decision-makers in government
  • community groups
  • voluntary organisations
  • public opinion
  • public consultations
  • the media
  • prefigurative politics

Nowadays, policies have been unanchored from any democratic dialogue regarding public needs and are more about monologues aimed at shaping those needs to suit the government and rigid policy outcomes. For many of us, policies are being formulated to act upon us as if we are objects, rather than autonomous human subjects. This political dehumanisation has contributed significantly to a wider process of social outgrouping and increasing stigmatisation.

But in democracies, Governments 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.

arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

 

 Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power.

Whereabouts are you on the ladder? I think socioeconomic status has some bearing on how far up people place themselves and how much power they feel they have to influence decision-making. 

For Arnstein, participation reflects “the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future. It is the strategy by which the excluded join in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, tax resources are allocated, programmess are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are parceled out. In short, it is the means by which they can induce significant social reform which enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society.”

A starting point may be the collective gathering of evidence and continual documentation of our individual narratives concerning experiences of austerity and the welfare “reforms”, which we must continue to present to relevant ministers, parliament, government departments, the mainstream media and any organisations that may be interested in promoting citizen inclusion, empowerment and democratic participation.

We can give our own meaningful account of our own experiences and include our own voice, reflecting our own first hand witnessing, experiencing and knowledge of policy impacts, describing how we make sense of and understand our situations, including the causal links between our own circumstances, hardships, sense of isolation and distress, and Conservative policies and subsequent socioeconomic frameworks, as active, intentional, conscientious citizens. Furthermore, we can collectively demand a democratic account and response (rather than accepting denial and a refusal to engage) from the government.

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Related

How can we find out whether people are really turning against democracy? – Democratic Audit UK

Psychologists Against Austerity campaign – call for evidence

The Psychological Impact of Austerity – Psychologists Against Austerity

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

The Conservative approach to social research – that way madness lies

Research finds strong correlation between Work Capability Assessment and suicide

Suicides reach a ten year high and are linked with welfare “reforms”

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A critique of Conservative notions of social research

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The goverment’s archaic positivist approach to social research shows that they need a team of sociologists and social psychologists, rather than the group of “libertarian paternalists” – behavioural economists – at the heart of the cabinet office, who simply nudge the public to behave how they deem appropriate, according to a rigid, deterministic, reductive neoliberal agenda and traditional, class-contingent Conservative prejudices.

 

Glossary

Epistemology – The study or theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits, reliability and validity. It’s invariably linked with how a researcher perceives our relationship with the world and what “social reality” is (ontology), and how we ought to investigate that world (methodology). For example, in sociology, some theorists held that social structures largely determine our behaviour, and so behaviour is predictable and objectively measurable, others emphasise human agency, and believe that we shape our own social reality to a degree, and that it’s mutually and meaningfully negotiated and unfixed. Therefore, detail of how we make sense of the world and navigate it is important.

Interpretivism – In sociology, interpretivists assert that the social world is fundamentally unlike the natural world insofar as the social world is meaningful in a way that the natural world is not. As such, social phenomena cannot be studied in the same way as natural phenomena. Interpretivism is concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena, and establishing basic cause and effect relationships.

Libertarian paternalism – The idea that it is both possible and legitimate for governments, public and private institutions to affect and change the behaviours of citizens whilst also [controversially] “respecting freedom of choice.”

MethodologyA system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity to collect data. In the social sciences there has been disagreement as to whether validity or reliability ought to take priority, which reflected ontological and epistemological differences amongst researchers, with positivism, broadly speaking, being historically linked with structural theories of society – Emile Durkheim’s structural-functionalism, for example – and quantitative methods, usually involving response-limiting surveys, closed-ended questionaires and statistical data collection, whereas interpretive perspectives, such as symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, tend to be associated with qualitative methods, favoring open-ended questionaires, interviews and participant observation.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many sociologists recognising the value of both means of data collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism. Qualitative methods tend to be more inclusive, lending participants a dialogic, democratic voice regarding their experiences.

Ontology – A branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of reality and being. It’s important because each perspective within the social sciences is founded on a distinct ontological view.

Positivism – In sociology particularly, the view that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws, and that all authentic knowledge is that which is verified. However, the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Positivism tends to present superficial and descriptive rather than in-depth and explanatory accounts of social phenomena. In psychology, behaviourism has been the doctrine most closely associated with positivism. Behaviour from this perspective can be described and explained without the need to make ultimate reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. Psychology is, according to behaviourists, the “science” of behaviour, and not the mind.

Critical realism – Whilst positivists and empiricists more generally, locate causal relationships at the level of observable surface events, critical realists locate them at the level of deeper, underlying generative mechanisms. For example, in science, gravity is an underlying mechanism that is not directly observable, but it does generate observable effects. In sociology, on a basic level, Marx’s determining base (which determines superstructure) may be regarded as a generative mechanism which gives rise to emergent and observable properties.

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) – RCT is a positivist research model in which people are randomly assigned to an intervention or a control (a group with no intervention) and this allows comparisons to be made. Widely accepted as the “gold standard” for clinical trials, the foundation for evidence-based medicine, RCTs are used to establish causal relationships. These kinds of trials usually have very strict ethical safeguards to ensure the fair and ethical treatment of all participants, and these safeguards are especially essential in government trials, given the obvious power imbalances and potential for abuse. A basic principle expressed in the Nuremberg Code is the respect due to persons and the value of a person’s autonomy, for example.

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting research and testing public policy interventions. Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed. 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 theory of “loss aversion,” for example.

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?

cogs

The increasing conditionality and politicisation of “truths”

The goverment often claim that any research revealing negative social consequences arising from their draconian policies, which they don’t like to be made public “doesn’t establish a causal link.”  Recently there has been a persistent, aggressive and flat denial that there is any “causal link” between the increased use of food banks and increasing poverty, between benefit sanctions and extreme hardship and harm, between the work capability assessment and an increase in numbers of deaths and suicides, for example.

The government are referring to a scientific maxim: “Correlation doesn’t imply causality.” 

It’s true that correlation is not the same as causation.

It’s certainly true that no conclusion may be drawn regarding the existence or the direction of a cause and effect relationship only from the fact that event A and event B are correlated. Determining whether there is an actual cause and effect relationship requires further investigation. The relationship is more likely to be causal if the correlation coefficient is large and statistically significant, as a general rule of thumb. (For anyone interested in finding out more about quantitative research methods, inferential testing and statistics, this is a good starting point – Inferential Statistics.)

Here are some minimal conditions to consider in order to establish causality, taken from Hills criteria:

  • Strength: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.
  • Coherence: A relationship is more likely to be causal if it is compatible with related facts and theories.
  • Analogy: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there are proven relationships between similar causes and effects.
  • Specificity: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is no other likely explanation.
  • Temporality: A relationship is more likely to be causal if the effect always occurs after the cause.
  • Gradient: A relationship is more likely to be causal if a greater exposure to the suspected cause leads to a greater effect.
  • Plausibility: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.

Hill’s criteria can be thought of as elements within a broader process of critical thinking in research, as careful considerations in the scientific method or model for deciding if a relationship involves causation. The criteria don’t all have to be met to suggest causality and it may not even be possible to meet them in every case. The important point is that we can consider the criteria as part of a careful and relatively unbiased research process. We can also take other precautionary steps, such as ensuring that there are no outliers or excessive uncontrolled variance, ensuring the populations sampled are representative and generally taking care in our research design, for example.

However, it is inaccurate to say that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It quite often does.

Furthermore, the government are implying that social research is valid only if it conforms to strict and archaic positivist criteria, and they attempt to regularly dismiss the propositions and research findings of social scientists as being “value-laden” or by implying that they are, at least. However, it may also be said that values enter into social inquiry at every level, including decisions to research a social issue or not, decisions to accept established correlations and investigate further, or not, which transforms research into a political act. (One only need examine who is potentially empowered or disempowered through any inquiry and note the government response to see this very clearly).

It’s noteworthy that when it comes to government claims, the same methodological rigour that they advocate for others isn’t applied. Indeed, many policies have clearly been directed by ideology and traditional Tory prejudices, rather than valid research and empirical evidence. For example, it is widely held by the Conservatives that work is the “only route out of poverty”. Yet since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Tory-led Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards. Many people in work, as a consequence, are now in poverty, empirically contradicting government claims.

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So what is positivism?

Positivism was a philosophical and political movement which enjoyed a very wide currency in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was extensively discredited during the twentieth century.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857,) who was regarded by many as the founding father of social sciences, particularly sociology, and who coined the term “positivism,” was a Conservative. He believed social change should happen only as part of an organic, gradual evolutionary process, and he placed value on traditional social order, conventions and structures. Although the notion of positivism was originally claimed to be about the sovereignty of positive (verified) value-free, scientific facts, its key objective was politically Conservative. Positivism in Comte’s view was “the only guarantee against the communist invasion.” (Therborn, 1976: 224).

The thing about the fact-value distinction is that those who insist on it being rigidly upheld the loudest generally tend to use it the most to disguise their own whopping great ideological commitments. In psychology, we call this common defence mechanism splitting.  “Fact, fact, fact!” cried Mr Thomas Gradgrind. It’s a very traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of priority and order, to assure their own ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many who are exiled from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Comte’s starting point is the same as Hayek’s, namely the existence of a spontaneous order. It’s a Conservative ideological premise, and this is one reason why the current neoliberal Tory government of self-described “libertarian paternalists” embrace positivism without any acknowledgement of its controversy.

However, positivist politics was discarded half a century ago, as a reactionary and totalitarian doctrine. It’s is true to say that, in many respects, Comte was resolutely anti-modern, and he also represents a general retreat from Enlightenment humanism. His somewhat authoritarian positivist ideology, rather than celebrating the rationality of the individual and wanting to protect people from state interference, instead fetishised the scientific method, proposing that a new ruling class of authoritarian technocrats should decide how society ought to be run and how people should behave. This is a view that the current government, with their endorsement and widespread experimental application of nudge theory, would certainly subscribe to.

Science, correlation and causality

Much scientific evidence is based on established correlation of variables – they are observed to occur together. For example, correlation is used in Bell’s theorem to disprove local causality. The combination of limited available methodologies has been used together with the dismissing “correlation doesn’t imply causation” fallacy on occasion to counter important scientific findings. For example, the tobacco industry has historically relied on a dismissal of correlational evidence to reject a link between tobacco and lung cancer, especially in the earliest stages of the research, but there was a clearly and strongly indicated association. 

Science is manifestly progressive, insofar as over time its theories tend to increase in depth, range and predictive power.

Established correlations in both the social and natural sciences may be regarded, then, as a starting point for further in-depth and rigorous research, with the coherence, comprehensiveness and verisimilitude of theoretical propositions increasing over time. This is basically a critical realist position, which is different from the philosophical positivism that dominated science and the social sciences two centuries ago, with an emphasis on strictly reductive empirical evidence and the verification principle (which is itself unverifiable).

Positivist epistemology has been extensively critiqued for its various limitations in studying the complexities of  human experiences. One critique focuses on the positivist tendency to carry out studies from a “value-free” outsider perspective in an effort to maintain objectivity, whilst the insider or subjective perspective is ignored. There is no mind-independent, objective vantage point from which social scientists may escape the insider. A second critique is that positivism is reductionist and deterministic. It emphasises quantification and ignores and removes context, meanings, autonomy, intention and purpose from research questions by ignoring unquantifiable variables.

It therefore doesn’t extend explanations and understanding of how we make sense of the world. A third critique is that positivism entails generalisation of data which renders results inapplicable to individual cases; data are used to describe a population without accounting for significant micro-level or individual variation. Because of these and other problems, positivism lost much favour amongst sociologists and psychologists in particular. 

Verification was never the sole criterion of scientific inquiry. Positivism probably lost much more methodological and epistemological currency in the social sciences than the natural sciences, because humans cannot be investigated in the same way as inert matter. We have the added complication of consciousness and [debatable] degrees of intentionality, so people’s behaviour is much more difficult to measure, observe and predict. There’s a difference between facts and meanings, human behaviours are meaningful and purposeful, human agency arises in contexts of intersubjectively shared meanings. But it does seem that prediction curiously becomes easier at macro-levels when we examine broader social phenomena, mechanisms and processes. (It’s a bit like quantum events: quite difficult to predict at subatomic level, but clarifying, with events apparently becoming more predictable at the level we inhabit and observe every day.)

Now, whilst correlation isn’t quite the same as “cause and effect”, it often strongly indicates a causal link, and what usually follows once we have established a correlation is further rigorous research, eliminating “confounding” variables and bias systematically (we do use rigorous inference testing in the social sciences). Correlation is used when inferring causation; the important point is that such inferences are made after correlations are confirmed as real and all causational relationships are systematically explored using large enough data sets.

The standard process of research and enquiry, scientific or otherwise, doesn’t entail, at any point, a flat political denial that there is any relationship of significance to concern ourselves with, nor does it involve withholding data and a refusal to investigate further.

Positivism and psychology

Positivism was most closely associated with a doctrine known as behaviourism during the mid-20th century in psychology. Behaviourists confined their research to behaviours that could be directly observed and measured. Since we can’t directly observe beliefs, thoughts, intentions, emotions and so forth,  these were not deemed to be legitimate topics for a scientific psychology. One of the assumptions of behaviourists is that free-will is illusory, and that all behaviour is determined by the environment either through association or reinforcement. B.F. Skinner argued that psychology needed to concentrate only on the positive and negative reinforcers of behaviour in order to predict how people will behave, and  everything else in between (like what a person is thinking, or their attitude) is irrelevant because it can’t be measured.

So, to summarise, behaviourism is basically the theory that human (and animal) behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to wider socioeconomic contexts, consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s dystopian novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. Quite properly so. All totalitarians, bullies  and authoritarians are behaviourists. Skinner has been extensively criticised for his sociopolitical pronouncements, which many perceive to be based on serious philosophical errors. His recommendations are not based on “science”, but on his own covert biases and preferences.

Behaviourism also influenced a positivist school of politics that developed in the 50s and 60s in the USA. Although the term “behavouralism” was applied to this movement, the call for political analysis to be modeled upon the natural sciences, the preoccupation with researching social regularities, a commitment to verificationism, an experimental approach to methodology, an emphasis on quantification and the prioritisation of a fact-value distinction: keeping moral and ethical assessment and empirical explanations distinct, indicate clear parallels with the school of behaviourism and positivism within psychology.

The political behaviouralists proposed, ludicrously, that normative concepts such as “democracy,” “equality,” “justice” and “liberty” should be rejected as they are not scientific – not verifiable or falsifiable and so are beyond the scope of “legitimate” inquiry. 

Behaviourism has been criticised within politics as it threatens to reduce the discipline of political analysis to little more than the study of voting and the behaviour of legislatures. An emphasis on  the observation of data deprives the field of politics of other important viewpoints – it isn’t a pluralist or democratic approach at all – it turns political discourses into monologues and also conflates the fact-value distinction.

Every theory is built upon an ideological premise that led to its formation in the first place and subsequently, the study of  “observable facts” is intentional, selective and purposeful. As Einstein once said: “the theory tells you what you may observe.”

The superficial dichotomisation of facts and values also purposefully separates political statements of what is from what ought to be. Whilst behavouralism is itself premised on prescriptive ideology, any idea that politics should include progressive or responsive prescriptions – moral judgements and actions related to what ought to be – are summarily dismissed.

Most researchers would agree that we ought to attempt to remain as objective as possible, perhaps aiming for a relative value-neutrality, rather than value-freedom, when conducting research. It isn’t possible to be completely objective, because we inhabit the world that we are studying, we share cultural norms and values, we are humans that coexist within an intersubjective realm, after all. We can’t escape the world we are observing, or the mind that is part of the perceptual circuit.

But we can aim for integrity, accountability and transparency. We can be honest, we can critically explore and declare our own interests and values, for example. My own inclination is towards value-frankness, rather than value-freedom – we can make the values which have been incorporated in the choice of the topic of research, and of the formulation of hypotheses clear and explicit at the very outset. The standardised data collection process itself is uncoloured by personal feelings (that is, we can attempt to collect data reliably and systematically.) However, the debate about values and the principle of objectivity is a complex one, and it’s important to note that symbolic interactionists and post modernists, amongst others, have contended that all knowledge is culturally constructed. (That’s a lengthy and important discussion for another time.)

Nudge: from meeting public needs to prioritising political needs

The idea of “nudging” citizens to do the “right thing” for themselves and for society heralds the return of behaviourist psychopolitical theory. Whilst some theorists claim that nudge is premised on notions of cognition, and so isn’t the same as the flat, externalised stimulus-response approach of behaviourism, my observation is that the starting point of nudge theory is that our cognitions are fundamentally biased and faulty, and so the emphasis of nudge intervention is on behaviour modification, rather than on engaging with citizen’s cognitive or deliberative capacities.

In other words, our tendency towards cognitive bias(es) render us incapable of rational decision-making, so the state is bypassing democratic engagement and prescribing involuntary and experimental behavioural change to “remedy” our perceived cognitive deficits.

Behaviourists basically stated that only public events (behaviours of an individual) can be objectively observed, and that therefore private events (intentions, thoughts and feelings) should be ignored. The paternal libertarians are stating that our cognitive processes are broken, and should be ignored. What matters is how people behave. It’s effectively another reductionist, instrumental stimulus-response approach based on the same principles as operant conditioning.

Nudge is very controversial. It’s experimental use on an unconsenting population has some profound implications for democracy,  which is traditionally based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Conservative policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly all about instructing us how to be.

The context-dependency and determination of value-laden nudge theory

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

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

Furthermore, in relying upon a pseudo-positivistic experimental approach to human cognition, behavioural economists have made some highly questionable ontological and epistemologial assumptions: in the pursuit of methodological individualism, citizens are isolated from the broader structural political, economic and sociocultural and established reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a deeply problematic duality between context and cognition.

Yet many libertarian paternalists reapply the context they evade in explanations of human behaviours to justify the application of their theory in claiming that their “behavioural theories” can be used to serve social, and not necessarily individual, ends, by simply acting upon the individual to make them more “responsible.” But “responsible” is defined only within the confines of a neoliberal economic model. (See, for example: Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policyDavid Halpern, Clive Bates, Geoff Mulgan and Stephen Aldridge, 2004.)

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

The ideological premise on which the government’s “behavioural theories” and assumptions about the negative impacts of neoliberalism on citizens rests is fundamentally flawed, holding individuals responsible for circumstances that arise because of market conditions, the labor market, political decision-making, socioeconomic constraints and the consequences of increasing “liberalisation”, privatisation and marketisation.

Market-based economies both highly value and extend competitive individualism and “efficiency”,  which manifests a highly hierarchical social structure, and entails the adoption of economic Darwinism. By placing a mathematical quality on social life (Bourdieu, 1999), neoliberalism has encouraged formerly autonomous states to regress into penal states that value production, competition and profit above all else, including attendance to social needs and addressing arising adverse structural level constraints, the consequences of political decision-making and wider socioeconomic issues, such as inequality and poverty.

As a doxa, neoliberalism has become a largely unchallenged reality. It now seems almost rational that markets should be the allocators of resources; that competition should be the primary driver of social problem-solving, innovation and behaviour, and that societies should be composed of individuals primarily motivated by economic conditions and their own economic productivity. Despite the Conservative’s pseudo-positivist claims of value-neutrality, the economic system is being increasingly justified by authoritarian moral arguments about how citizens ought to act.

The rise of a new political behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

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Image courtesy of Tiago Hoisel

 

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)

 


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