DWP psych ‘test’ devised by US ‘torture guru’

I wrote last week about a bogus online personality ‘test’ of 48 questions that Jobcentre Plus is forcing claimants to complete on behalf of the DWP – bogus because whatever answers you select, or even if you select none at all and just click next, you get the same or very similar answers.

From further investigation, it became apparent that this ‘test’ – forced on claimants as a ‘Jobseeker Direction’ that can result in ‘sanction’ of benefits if not obeyed – is being used as a tool to manipulate and intimidate terrified benefit-claimants, with the result that many could lose benefits simply for not being computer-literate, or even literate at all. That this is being done in a context of claimants committing suicide because of the fear of losing their benefits is utterly immoral.

That series of posts has been one of the most commented-on that I’ve written – and the more information that comes out, the bleaker and more damning the picture gets. That the ‘test’ and the issues around it show a callous disregard for human welfare and even human life on the part of Iain Duncan Smith’s Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Tory front bench is hardly contestible. But there is an even more damning revelation.

The ‘test’ that the DWP ‘borrowed’, and is forcing unemployed people to take on pain of losing their benefits, was devised by a US psychologist alleged to have devised psychological-torture interrogation programmes for the US military and the CIA.

The questions the DWP has ‘borrowed’ come from the ‘Values in Action Inventory of Strengths’ test devised by Christopher Peterson and Martin ‘Marty’ Seligman. In 2001, Marty Seligman allegedly convened a ‘counter-terrorism and psychology’ meeting at his home, attended by, among others, the  alleged creator of the CIA torture program, Dr. James Mitchell, and CIA Director of Behavioral Sciences Research, Kirk M. Hubbard.


Following this meeting, the CIA hired Dr Mitchell’s firm, Jessen and Associates, to devise an interrogation programme. In the same year, 2002, Kirk Hubbard invited Prof. Seligman to give a 3-hour lecture to the Navy SERE school in San Diego on his ‘learned helplessness’ concepts – a lecture attended by Mitchell, Jessen and Hubbard, and co-sponsored by the CIA.

Later the same year, the APA (American Psychological Association) amended its ethics rules to allow psychologists to ‘override’ their ethics when following orders from the CIA and the military, and the ‘enhanced interrogation’ programme – including the now-infamous ‘waterboarding’ technique and locking detainees in a ‘dog box’ – was launched.

A series of meetings, seminars and ‘workshops’ spun off from this, and an ethics ‘task force’ was launched by the APA to oversee the process – with 6 of its 10 members being psychologists employed by the CIA and military.

The results of the programme have been publicised, with journalists and even the occasional supportive politician undergoing waterboarding to see whether it’s as bad as has been claimed. As far as I know, no one has been able to bear it for very long.

In 2010, anti-corruption procurement processes were bypassed to aware a $31m, ‘no-bid’, sole-source contract to the University of Pennsylvania’s ‘Positive Psychology Center’ for training US soldiers in resistance to interrogation. The unit is directed by Prof. Seligman.

These may sound like ‘conspiracy theory’ ravings, but they are documented facts. You can read about them in a document published by the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology here.

That the DWP is threatening people with the removal of their benefits if they don’t take a test that provides meaningless answers is deeply worrying – and caused me to use the term ‘psychological torture’ to describe it.

But that the DWP and its contractors are using a test devised by a man who appears to be closely-associated with actual psychological torture by military and intelligence organisations makes the whole matter even more damning – and one that should be occupying the attention of Parliament and the media.


  1. P.S. the theory stage of the ‘driving test’ is actually much the same ie all answers are equally correct ……or incorrect, nice little earner for the gov.

    1. Another cracker of an article.I would like to meet this man in the company of a decent Forensic Psychiatrist and/or Martin Rowson.
      Torture in the UK and being under investigation by Amnesty International.It all points to a very right wing administration with similarities to Aktion T-4 which itself led to the Black Triangle in lieu of the Yellow Star which was the badge of a religion/culture/race.The Black Triangle is our badge.There is a clear parallel process and it disturbs me.

  2. I know a lot about ‘learned helplessness’ from extensive experience of dog training. Imagine that you want to do the right thing, but have no way of knowing what is expected of you. You try something- it’s wrong, and you get punished for getting it wrong. So you try something else, but you never get any reward or praise for doing the right thing, only punishment for getting it wrong. How long do you think you keep trying until you give up? In the case of a dog they often physically sink to the floor and stop moving in case movement is ‘the wrong thing’. Many people actually cause this to happen when trying to train a dog, without realising what they are doing. Some people cause the same problem in their children. It’s always been thought of as an unwanted and unforseen consequence of bad training or childrearing. I’ve also seen it in the workplace as a result of bad management. It had never crossed my mind that people would contrive to use this against other humans as a deliberate control device, but I suppose that was naive of me. It would work very well on disenfranchised and dispirited people. If people really think that such techniques are morally justifiable then they will obviously be willing to design and implement all manner of psychological control techniques. These people disgust me. How the hell did our government think it was ok to consult them on dealing with benefits claimants?

    1. I believe that Seligman experimented on dogs in the formulation of his theories. I suspect that this government would quite routinely consider things that we would regard as morally indefensible. 🙁

      1. Rats were used extensively to assess learned helplessness in the laboratory.Learned helplessness is indicated in the development of depression and once acquired will transfer from the original situation to other areas of life, so if this test is an attempt to elicit learned helplessness in the claimant for the purposes of control, that would be injurious to wellbeing,health and rather a ‘cruel and unusual’ act.

      1. I thought about this last night. Suppose this “test” is not intended to induce learned helplessness. It certainly tells you about some so-called strengths you’re claimed to have. You might then be eager to comply with some govt measure, in the hope of increasing those strengths. Actually, this might ‘adjust’ you to whatever Seligman’s positive psych considers ‘normal,’ ‘good,’ and packed with ‘positive’ emotions. I use quotes, since the words are used without explanation in a gung-ho sermon of his that I wasted about 25 minutes watching. It’s feel-good, wellness, conformity tripe, not applied science.

      2. Telling me I have eg leadership skills (which I don’t have) will not help me “adjust” (I know what you mean) – it is setting me up for failure. Just like an Atos rulling saying “you are fit for work” will not cure me, believing in my strengths might offer me a short-term pick-me-up until I confront the reality. By making the pop-psychology test “official” and making me (probably) follow the results in my job applications, they will make me fail. It might be the final straw to make me finally decide to just sit and do nothing because nothing works anyway. However, while the symptoms reflect those of learned helplessness, there is no real way out of the system so it does not meet the criteria of the definition as the lack of control is real. Basically, they are just messing with me because they can – the electric shocks, I mean sanctions, give them the upper hand. The only way to fully escape it is to become healthy and find a job but, in my case, it is impossible, at least for the time being. All that remains to be done is to jump through the ever more ridiculous hoops.

  3. Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    Regular readers of this blog will know that the Skwawkbox blog has been exposing the secrets of a bogus online personality test, run by the DWP. The latest revelation is that it was devised by an American expert in psychological torture.
    This is chilling material, and evidence that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration absolutely does NOT have the best interests of its citizens at heart.
    What kind of government knowingly and premeditatedly inflicts psychological torture on the most vulnerable people in the country?
    That might be something worth mulling over, before the next time you vote (which will be next month, for some of you).

  4. Steve – have you thought about writing an article for the Guardian about this? I found your blog via flythenest and I asked the G on the You Tell Us thread to do something with this.
    I really think this should be brought to a wider audience – we hear a lot about WP providers and jobcentre staff referring for sanctions on very spurious grounds, and the PCS has had complaints from members who are not happy about pressurising claimants to join Universal Jobmatch and grant DWP gateway access etc.
    DWP have managed to slip this wheeze under the radar – and when you consider that thousands of WRAG ESA claimants are having to jobsearch now, along with all claimants and part-time workers when Universal Credit comes in, this “strengths” test may be applied to all of them.

    It’s just disgusting – and I think you need to get this out there.
    Have you tweeted Shiv Malik or someone like that?

    1. Yes, I’d be delighted to write something for the Guardian if they’ll print it! I’ve tweeted various posts to Shiv, Sunny Hundal etc – some retweets and ‘favourites’ but no definitive response yet. Maybe it’s too soon – I only started on this middle of last week – but I’m all for getting the word out.

      Thanks for the support!

  5. I read each question carefully as most are written to deliberately confuse or the question is not really covered by the multiple choice answer. I answered the questions to make me seem like an angry, petty, vindictive, depressed and socially awkward person and the test has labelled me ‘Modest, Careful and Socially Intelligent’.

  6. I always used to maintain that ringing the DWP was tantamount to psychological torture techniques in the hope of you ending the call. Being held on a constant loop of the worst rendition imaginable, of Vivaldi’s Spring, with the occasional intervention of a recorded human voice, meaning you couldn’t place the handset down and pick up when answered by an advisor,the set had to be clamped to your ear in case the “voice” was that of the operative on the line.
    I think the hope was, the terrible electronic hash of one of the finest pieces of music, and the constant and irregular timed interruption would have irrate callers slamming down the phone
    Job done, 1 less claim.

  7. What am I missing? I’ve been reading about this test for a couple of days now, I’ve tried a few different ways of answering it myself, and the results do vary, although the stock replies are a little similar in some cases. I don’t understand why such a simple test is counted as psychological torture? It’s not particularly onerous, although someone with literacy issues would need assistance in completing it. The replies give positive encouraging sentences, it appears to be trying to give focus to people who perhaps feel lost and hopeless. But so many people have written on the subject with such fierce passion, I can’t help but think I’ve missed something?

    1. The torture consists in imposing such a task on someone with minimal literacy skills, as part of a package of complex and involved tasks (e.g. research 15 companies and state the name of the person responsible for hiring, what the key strengths and aims of the company is, and how your skills and personality fit it’ – all back up by the threat of sanction (losing all benefits) if you don’t comply.

      Put yourself in the position of such a person and imagine how you’d feel faced with that seemingly-mountainous task – and being told that if you don’t get it all done, your life-support will be withdrawn.

      Then you’ll know why it’s torture.

  8. There is so much managerialisation, marketisation, obscure-speak and manipulation going on – the rubbishing of Stafford Hospital is another good example, which you have blogged on extensively (do the Guardian want that story too? – you’ve got enough material!)

    Boy how we miss Clement Atlee (“we have formulated a policy and invite the British people to endorse it at the polling station”)(“where are you going on holiday Mr Atlee” “Margate”) ……

  9. Pingback: Workshy Scrounger
  10. Positive Psychology, Happiness and Wellbeing Studies.
    There’s been an infiltration of these ideas among leading policy makers in our country. I think it stems from a wish shared by those who have done well from our social system to deny it has anything to do with their privilege. Denial that the profound (and increasing) social inequality we have leads to great suffering and deprivation at the lower end. So we have lots of ‘theories’ based on positive psychology of Seligman and others which stems any guilt they might feel at profiting while many starve.

    These ideas are also fondly held by one Sir Mansel Aylward, whose influence on policy while at the DWP led to the now infamous Work Capability Assessment. This is the ‘medical test’ through which many sick and disabled people have been found ‘fit for work’ and cast off sickness benefits with resulting deaths and suicides. If you analyse the material, the supposed ‘evidence’ behind this process, it is easy to see the operation of ideas that people are not taking a ‘positive’ enough attitude to their illness/impairments ie their capacity to work is hindered by negative thoughts about their bodies/abilities. Apparently being thrown off the lifeboat of illness related benefits will make them realise that they are much stronger than they thought! The shock of being plunged into the icy waters of jobseeking in a recession will surely distract them from all that ‘illness’ nonsense. A variation on the witches test. Either they will ‘swim’ proving that they weren’t that ill in the first place, or sink. The latter is simply a form of ‘collateral damage’which apparently is acceptable to our policymakers. When faced with evidence that great numbers are in fact sinking the government cry ‘Anecdotes!’, turning an electively deaf ear.

    Aylward is definately in thrall to the ideas of positive psychology, claiming to have studied ‘happiness’ extensively at both Harvard and Cardiff. Seligman is said to have “encouraged David Cameron to look into well-being as well as financial wealth in ways of assessing the prosperity of a nation”. Its not the wealth, you see!! Never the wealth, or lack of it, that dictates life outcomes. Denial of the iron clad type. Helps them sleep at night.

      1. I do indeed! My blog has lots of material about Aylward and the WCA. You can get to it by clicking on my name on my post. Its called ‘downwithallthat’.
        This post (hoping that links are allowed here) contains reference to it towards the end: http://downwithallthat.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/the-cold-grip-of-psychiatry-simon-wessely/
        And here is the original article, which is from a Welsh newspaper: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/What+makes+us+happy%3F-a0168732591
        I’ve seen other references to his beliefs in this area, as he’s quite fond of being interviewed, promoting himself as an example of someone who ‘escaped from the valleys’, while others, shall we say, ‘festered’. Also I believe his cowritten book ‘The Power of Belief’ is an example of applied thinking of this kind.
        As my post indicates Barbara Eherenreich has given positive psychology the thorough mauling it so thoroughly deserves.

      2. Here is Aylward, as I mentioned, pontificating about ‘attitudes’ and ‘beliefs’ being a major factor in some of his peers failing to realise their potential, going on about ‘benefit culture’ and so on, ‘vigorously refuting’ that its about saving the government money. That was in 2004. And here we are nine years later…

      3. Quote from that article: “Those able to come off benefits will have to show a more positive attitude to obtaining work. ”
        It’s all connected. Or should that be ‘They’re all in it together’?

    1. Fascinating comment. I agree with what you say. There is definitely a growing belief that illness is psycho-social and not a medical or physical fact.

      The issue for policymakers is that if they really go down the psycho social route then they should have to admit that stress and other factors such as poverty play a part in making illness worse. Yet they ignore this aspect, taking only the aspects of the psycho-social model that suits them – e.g. personal responsibility of the sick person – and ignore the rest – responsibility of policy makers and society.

      Illnesses such as ME/CFS have been targeted by the psych model but in the US there are moves to try and re-categorise many illnesses including asthma, diabetes and certain forms of athritis. (Not because you can’t ‘prove’ the athritis, of course, but because one person with it may be working and another unable to – therefore the policy makers argue that those who say they can’t work are malingering. It’s ‘only’ pain after all! )

      It’s a very dangerous road and ultimately it spreads into every area of policy – so not only welfare policy but health too – those who don’t recover from their cancer just aren’t trying hard enough and don’t have enough positive attitude etc. The whole thing stinks and is going to affect everyone ultimately.

  11. This test may have been devised by a tyrant, but it is tyrants working in job centres, who are employed for their sadistic tendencies, that are quite happy to foist it on the unemployed.

    1. People working in Jobcentres are not necessarily tyrants. It’s just the workplace culture there that makes them behave the way they do. Read about Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures – that pretty much explains it. Mind that Jobcentre employers will end up reprimanded or even sacked if they don’t fulfil their duties (eg meeting the sanctions quota). They, too, have families to support.

      1. Nobody has “duties” to do X, if they know that doing X will most likely harm others, just to satisfy the contingent wishes of some group of individuals who feel that others must just follow orders.

      2. If you don’t believe Milgram, then how about Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment: if you are put in the position of authority, you will take it to its limits. It’s a human condition. I am a relatively normal person but do not know how I would behave in extreme circumstances (eg either I sanction someone or lose my job). I would like to believe that I would stand up to it, be a whistleblower, get other staff on my side but it’s probably impossible. With regards to benefits, many people do many bad things every day: ATOS medicals, sanctions, caps and general scrounger bashing. They cannot all be unhinged tyrants.

      3. Well, several points. (1) Milgram’s explanation has been criticised, as here: http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/02/stanley-milgram-obedience-to-authority.php . (2) My note was philosophical and general, about the notion of duty, not obedience or authority. (3) Following orders is not always an acceptable excuse, See the “superior orders defense.” (4) Nobody has any demonstrably definitive notion of what “the human condition” is, or ought to be.

      4. However you explain his findings, the shocks were administered. As far as I know, nobody said “You must be kidding, man. I’m leaving.” If I was in the experiment, I would have probably said there are better ways to learn than torture. Or maybe I would just lose my patience with the learner and just shock him into oblivion. The findings were replicated by other labs.
        Read the comments on Daily Mail under one of their “scrounger” articles. Listen your boss give a pep talk about all claimants always lying and spending all their money on booze and fags. Watch your colleagues getting praised for sanctioning innocent claimants. What do you do now? After all, nobody can hear the claimants scream.
        What I am trying to say is that Jobcentre does not go out of its way to employ “tyrants”. They simply mould people into responding in a certain way.

      5. I actually agree with all that you say now, with one exception. Namely, it seems that the critique of the experiments is that the results can also be explained as conformity in highly controlled laboratory environments. I guess that a Jobcentre is close to that, with its directives. No disagreement there, since you accept that at least two explanations are possible. Now, I was trained as a philosopher who tends to critique a person’s use of language. When I hear unexplained uses of “duties,” I comment as below. Likewise for phrases like “a human condition.” So I doubt that we disagree on anything important to this post. I *did* forget one thing. Besides conforming and whistleblowing, there is quitting. Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” is a classic about quitting vs other choices in the German civil service between 1933 and 39. when Haffner quit.

      6. I actually agree with all that you say now. It seems that the critique of the experiments is that the results can also be explained as conformity in highly controlled laboratory environments. I guess that a Jobcentre is close to that, with its directives. No disagreement there, since you accept that at least two explanations are possible. Now, I was trained as a philosopher who tends to critique a person’s use of language. When I hear unexplained uses of “duties,” I comment as below. Likewise for phrases like “a human condition.” So I doubt that we disagree on anything important to this post. I *did* forget one thing. Besides conforming and whistleblowing, there is quitting. Sebastian Haffner’s “Defying Hitler” is a classic about quitting vs other choices in the German civil service between 1933 and 39. when Haffner quit.

      7. Sorry, I tried to edit but could not. The lower reply is what I wished to say, by omitting “with one exception,” and replacing that with “all.”

  12. I am delighted to have supplied what appears to have been useful input. Thanks for posting about it so quickly.

  13. They are low empathy people doing what they are doing by some sort of corrupt orgonisation controlling these Job Centre employees, they must be recieving NLP training to deal with difficult situations with claimants meaning they are not psychologically effected or feel anything when they cut someone off of their livelyhood.

  14. Don’t attribute to design something which is more likely to be due to stupidity. Bad coding of the form is obviously the problem with the questionnaire. The Register (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/04/25/dwp_psych_test/) highlights this with their attempt at not answering any questions and still getting a good result. To anyone doing a serious questionnaire on the web, the rule is not show your workings in the webpage itself. To do so, shows that the department farmed it out to the cheapest developer, who is obviously someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.

    Using the picture of waterboarding is a tad extreme. There is a connection between the DWP’s test and someone was was involved in creating it but its a bit tenuous. Someone who created the questionnaire invited someone else around to his home. This 2nd person is alleged to have created the waterboarding torture.The first person therefore didn’t have anything to do with waterboarding except give some speech on the general concepts that are behind the torture itself. But you make a link and try and push the conclusion that the questionnaire is a psychological torture test to make more out of the stupid and silly questionnaire then there really is.

    Yes, the DWP have done a stupid thing. But malicious and with intent to scare and torture. Nope. Not at all.

    Keep to the facts and stop using high emotion to push your points.

    1. The waterboarding picture isn’t suggesting that the test is equivalent to waterboarding. It’s because the author of the test is the same psychologist who devised the ‘enhanced interrogation’ programme for the CIA/US military – which includes waterboarding.

  15. thought I should let you know (because of reports of pages covering anything political (well against welfare reform and the government) being shut down for apparently being spam) when I entered this page I got a warning as if this page had a virus and I had to select whether or not I thought the page was spam. I selected ‘not spam’, came through fine and as my pc is still working and my anti virus software didn’t activate, I guess all is well with the page

    1. As far as I know there are no viruses, and if there are I certainly didn’t put them there! I think Facebook is just playing silly buggers – but it does seem to be disproportionately affecting left-wing bloggers..

  16. When I clicked on the linkl to this site from my faceb ook page, a warning came up saying this page may bne unsdafe or spam. Facebook seems to be doing this a lot at the moment with sites that post politically contoversial views of a left wing nature

    1. I followed a link to pub med posted by a reputable news website’s Facebook and got the spam warning, too. Mind you, the article was about how prayer does not help you recover from illnesses so maybe FB has a higher plan.

  17. Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    I blogged yesterday about the privatisation of the ‘Nudge Unit’, the government department that uses psychology to manipulate the decisions made by its clients, including those on unemployment benefit. My fears are that, apart from the evil and injustice in itself of such psychology manipulation, the technique also has a potential to become a tool for mass indoctrination, as shown in SF series like Blake’s 7. One of the commenters on my blog, George Berger, has pointed to this article on The Skwawkbox, revealing that the DWP psychiatric test inflicted on those on jobseeker’s benefits was partly devised by Marty Seligman. Seligman has collaborated with the CIA in the development of interrogation/torture techniques, such as waterboarding. This article provides further evidence, not just of Ian Duncan Smith’s complete indifference to human rights or suffering, but to the Coalition’s willingness to use military indoctrination techniques on its civilian clients. It shows a dangerous totalitarian psychology at the heart of Cameron’s government.

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