‘Positive psychology’ student comments on DWP’s nudge-‘test’

My recent (and still ongoing) series of posts on the fake psychometric ‘test’ being imposed – among various other forms of unreasonable demands that amount to psychological torture – on unemployed benefit claimants continues to reveal yet more darkness at the heart of the DWP. New articles appeared in (at least) the Guardian and the New Statesman on bank holiday Monday, and the duplicity of the DWP and Downing Street’s ‘nudge unit’ become ever clearer.

This ‘test’ was taken – in spite of permission to do so being denied by its owners – from a test of some 250 questions hosted by the VIA Institute in the US, and derives from the ‘positive psychology’ work of Prof Martin Seligman.

Positive psychology appears something of a chequered reputation, not least (in my eyes) because of the association of its key proponent in the ‘enhanced interrogation‘ programme. But it is studied by a wide range of people, including here in the UK, and their views on the matter are very pertinent.

I’m therefore very pleased to be able to present the SKWAWKBOX‘s first ever ‘guest blog’, by a student of positive psychology, Nick Brown, whose interest and effort to produce this important contribution I appreciate very much:

The Ethics of “Nudging”

There was a time, many years ago, when American psychology students had to take part in research, as part of their coursework requirements.  Of course, being bright people studying the science that was being done to them, they sometimes messed with the experimenters, either inadvertently in their desire to help to produce the “right” result, or deliberately, giving rise to what became known as the “Screw You Effect” (this was the mid-to-late 1960s), so this mandatory participation was acknowledged to produce distorted results.  Additionally, sometimes participants were asked to undergo some pretty horrible things, or do horrible things to other people; if you search on-line for “Milgram electric shocks” or “Stanford prison experiment” you’ll find some classic examples.

Nowadays, student participation in studies is voluntary; they typically get paid a few dollars or perhaps receive some small amount of course credit for taking part.  (There is an ongoing debate in psychology about how valid the conclusions are that psychologists draw from their studies of mostly-white, mostly-female, mostly-middle class, mostly young people.)  More importantly, though, what you can do to participants in psychological research is severely limited by what your Ethics Board (sometimes called an Institutional Review Board) will let you do.  The people who sit on these boards have a mandate to protect participants, but also to ensure that their institution never, ever gets sued, which sometimes causes some frustration among researchers who aren’t actually intending to apply electric shocks or do anything else that is particularly likely to harm their participants.  The ethical guidelines governing psychology in the UK are maintained by the British Psychological Society (BPS), as part of the UK government’s own Research Governance Framework (oh, the irony).

I’m a student of positive psychology (PP), the branch of psychology from which the DWP/Nudge Unit’s questionnaire has been taken/borrowed/stolen (incidentally, pace Shiv Malik, I think that the discussion about exactly how valid it is, and/or how it came to be used, is about the least important aspect of this story).  Most research in PP appears fairly harmless, at least at the surface level; for example, it’s rare to see questions that might obviously cause a lot of people to become distressed when answering.  But, that still doesn’t mean that you can go round “encouraging” people to answer questionnaires willy-nilly.  As part of the MSc course that I’m on, students are required to evaluate the effects of some PP interventions and questionnaires, but only on ourselves; we are forbidden to try them on anybody else unless we already had BPS ethical clearance for our own practice, which almost nobody did, even though we were talking in most cases about what might seem to be pretty innocuous material.

There’s a good reason for this, and it’s not just “Elf ‘n’ Safety gorn mad”.  Psychologists have, like doctors, first and foremost a duty to do no harm.  It’s not always possible to know what the effect of almost any psychometric test or cognitive exercise might be, especially if you’re not personally familiar with the history of the person you’re applying that to.  That’s why even internet-based studies that people voluntarily sign up to because they sound interesting, have informed consent notices that have to be accepted before a participant can join the study.  If you have any reason to believe that the population at whom your study is aimed might be vulnerable – and you might imagine that the unemployed, whose financial or other social circumstances might be precarious, or who might well be suffering from depression, could possibly come into this category – then you have to be able to justify what you’re trying to do in front of a committee of people who probably know a lot more about research than you do.  Steve’s previous posts on this subject may have given you an idea of just how vulnerable people can turn out to be when threatened with loss of their benefits.

If you put a brass plate outside your house with “Doctor” on it, and you’re not registered with the GMC, you can be prosecuted.  The same applies if you put “Psychologist” up; it’s a protected term, and if the BPS hasn’t recognised you, you can’t use it.  But there the similarity ends.  If you forget about the brass plate but still proceed to practise medicine without a licence – say, you failed your medical exams, but you put on a white coat anyway and start walking around hospital wards – you can be arrested (and indeed, one hears about fake doctors being unmasked from time to time).  On the other hand, if you start doing the kinds of things that psychologists do – for example, distribute psychometric questionnaires, or dispense well-meaning advice on how to improve people’s lives – there’s actually very little that anyone can do to stop you.  (The term “psychotherapist”, incidentally, isn’t protected; anyone can set themselves up as a psychotherapist even if their only training is a reading an agony aunt column for a couple of weeks.  If you’re looking for a trained psychotherapist, check if they are registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.)  So while what the Nudge Unit and the DWP have done – by sending out threateningly-worded letters whose effect is to force people to fill out this online questionnaire and receive gratuitous advice from a computer about using their strengths in new ways – would be unethical for a psychologist, it’s merely crass incompetence for the assorted economists and other wonks in the soon-to-be-privatised Nudge Unit.  (In fact the government has a serious question to answer here.  If any chartered psychologists were involved in this project, they should be facing BPS disciplinary proceedings.  But if no psychologists were involved, what on earth were government employees doing playing around with psychology?)

Of course, there are plenty of other questions about this “project” that spring to mind, many of which also touch on ethical questions – not just in the formal sense of review boards, but in terms of common human decency:

  • Why was the questionnaire apparently copied word-for-word from a copyrighted book, which contains no suggestion that the questionnaire is in the public domain or in any way intended for anything other than personal use, and, indeed, recommends that you use a different questionnaire if at all possible?
  • How did the Nudge Unit get hold of the DWP’s e-mail lists, and on what basis did they decide that it was OK to use the unemployed as convenient and presumably compliant guinea pigs?  (Do claimants sign some sort of blanket disclaimer that says that their personal data can be used by other government departments for any purpose whatsoever?)
  • What training are Jobcentre Plus staff receiving to enable them to answer the legitimate questions that jobseekers might bring along after completing the questionnaire?
  • How incompetent with information technology do you have to be to imagine that having someone fill in an e-mail address after answering 48 questions constitutes “proof” that a specific person has performed the exercise?

The government can’t have it both ways.  If they want to use positive psychology to try to improve people’s lives (which is arguably a laudable aim, although even that can be debated), they can’t insist on the “scientific” basis behind that approach while simultaneously creating a pastiche of that science by picking the interesting bits out of popular writing on the subject.

Nor can they launch some massive social engineering experiment without considering its potential effects on vulnerable people.  It would, of course, be absurd to suggest that this is any way comparable to the crimes of Josef Mengele; but the principle that people can not be made to be psychological guinea pigs because of their economic status is surely one human right that even the shrillest UKIPper would support.

Nick Brown (@sTeamTraen) is a student, and occasional critic, of positive psychology.  He doesn’t normally do politics, but is starting to wonder if that’s good enough anymore.


  1. There may be people who have followed this ‘story’ (in inverted commas – it’s far more than ‘human interest’) who now (ironically) feel some degree of relief. Discomfort and distress that these events have happened, clearly, but also a none-too-insignificant relief that at least this one DWP ‘innovation’ was widely reported and there has been an ensuing debate and the validity of its use/the potential repercussions questioned.

    It would be great to think that the recent FOI request from the deputy headteacher of a primary school asking about “The Effects of Sanctions on the Teaching Profession” could be looked-into by ‘The Guardian’ or other mainstream publication. At the last count, there were around 30 supportive and horrified comments left in response to the request, and a similar number of people following the request, waiting to hear the DWP’s reply. Many who made comments are affected directly. Others are detailing the devastation wreaked by ‘sanction’ threats which have been carried out – these are teachers, advice/social workers and people who work in other types of organisations – describing the effects of ‘sanctions’ as they see them daily, in their working lives – not all are public sector workers. As with the articles about this ‘test’, sympathetic/empathic tsunami-like levels of responses appeared almost instantly in the wake of the FOI letter, which (it is the same with the comments) doesn’t always make comfortable reading. (As with ‘Maggie’, these stories are not one-off, isolated examples, and can not be written off as such. They are all-too-obviously part of the much wider picture – a deeply disturbing one that is proving to be dangerous to the lives of children and adults).

    How many are (still) completely unaware of how far back from our starting point (1948) we have ended up and are about to descend? It’s possible to be in work/not claiming any benefits and not obliged to visit the job centre – as well as not on close personal terms with anyone who currently needs to. From certain political perspectives, it’s also possible to allege that the shifts in methodology/ideology which have resulted in these awful accounts are more or less acceptable. But for many more, today’s regime at DWP/JCP quite simply translates as ‘unconscionable’. How altered beyond all recognition things are at ‘World of Unemployment 2013’ may not yet be common knowledge within the general (employed) population (or so it seems).

    Apparently being overlooked by wider society, even with all the talk of cuts and poverty and food banks, is the important fact that JCP/DWP practice today is highly likely to result in increasing feelings of hopelessness if experienced over time. (It’s possible to arrive there feeling relatively healthy, perhaps mentally and physically – but over time this becomes a less sustainable position – even without the introduction of highly questionable psychometric testing). This is not to do with concerns stemming directly from not being able to find work but is the result of feeling that ‘those on the outside’ – at ‘World of Work’ – seem not to know what is now commonplace/’usual’ in our society. Feelings of depression or even despair, and/or other forms of ill health may follow (under the relentless and increasing pressure). In worst-case (but not exceptional) scenarios, dealings with the DWP/JCP can lead to homelessness perhaps followed potentially by premature death. This is not, today, a risk likely to be caused so much by the rigours of unemployment directly, but – as with Yosser Hughes and fellow ex-workers (for those with long memories) – as a result of callous responses offered to those in difficult personal circumstances by ‘the authorities’.

    Previously understood ‘difficulties of being unemployed’ pale into insignificance set against requirements to meet conditionality/risks posed by ‘sanctions’. There’s little time to consider those issues anyway – and going to be even less once the mooted 35-hour/week job search requirement comes into place. The relentless pressure applied leave today’s system of Social Security (or ‘welfare’) unrecognisable compared with what was originally intended/introduced. This is maybe not surprising (times have changed?) but the change in direction/resulting regime of sanctions/conditionality is a shock on first encountering it. (Perhaps this perception varies depending on age/previous understanding of what the term welfare state is/was understood to indicate – but anyone, of whatever age, finding themselves hit by a ‘sanction’ very quickly understand the seriousness of their situation). A few hundred thousand people maybe don’t understand that Social Security no longer works for the majority of claimants as any kind of a ‘safety net’ and is not any longer bound to provide even a basic income during unemployment/ill health. Whereas previously, it would have done this for the vast majority who (it was always accepted) were more than likely to go out and look for – and sooner or later find for themselves – work to be able to continue to support themselves/their family. Anyone who continues in the belief that, at times like these, when the labour market is not in good shape, the response to someone not finding work ‘quickly enough’ or in the ‘right way’ would not by default be to make them feel inadequate/impose a penalty on them/their family through one of a variety of ‘conditions’, is sadly mistaken.

    In a not-very-distant past, a basic level of income if someone was unemployed was the first ‘given’. The second was an understanding that the intention was to offer (in the traditional sense of the word) ‘help’ (in the traditional sense of the word) with finding ‘work’ (in the ,,, etc.). The help offered was there for people who wished to make use of it/needed to take advantage of the service, or there was a particular need for help – then it would be available. Some of the terminology currently in use sounds somehow similar to the language that’s always been used to talk about being unemployed/looking for work – now amended so that almost every previously-understood meaning has been changed – to enable opportunities to increase/escalate requirements placed on ‘job seekers’. (Previously, actual assistance would be given. Now, what exists is a fully-fledged system of persecution, with the application of ever-more unreasonable and excessive rules being forced on to job seekers from every angle, accompanied by threats of destitution if they choose not to/are unable to adhere to them “comply” – or more correctly, if their ‘adviser’ perceives that they did not do so).

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