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.