Academic paper: fake DWP psych test is tool of neoliberal manipulation

Back in April, the SKWAWKBOX started to expose how the government, via the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) and David Cameron’s pet project the ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ (BIT), colloquially known as the Nudge Unit, was coercing benefit claimants to take an unvalidated, unscientific psychometric test devised by a US ‘torture guru’ by threatening them with the loss of their benefits if they didn’t comply.

The government claimed that this test was ‘scientifically proven’, but the truth turned out to be very different. The questions used in this psych test were cherry-picked from a larger test issued by a US organisation (the VIA) – and had been used without permission, effectively stolen. Complaints were made to and by the British Psychological Society, and to a healthcare oversight body (the HCPC), leading to the investigation of a top DWP psychologist for approving the use of the ‘test’, and a Guardian article on the topic became one of the most-read on the online version of the paper.

The BIT/DWP test in its original form could be completed without answering any of the questions and would still give a supposed psychometric profile. This was hurriedly corrected once the public became aware of it – but the ‘test’ still gave identical results even if completely opposite answers were entered.

So much for ‘scientifically proven’.

The government’s response betrayed its consternation at the exposure of its behaviour. Denials were issued – then contradicted by accidental omissions, which in turn were denied again. The head of the BIT even wrote a letter to the Guardian denying that anyone had been coerced into taking the test and arguing for its benefits – just as a DWP Freedom of Information response revealed that people had been threatened with benefit sanction if they didn’t take it. And so it continued for many weeks, with new revelations seemingly every few days, including another FOI admission that the ‘expert’ training provided to Jobcentre Plus employees on how to select people for the test was nothing more than an ‘informal chat’ delivered by people who were not trained psychologists.

Much as it will discomfit the government, the matter is not yet over. An important academic paper – according to one of its authors ‘inspired’ by the SKWAWKBOX articles – published by the psychology department of Loughborough University has analysed the ‘test’ and has confirmed the SKWAWKBOX’s conclusion:

The ‘test’ is a scientifically-invalid exercise in psychological manipulation aimed at manoeuvering people into a docile acceptance of the ‘neoliberal’ government ideology driving its determined dehumanisation and demonisation of unemployed people and anyone claiming benefits.

I’d recommend that you read the paper in full here – but here are a few highlights:

A recent UK policy initiative by the Coalition government’s Behavioural Insights Team required benefits claimants to submit to online psychometric testing. We examine this policy in some detail, arguing that this use of psychometric testing is flawed, unethical, and unlikely to help claimants to find work. Our analysis of the test procedure and its results suggests that the policy functions primarily as a means whereby benefit claimants can be ‘nudged’ towards acceptance of the precepts of neoliberal subjectivities.
because unemployment tends to make apparent the many links between inequality and various social problems, during such economic retrenchments “worklessness is typically named as a problem of ‘character’”..This observation may help to explain why the news that jobseekers inEngland were being required to submit to online psychometric testing, which first appeared on a relatively obscure blog in mid-April 2013 (skwalker1964, 2013), was rapidly picked up by mainstream media and became the focus of widespread discussion.
Wiggan’s (2012) discourse analysis of policy documents found that three interlocking themes are now discernible: that the country is ‘racked by worklessness’; that there is a culture of dependency that discourages people from taking up available work; and that current initiatives which emphasise economicrationality and intensify the punitive aspects of the benefit system are necessary reforms.
As previously mentioned, the VIA test seems to have failed validity testing: if this claim is correct, it cannot legitimately be said to be measuring ‘signature strengths’.
This leads to a situation where “the hazard of educational and psychological measurement is that almost anyone can devise his or her own set of rules to assign some numbers to some subjects.
”The contribution of psychometric modelling is fundamentally a political one, as it permits the assimilation of the reality of phenomena that are described in a qualitative way and can at best be partially ordered to an intuitively totally ordered reality, where the social utility rests on the need for comparison of human beings. (Vautier et al., 2012p. 818)
the use of benefit sanctions to compel claimants to take the test challenges both informed consent and the right to withdraw; and the instruction to email results to benefits advisers seems to disregard confidentiality and anonymity.
It is clear that there is a coercive power relation at play here: if you do not take this test you may not receive your benefits. However, we want to suggest that other more subtle power relations permeate the entire procedure and are, in fact, crucial to an understanding of its logic. 

Foucault’s (2008) analysis of neoliberalism highlighted the way in which it represents a reconfiguration of human nature and the social order in accord with the dictates and demands of the market, and that in so doing it implied a new kind of subject. It is in this sense a particular instance of governmentality, i.e. “a particular mentality, a particular manner of governing, that is actualised in habits, perceptions and subjectivity”
[By taking this ‘test’] they actually rehearse the very practice of remaking theself that neoliberal governmentality demands.
The authors also highlight:
  • how the ‘results’ provided by the so-called test are skewed to emphasise individual responsibility but omit items from the original VIA test that encourage a wider sense of social responsibility – that of standing up for social justice and fairness, challenging prejudice and protecting the disadvantaged.
  • how the test appears designed to “promote docile acceptance of the socialposition currently being carved out for claimants

and much more.

Please take the time to read the paper, and save it for future reference. Please also spread the word – it deserves to be widely read, and how this government regards us deserves to be widely exposed.Thank you.


  1. This passage seems to me to be hugely significant “how the ‘results’ provided by the so-called test are skewed to emphasise individual responsibility but omit items from the original VIA test that encourage a wider sense of social responsibility – that of standing up for social justice and fairness, challenging prejudice and protecting the disadvantaged.” So, someone who understands these things well enough to do so has gone through the original VIA test and carefully pruned out the relevant passages. It’s antisocial, then, malevolent in intent, and it’s all been carefully and deliberately done. I wonder if they were supplied by Unum and also why we as taxpayers are paying for this? I can’t help wondering too if fear of having to answer questions on this subject are part of the reason IDS is ducking the select committee he’s supposed to be appearing in front of http://jaynelinney.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/the-conspicuous-absence-of-ids/ What on earth could possibly justify this sort of behaviour from a minister who’s supposed to be working for the public good?

  2. Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    More embarrassment for the government after its fake psychological test for benefit claimants was subjected to the spotlight of university research. Vox Political has been enjoying the progress of this story over on Skwawkbox, and this latest chapter continues to provide excellent ammunition against an ideologically-motivated government that will do anything to get its own way.

  3. Foucault’s gaining more and more relevance with every passing day. What with governmentality, and the panopticon of surveillance. Glad to see someone’s taken an academic stick to this piece of nonsense. One day all of this will be over. If it isn’t we are *all* going to be living the kind of lives only imagined in the worst kind of dystopic fantasy. The time to resist is now. Good luck to everyone who is playing their part in that. Excellent work, Skwawkbox.

  4. This is but one example of how government rhetoric and policy implementation are trying to move the goalposts of reality. This is clearly one reason why the government (or ruling/metropolitan elite if you prefer) seem, and indeed are, so out of touch with ORDINARY people and why the average man or woman in the street feels so powerless when this elite recurrently and relentlessly imposes seemingly daft or incoherent things on them. Things they would never impose on their next-door neighbour. Criminal justice, postal services, education ….
    And Health. Local people know the value of and reassurance provided by local secondary care hospitals/DGHs, know full well they don’t provide everything but find they are powerless to stop closures and downgrading all over the country by aloof men in suits despite perfectly sensible arguments for retaining these services. The government’s reality (“financially unsustainable” etc etc) just doesn’t accord with their own (or, actually, objective assessment of the facts in many cases e.g. Lewisham). A recent local health service meeting ended with a patient, boiling over with frustration, walking out shouting “why can’t you just eff off back to London and let the hospital get on with it?!” If the population weren’t so ground down, there would be riots in the streets.

  5. You can get the PDF version of the paper by going to academia.edu and signing on. It can then be downloaded. That’s the site Steve Walker highlighted above, as ‘here.’

  6. We HATE to be manipulated. Being lied to about going to war just to appease a pretzel eater was bad enough. Worse is being lied to endlessly by thieving louts purporting to represent us while they accept bribes, smear those providing services, bully the most vulnerable & scheme to line the pockets of colleagues and party funders. But worst is the deliberate calculated cold misuse of scientific techniques to secretly manipulate those supposedly being represented, by an arrogant clique feigning obliviousness to both implementation and consequences.

  7. You are to be congratulated Steve, for all your efforts with this story and the eventual outcome.

    I have never seen such cruelty or unacceptable behaviour from a government department that should be helping and supporting people.

    Instead, people are frightened, stressed and some even commit or contemplate suicide.

    I am currently involved with such a case. My heart breaks at times. 🙁

    1. This same attitude underlies cuts in public provision. Examples – underfunding and endless messing around with schools or removal of local health provision. Result – upper middle classes access the best free provision or pay for “better”; ordinary folks, especially the poor either don’t access anything (hooray, saving for HMG) or get considerably poorer in the attempt. The rich-poor gap has been widening for some time in monetary terms but it’s by no means the only impoverishment. Excuse me if I’m just, well, appalled.

  8. On Tuesday 15th October, Dole Animators launched their film with a successful roundtable event at the House of Commons.

    The group also took to the airwaves and the television studios, to try and get the film out to the widest audience possible. The film was discussed on BBC Radio Leeds & Newcastle, on BBC Look North and in articles in The Guardian, The Daily Mirror and The Yorkshire Evening Post.


  9. Recently stated by a (smiling) JCP ‘adviser’:
    “You seem to me to be quite passive/aggressive … you are speaking quietly. Perhaps being like that at interviews could be the reason you haven’t been able to get a job?”.
    (Gobsmacked silence)

    Their manager was eventually called across and the subject didn’t recur (though the ‘diagnosis’ could have been noted/recorded). what might have been next on the agenda if that line of questioning/accusation had been allowed to continue?

  10. Yes & while this Govt dishonestly pretends to support NHS whistleblowers (while not disavowing the GMC guidelines against anonymous use of social media for this purpose, etc), supposedly in order to help expose bad care (poor care ultimately due to pressure from management to meet Govt targets), they are deliberately replicating an even worse destructive pressure across the whole public sector – but with no evident parallel wish to expose all its horrific consequences, meted out on a vast scale and experienced by a much greater number of the most vulnerable and those least willing or free or able to withstand the onslought.

    1. Colchester a case in point.
      Watch the government and their agents deal with the problem BUT NOT the underlying causes of the problem!

      1. Exactly. It’s ghastly the way this Govt forces its own narrow free market ideology – an ideology only recently shown in the financial crash to be inherently unstable – onto a vital public service.

        I happen to owe a great debt to a doctor in Colchester A&E. One bank holiday a dog bit through my nose and, if the doctor hadn’t been sufficiently skilled to clean, reassemble & expertly sew the torn bits back, I may’ve required plastic surgery at a later date instead.

        How many more idealogically driven policies are to be imposed top-down on services already struggling from depleted morale due to pressures management pass down in order to meet targets or gain Trust status.

        It’s a mess, the type of mess the Govt may “deal with” or patch up sufficiently to veil the underlying causes until the next election – but their eagerness to sport such an “NHS burka” may not suffice to prevent voters correctly interpreting their less than subtle body(-blow) language as calamitous long before then.

  11. We feel impelled to make just one complaint on behalf of the SkwarkBox. It is NOT a “relatively obscure blog”. It’s tottering dangerously close to being not only the best but pretty darn famous.

  12. “how the ‘results’ provided by the so-called test are skewed to emphasise individual responsibility but omit items from the original VIA test that encourage a wider sense of social responsibility – that of standing up for social justice and fairness, challenging prejudice and protecting the disadvantaged.”

    That’s interesting, and potentially revealing.

  13. A couple more for your collection.

    Whitehall sells pioneering ‘Nudge Unit’ for £2m… and will now pay for its services

    How the Government’s successful Behaviour Insights Team has had a profound effect on Whitehall

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