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.
- 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.