I regularly write to raise concerns about the current government’s misuse of psychology in public policies and research. There has been a shift towards the formulation of targeted, prejudiced, class contingent policies which have the central aim of “changing behaviours” and enforcing “compliance” and conformity. This behaviourist approach has some profound implications for democracy. It constrains autonomy and curtails the basic liberties of targeted citizens, it does not include safeguards or a space for citizens’ qualitative accounts and feedback, while also excluding them from any political consideration of their human rights.
On the government website, a contract finder notice for the “Provision of Research Laboratory Facilities” for the Department for Work and Pensions says:
“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) requires research to be undertaken, in a research laboratory environment, with recipients of the Carers Allowance and recipients of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
In a typical lab situation DWP shall have one DWP researcher in a room with the participant and other DWP researchers (if appropriate) and invited observers behind a two way mirror evaluating what is happening. As well as viewing the interview they can also see the activity on the web screen via monitors in their room.
The proceedings are currently recorded on MP4 for subsequent use when research findings are being reported. The participants cannot see the people in the viewing facility though they know they are there. There needs to be flexibility to be able to undertake the research in the North West and Leeds and be able to recruit for participants to attend a Government Lab set up at Aviation House in London WC2B 6NH.”
Northern Voices T/A The Talking Shop is a Manchester based market research and public opinion polling company that has been awarded the contract in June this year. This company will be paid up to £60,000 for experimenting on sick and disabled claimants, using covert observation from behind a two-way mirror, studying eye movements, facial expressions and body language.
Eye movement measurements are frequently used, though controversially, in criminal psychology, too, as a somewhat unreliable method of “lie detection.” Questions arise regarding precisely how eye movements, perception and cognition are related, and to date, this question hasn’t been answered by academics.
It struck me that the experimental set up is very reminiscent of the social psychology experiments conducted in the 60s and early 70s to study social conformity and obedience to authority. However, the welfare “reforms” were specifically designed to coerce people claiming welfare into conformity – “to do the ‘right thing'”- and compliance with a harsh “conditionality” regime and ever-shrinking eligibility criteria. It’s hardly a secret that the New Right Conservatives and neoliberals have always loathed the welfare state, and along with the other social gains of our post-war settlement, it is being systematically dismantled.
The wider context is significant, both in terms of its impact on individual citizen’s experiences and behaviours, and on the way that theory is formulated to conflate and align citizen’s needs with neoliberal outcomes, and this is also reflected in how research is being designed and used.
In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team has been testing libertarian paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various policy “treatments.” A lot of the actual research work is contracted out to private providers. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists and profit-driven private companies are less transparent in conducting behavioural research “interventions.” There are no ethical and safeguarding guidelines in place to protect participants.
Earlier this year I wrote about a Department for Work and Pensions Trial that was about “testing whether conditionality and the use of financial sanctions are effective for people that need to claim benefits in low paid work.” A secretly released document (which said: “This document is for internal use only and should not be shared with external partners or claimants.”) was particularly focused on methods of enforcing the “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security.
Evaluation of the Trial will be the responsibility of the Labour Market Trials Unit (LMTU). Evaluation will “measure the impact of the Trial’s 3 group approaches, but understand more about claimant attitudes to progression over time and how the Trial has influenced behaviour changes.”
Worryingly, claimant participation in the Trial was mandatory. There was no appropriate procedure to obtain and record clearly informed consent from research participants. Furthermore, the Trial is founded on a coercive psychomanagement and political approach to labour market constraints, and is clearly expressed as a psychological intervention, explicitly aimed at “behavioural change” and this raises some serious concerns about the lack of research ethics and codes of conduct in government research. It’s also very worrying that this “intervention” is to be delivered by non-qualified work coaches.
The British Psychological Society (BPS) have issued a code of ethics in psychology that provides guidelines for the conduct of research. Some of the more important and pertinent ethical considerations are as follows:
- Informed Consent.
Participants must be given the following information:
- A statement that participation is voluntary and that refusal to participate will not result in any consequences or any loss of benefits that the person is otherwise entitled to receive.
- Purpose of the research.
- Procedures involved in the research.
- All foreseeable risks and discomforts to the participant (if there are any). These include not only physical injury but also possible psychological.
- Subjects’ right to confidentiality and the right to withdraw from the study at any time without any consequences.
Protection of Participants
- Researchers must ensure that those taking part in research will not be caused distress. They must be protected from physical and mental harm. This means you must not embarrass, frighten, offend or harm participants.
- Normally, the risk of harm must be no greater than in ordinary life, i.e. participants should not be exposed to risks greater than or additional to those encountered in their normal lifestyles. Withdrawing lifeline support that is calculated to meet the costs of only minimum requirements for basic survival – food, fuel and shelter – as a punishment for non-compliance WILL INVARIABLY cause distress, harm and loss of dignity for the subjects that are coerced into participating in this Trial. Participants should be able to leave a study at any time if they feel uncomfortable.
Behavioural “rights” and the politics of moralising
In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing libertarian paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting behavioural research and designing policy interventions.
Consent to a therapy or research protocol must possess a minimum of three features in order to be valid. These are: it should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject must be be adequately informed of the details.This raises some serious concerns about experimental social research, especially when it may involve people with mental health disabilities who may be highly vulnerable.
It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the nudge theory of “cognitive bias,” for example. The extended use of sanctions in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 was originally advised by the Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) back in 2010. It was based on the manipulation of an alleged cognitive bias that we have – loss aversion – and designed as a method of coercing conformity to increasingly unreasonable state-imposed conditionality rules, and as punishment for the perceived “non-compliance” of unemployed people.
There is nothing to prevent a government deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies. How appropriate is it to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example?
The fact that this government regards work as a “health outcome” should raise alarm bells. (Please see: Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records). The government have already stigmatised unemployment, and redefined it as a psychological disorder.
Furthermore, the research models being used are framed by a profoundly undemocratic conservative positivism, which emphasises directed quantitative data collection and excludes the accounts, experiences, narratives and language of research participants. Much of the research is prejudiced, and starts from an authoritarian premise that people experiencing socioeconomic problems do so because they make the “wrong choices” and that they need to be “incentivised to change their behaviours”.
An element of the “laboratory research environment” research went ahead in March last year. It’s stated aim was to “to improve the Carer’s Allowance Digital Service.” The recruitment brief specifies that:
“These self employed people shouldn’t have accounts prepared by an accountant however it’s mandatory that they bring with them details of their self-employment eg a log book or papers of incoming and outgoings. We also need these people to be looking after someone who has a disability.”
It’s become normalised that many millionaires avoid paying taxes and contributing to the society that they have gained so much from. I don’t see anyone intimidating them, demanding details of their “incoming and outgoings,” yet that would profit society far, far more.
Wouldn’t you think that if this were genuinely about supporting carers using software or accessing services online, it would be designed to be USER LED – a direct face-to-face approach would be the usual way, with an input from those service users, which is qualitative and much more reliable, authentic and useful than the account of a group of strangers hiding behind mirrored glass, observing people and applying controversial psychology techniques.
Measuring eye movements is usually coupled with other more inclusive qualitative methodologies, such as introspective verbal protocols, since used on its own, it is unreliable in that it fails to indicate specific kinds of cognitive processing or content. This dialogic approach, however, isn’t included in the government’s research brief. (Please see The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation.)
The central premise of justifications for “behavioural interventions” is that the general public has numerous cognitive biases that lead to “faulty” decision-making. Current research and interventions are largely aimed at the poorest citizens, however, exposing a government bias that wealthy people are somehow cognitively competent. Yet many of this powerful, hoarding minority class want to see worker’s rights, welfare support and our public services dismantled. Not a rational or civilised class, on the whole, then.
As I have previously stated, the behavioural approach removes people from the socioeconomic and political context that they inhabit and isolates them from meaningful and impacting socio-structural events and political decision-making, placing the burden of responsibility and obligation entirely within those who are suffering the consequences of neoliberal policies. In a such an economic system of “market forces” based on competition, there are invariably winners and losers. It’s hardly rational or fair to punish those who are simply adversely affected by an intrinsically flawed and unfair system of socioeconomic organisation.
Can you imagine the government carrying out this kind of research and stigmatising, intimidating methodology on billionaires interacting with their accountants, completing their tax returns or interacting with their offshore banks? No, I thought not.
It’s noteworthy that current Nudge Unit policy is to keep those being targeted for nudges “naive” as people tend to temporarily alter their behaviour when they know they are being observed and that skews research results. In sociology and social psychology, this is called the Hawthorne effect.
However, that approach is profoundly incompatible with established ethical research frameworks, which, as I’ve outlined, always specify a central requirement of participants’ informed consent.
Similarly, the starting premise of laboratory usability testing is that “what people say they do with products is not always what they actually do.” In other words, we cannot trust the public to tell us what they need.
Userbility testing, an American import, is designed to “target” users’ needs and preferences by observing their behaviour. However, a big part of the motivation for this kind of research is “Building credibility for usability activities within an organization.” The government often use research like this to formulate justification narratives for controversial, coercive and punitive policies.
Democracy is meant to involve the election of a government that reflects on social problems objectively, recognises and serves public needs, and that designs policy in response to what citizens actually need; it’s not about governments that coerce people to “change their behaviour” in accordance to a partisan, ideological agenda. We call the kind of government that does that “totalitarian.”
I am not the only person who is very concerned about this development.
A spokesperson for Fightback 4 Justice said:
“This is the company that has won the tender experimenting with Carers claimants using body language techniques and 2 way mirrors. If anyone gets called into one of these meetings please get in touch as I’d be happy to attend. I am very very concerned about a potential breach of a person’s human rights here particularly where mental health is one of the claimants conditions. Nothing about this “study” seems ethical in my legal opinion. A room with a 2 way mirror and capacity for 12 people studying body language and facial expressions is wrong in so many ways, DWP are giving the wrong impression that claimants are potential criminals with this latest research in my view.” Michelle (legal advocate).
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