Tag: Operant conditioning

Jobcentre tells GP to stop issuing sick notes to patient assessed as ‘fit for work’ and he died.

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Abbie and her late father, James Harrison.

Julia Savage is a manager at Birkenhead Benefit Centre in Liverpool. She wrote a letter addressed to a GP regarding a seriously ill patient. It said:

“We have decided your patient is capable of work from and including January 10, 2016.

“This means you do not have to give your patient more medical certificates for employment and support allowance purposes unless they appeal against this decision.

“You may need to again if their condition worsens significantly, or they have a new medical condition.” 

The patient, James Harrison, had been declared “fit for work” and the letter stated that he should not get further medical certificates. 

However, 10 months after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contacted his doctor without telling him, James died, aged 55, the Daily Record has reported.

He was clearly not fit for work.

His grieving daughter, Abbie, said: “It’s a disgrace that managers at the Jobcentre, who know nothing about medicine, should interfere in any way in the relationship between a doctor and a patient.

“They have no place at all telling a doctor what they should or shouldn’t give a patient. It has nothing to do with them.

“When the Jobcentre starts to get involved in telling doctors about the health of their patients, that’s a really slippery slope.”

Abbie said James had worked since leaving school at a community centre near his home. But his already poor health went downhill after the centre was shut down because of austerity cuts.

James had a serious lung condition and a hernia before the centre closed, and also developed depression and anxiety afterwards.

Abbie said: “He’d worked all his life. He wasn’t the kind of guy who knew anything about benefits.

“But as his health deteriorated, there wasn’t any chance he could do a job. He applied for employment and support allowance.”

James received Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but only at the low rate of £70 a week, the same amount as jobseekers’ allowance. He was then sent to attend one of the DWP’s controversial Work Capability Assessments – and declared fit for work.

Despite that decision, Abbie said James remained in constant need of medical help and had to visit his doctor regularly.

However, the GP concerned repeatedly refused to give him a sick note, and James began to suspect the Jobcentre were to blame for this.

Abbie said: “He really needed a note. He was too ill to go to the constant appointments at the Jobcentre and he didn’t want to be sanctioned.

“He became convinced the DWP had been talking to his doctor behind his back.”

Although Abbie felt her father was confused, and didn’t think his explanation was right at the time, she later asked to see her father’s medical records. She found the letter in his file from Julia Savage, the manager at Birkenhead Benefit Centre, in James’s home city of Liverpool.

The letter was addressed to James’s GP.

Context: Government claims that work is a “health outcome”

James Harrison was very worried that his ill health interfered with his obligation to comply with the inflexible and constant conditions attached to his eligibility for welfare support, and that this would lead to sanctions – the withdrawal of his lifeline support, which was calculated to meet basic survival needs only.

The GP should have provided evidence that this was the case. The doctor was advised not to provide further fit notes by the DWP, however, unless James appealed. Yet the circumstances warranted that the GP provide a fit note. 

fit-note-guidance

Last year, the Department for Work and Pensions issued an ideologically directed new guidance to GPs regarding when they should issue a Fit Note. This was updated in December 2016.

In the document, doctors are warned of the dangers of “worklessness” and told they must consider “the vital role that work can play in your patient’s health”.  According to the department, “the evidence is clear that patients benefit from being in some kind of regular work”.

The biopsychosocial model, with a current political emphasis on the psychological element, has become a disingenuous euphemism for psychosomatic illness, which has been exploited by successive governments (and rogue insurance companies) to limit or deny access to social security, medical and social care.

Nobody would deny that illness has biological, psychological and social dimensions, however, the model has been adapted to fit a neoliberal “small state” ideology – one that rests almost entirely on Conservative individualist notions of citizen responsibility, as opposed to a rights-based approach and provision of publicly funded state support.

This approach to disability and ill health has been used by the government to purposefully question the extent to which people claiming social security bear personal responsibility for their own health status, rehabilitation and prompt return to work. It also leads to the alleged concern that a welfare system which was originally designed to provide a livable income to those with disabling health problems, may provide “perverse incentives” for perverse behaviours, entrenching “worklessness” and a “culture of dependency”. It’s worth pointing out at this point that there has never been any empirical evidence to support the Conservative notion of welfare “dependency”. 

Instead of being viewed as a way of diversifying risk and supporting those who have suffered misfortune and ill health, social and private insurance systems are to be understood as perverse incentives that pay people, absurdly, to remain ill and keep them from being economically productive.

The idea that people remain ill deliberately to avoid returning to work  – what Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron have termed “the sickness benefit culture” – is not only absurd, it’s very offensive. This is a government that not only disregards the professional judgements of doctors, it also disregards the judgements of sick and disabled people. However, we have learned over the last decade that political “management” of people’s medical conditions does not make people healthier or suddenly able to work. Government policies, designed to “change behaviours” of sick and disabled people have resulted in harm, distress and sometimes, in premature deaths

The government have made it clear that there are plans to merge health and employment services. In a move that is both unethical and likely to present significant risk of harm to many patients, health professionals are being tasked to deliver benefit cuts for the DWP. This involves measures to support the imposition of work cures, including setting employment as a clinical outcome and allowing medically unqualified job coaches to directly update a patient’s medical record.

The Conservatives (and the Reform think tank) have also proposed mandatory treatment for people with long term conditions (which was first flagged up in the Conservative Party Manifesto) and this is currently under review, including whether benefit entitlements should be linked to “accepting appropriate treatments or support/taking reasonable steps towards “rehabilitation”.  The work, health and disability green paper and consultation suggests that people with the most severe illnesses in the support group may be subjected to welfare conditionality and sanctions.

Many campaigners have raised concerns about the DWP interfering with people’s medical care and accessing their medical files. I wrote an article last year about how the government plans to merge health and employment services and are now attempting to redefine work as a clinical outcome. I raised concerns about the fact that unemployment has been stigmatised and politically redefined as a psychological disorder, and that the government claims, somewhat incoherently, that the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability, and sickness absence from work, is work.

In a critical analysis of the recent work, health and disability green paper, I said: 

“And apparently qualified doctors, the public and our entire health and welfare systems have ingrained “wrong” ideas about sickness and disability, especially doctors, who the government feels should not be responsible for issuing the Conservatives recent Orwellian “fit notes” any more, since they haven’t “worked” as intended and made every single citizen economically productive from their sick beds.

It seems likely, then, that a new “independent” assessment and some multinational private company will most likely very soon have a lucrative role to ensure the government get the “right” results.”

The medical specialists are to be replaced by another profiteering corporate giant who will enforce a political agenda in return for big bucks from the public purse. Health care specialists are seeing their roles being incrementally and systematically  de-professionalised. That means more atrocious and highly irrational attempts from an increasingly authoritarian government at imposing an ideological “cure” – entailing the withdrawal of any support and imposing punitive “behavioural incentives” – on people with medical conditions and disabilities. Doctors, who are clever enough to recognise, diagnose and treat illness, are suddenly deemed by this government to be insufficiently clever to judge if patients are fit for work.

The political de-professionalisation of medicine, medical science and specialisms (consider, for example, the implications of permitting job coaches to update patient medical files), the merging of health and employment services and the recent absurd declaration that work is a clinical “health” outcome, are all carefully calculated strategies that serve as an ideological prop and add to the justification rhetoric regarding the intentional political process of dismantling publicly funded state provision, and the subsequent stealthy privatisation of Social Security and the National Health Service. 

“De-medicalising” illness is also a part of that process:

“Behavioural approaches try to extinguish observed illness behaviour by withdrawal of negative reinforcements such as medication, sympathetic attention, rest, and release from duties, and to encourage healthy behaviour by positive reinforcement: ‘operant-conditioning’ using strong feedback on progress.” Gordon Waddell and Kim Burton in Concepts of rehabilitation for the management of common health problems. The Corporate Medical Group, Department for Work and Pensions, UK. 

Waddell and Burton are cited frequently by the DWP as providing “evidence” that their policies are “evidence based.” Yet the DWP have selectively funded their research, which unfortunately frames and constrains the theoretical starting point, research processes and the outcomes with a heavy ideological bias. 

This framing simply shifts the focus from the medical conditions that cause illness and disability to the “incentives”, behaviours and perceptions of patients and ultimately, to neoliberal notions of personal responsibility and self-sufficient citizenship in a context of a night watchman, non-welfare state. 

Medication, rest, release from duties, sympathetic understanding – the remedies to illness – are being appallingly redefined as “perverse incentives” for ill health, yet the symptoms necessarily precede the prescription of medication, the Orwellian renamed (and political rather than medical) “fit note” and exemption from work duties. Notions of “rehabilitation” and medicine are being redefined as behaviour modification: here it is proposed that operant conditioning in the form of negative reinforcement – which the authors seem to have confused with punishment – will “cure” ill health. 

People cannot simply be “incentivised” into not being ill. 

The political use of the biopsychosocial model to cut costs at the expense of people who are ill will undoubtedly have further extremely serious implications. Such an approach, which draws on behaviourism and punishment (such as the threat and implementation of sanctions) is extremely unethical and makes the issue of consent to medical treatment very problematic if it is linked to the loss of lifeline support or the fear of loss of benefits.

This is clearly the direction that government policy is moving in and this represents a serious threat to the health, welfare, wellbeing and human rights of patients and the political independence of health professionals.

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Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, cult thinking and neoliberalism

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Dr Robert J. Lifton is a psychologist who studied and identified the techniques of mass persuasion and groupthink used in propaganda and in cults (from political to religious). I found his interesting article about the eight criteria for “thought reform” on the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) site.

What struck me immediately about Lifton’s criteria is how easily they may be applied to neoliberalism – a totalising, authoritarian New Right ideology, imposed by an elite of very financially secure and powerful oppressors. Over the last few years, much of the rest of the population in the UK have experienced growing inequality and increasingly precarious socioeconomic circumstances, exacerbated by class-contingent neoliberal austerity and “small state” policies.

The neoliberal approach to public policy has become naturalised. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama, announced in 1992 that the great ideological battles between “east and west” were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. He was dubbed the “court philosopher of [post-industrial] global capitalism” by John Gray.

In his book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama wrote:

“At the end of history, it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society…..What we are witnessing, is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

I always saw Fukuyama as an ardent champion of ultra-neoliberalism, he disguised his conservatism behind apparently benign virtue words and phrases (as part of a propaganda technique called Glittering Generalities), such as “Man’s universal right to freedom.” 

He meant the same sort of self-interested “freedom” as Ayn Rand: “a free mind and a free market are corollaries.” He meant the same kind of implicit social Darwinist notions long held by Conservatives like Herbert Spencer – where the conditions of the market rather than evolution decides who is “free,” who survives, and as we know, the market is rigged by the invisible hand of government.

Fukuyama’s ideas have been absorbed culturally, and serve to normalise the dominance of the right, and stifle the rationale for critical debate.

Fukuyama’s work is a celebration of neoliberal hegemony. It’s an important work to discuss simply because it has been so widely and tacitly accepted, and because of that, some of the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions and ramifications need to be made explicit. 

Neoliberalism requires an authoritarian approach to public administration. Rather than an elected government recognising and meeting public needs, instead, we now have a government manipulating citizens to adapt their views, behaviours and circumstances to meet the politically defined needs of the state. This turns democracy on its head. It is also presents us with a political framework that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations and equality legislation. 

Government policies have become increasingly irrational.  We have a government that has decided work is a health outcome, for example. In an absurd world where medical sick notes have been politically redefined as fit notes, sick and disabled people are apparently no longer exempt from work, which is now held to be a magic “cure”. The only way out of the politically imposed punitive and increasing poverty for those who cannot work is… to work. (See: Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records.) 

Neoliberalism has become a doxa in the Western world. Here in the UK, citizen behaviours are being aligned with politically defined neoliberal outcomes, via policies that extend behaviour modification techniques, based on methodological behaviourism. Policies that “incentivise” have become the norm. This is a psychocratic approach to administration: the government are delivering public policies that have an expressed design and aim to act upon individuals, with an implicit set of instructions that inform citizens how they should be

Aversives and punishment protocols are most commonly used. Coercive welfare policies are one example of this. The recent eugenics by stealth policy entailing the restricting of welfare support to two children only is another. Both were introduced with the explicitly stated political intention of “changing behaviours” of poorer citizens. Those that cannot or will not conform are politically stigmatised and outgrouped, as well as being being further “disciplined” by state-imposed economic sanctions.

Another particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas that are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy. Every Conservative campaign has been a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control.

Communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of your beliefs and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo. (See also: Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism.)

As a frame of analysis, Lifton’s criteria are very useful in highlighting parallels between cult thinking and how political dogma may gain an illusion of consensus; how it becomes a dominant paradigm and is accepted as everyday “common sense.” 

Kitty.

Lifton’s criteria for “thought reform” are:

  1. Milieu Control.  This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

  2. Mystical Manipulation.  There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes. (This can include “natural order” ideas and political doxa.) 
  3. Demand for Purity.  The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.  The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here. (Stigma and political outgrouping is used to deter and exile non-conformists.)
  4. Confession.  Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.  There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders. (Mainstream media have bombarded us with “confessions” of “scroungers”, for example. The lives and experiences of those out of work have become public moral “property.”)
  5. Sacred Science.  The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.  Truth is not to be found outside the group.  The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism. (Ties in with Conservative notions of a “natural social order”)
  6. Loading the Language.  The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.  This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking. (See Glittering Generalities and The Conservatives are colonising progressive rhetoric.)
  7. Doctrine over person.  Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. 
  8. Dispensing of existence.  The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.  This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology.  If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the  members.  Thus, the outside world loses all credibility.  In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.  (Lifton, 1989)

*Italics in blue added by me.

Related

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.

 

Link: The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour changegcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1


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A critique of Conservative notions of social research

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The goverment’s archaic positivist approach to social research shows that they need a team of sociologists and social psychologists, rather than the group of “libertarian paternalists” – behavioural economists – at the heart of the cabinet office, who simply nudge the public to behave how they deem appropriate, according to a rigid, deterministic, reductive neoliberal agenda and traditional, class-contingent Conservative prejudices.

 

Glossary

Epistemology – The study or theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits, reliability and validity. It’s invariably linked with how a researcher perceives our relationship with the world and what “social reality” is (ontology), and how we ought to investigate that world (methodology). For example, in sociology, some theorists held that social structures largely determine our behaviour, and so behaviour is predictable and objectively measurable, others emphasise human agency, and believe that we shape our own social reality to a degree, and that it’s mutually and meaningfully negotiated and unfixed. Therefore, detail of how we make sense of the world and navigate it is important.

Interpretivism – In sociology, interpretivists assert that the social world is fundamentally unlike the natural world insofar as the social world is meaningful in a way that the natural world is not. As such, social phenomena cannot be studied in the same way as natural phenomena. Interpretivism is concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena, and establishing basic cause and effect relationships.

Libertarian paternalism – The idea that it is both possible and legitimate for governments, public and private institutions to affect and change the behaviours of citizens whilst also [controversially] “respecting freedom of choice.”

MethodologyA system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity to collect data. In the social sciences there has been disagreement as to whether validity or reliability ought to take priority, which reflected ontological and epistemological differences amongst researchers, with positivism, broadly speaking, being historically linked with structural theories of society – Emile Durkheim’s structural-functionalism, for example – and quantitative methods, usually involving response-limiting surveys, closed-ended questionaires and statistical data collection, whereas interpretive perspectives, such as symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, tend to be associated with qualitative methods, favoring open-ended questionaires, interviews and participant observation.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many sociologists recognising the value of both means of data collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism. Qualitative methods tend to be more inclusive, lending participants a dialogic, democratic voice regarding their experiences.

Ontology – A branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of reality and being. It’s important because each perspective within the social sciences is founded on a distinct ontological view.

Positivism – In sociology particularly, the view that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws, and that all authentic knowledge is that which is verified. However, the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Positivism tends to present superficial and descriptive rather than in-depth and explanatory accounts of social phenomena. In psychology, behaviourism has been the doctrine most closely associated with positivism. Behaviour from this perspective can be described and explained without the need to make ultimate reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. Psychology is, according to behaviourists, the “science” of behaviour, and not the mind.

Critical realism – Whilst positivists and empiricists more generally, locate causal relationships at the level of observable surface events, critical realists locate them at the level of deeper, underlying generative mechanisms. For example, in science, gravity is an underlying mechanism that is not directly observable, but it does generate observable effects. In sociology, on a basic level, Marx’s determining base (which determines superstructure) may be regarded as a generative mechanism which gives rise to emergent and observable properties.

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) – RCT is a positivist research model in which people are randomly assigned to an intervention or a control (a group with no intervention) and this allows comparisons to be made. Widely accepted as the “gold standard” for clinical trials, the foundation for evidence-based medicine, RCTs are used to establish causal relationships. These kinds of trials usually have very strict ethical safeguards to ensure the fair and ethical treatment of all participants, and these safeguards are especially essential in government trials, given the obvious power imbalances and potential for abuse. A basic principle expressed in the Nuremberg Code is the respect due to persons and the value of a person’s autonomy, for example.

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing 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 research and testing public policy interventions. Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed. 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 theory of “loss aversion,” for example.

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?

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The increasing conditionality and politicisation of “truths”

The goverment often claim that any research revealing negative social consequences arising from their draconian policies, which they don’t like to be made public “doesn’t establish a causal link.”  Recently there has been a persistent, aggressive and flat denial that there is any “causal link” between the increased use of food banks and increasing poverty, between benefit sanctions and extreme hardship and harm, between the work capability assessment and an increase in numbers of deaths and suicides, for example.

The government are referring to a scientific maxim: “Correlation doesn’t imply causality.” 

It’s true that correlation is not the same as causation.

It’s certainly true that no conclusion may be drawn regarding the existence or the direction of a cause and effect relationship only from the fact that event A and event B are correlated. Determining whether there is an actual cause and effect relationship requires further investigation. The relationship is more likely to be causal if the correlation coefficient is large and statistically significant, as a general rule of thumb. (For anyone interested in finding out more about quantitative research methods, inferential testing and statistics, this is a good starting point – Inferential Statistics.)

Here are some minimal conditions to consider in order to establish causality, taken from Hills criteria:

  • Strength: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.
  • Coherence: A relationship is more likely to be causal if it is compatible with related facts and theories.
  • Analogy: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there are proven relationships between similar causes and effects.
  • Specificity: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is no other likely explanation.
  • Temporality: A relationship is more likely to be causal if the effect always occurs after the cause.
  • Gradient: A relationship is more likely to be causal if a greater exposure to the suspected cause leads to a greater effect.
  • Plausibility: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.

Hill’s criteria can be thought of as elements within a broader process of critical thinking in research, as careful considerations in the scientific method or model for deciding if a relationship involves causation. The criteria don’t all have to be met to suggest causality and it may not even be possible to meet them in every case. The important point is that we can consider the criteria as part of a careful and relatively unbiased research process. We can also take other precautionary steps, such as ensuring that there are no outliers or excessive uncontrolled variance, ensuring the populations sampled are representative and generally taking care in our research design, for example.

However, it is inaccurate to say that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It quite often does.

Furthermore, the government are implying that social research is valid only if it conforms to strict and archaic positivist criteria, and they attempt to regularly dismiss the propositions and research findings of social scientists as being “value-laden” or by implying that they are, at least. However, it may also be said that values enter into social inquiry at every level, including decisions to research a social issue or not, decisions to accept established correlations and investigate further, or not, which transforms research into a political act. (One only need examine who is potentially empowered or disempowered through any inquiry and note the government response to see this very clearly).

It’s noteworthy that when it comes to government claims, the same methodological rigour that they advocate for others isn’t applied. Indeed, many policies have clearly been directed by ideology and traditional Tory prejudices, rather than valid research and empirical evidence. For example, it is widely held by the Conservatives that work is the “only route out of poverty”. Yet since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Tory-led Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards. Many people in work, as a consequence, are now in poverty, empirically contradicting government claims.

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So what is positivism?

Positivism was a philosophical and political movement which enjoyed a very wide currency in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was extensively discredited during the twentieth century.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857,) who was regarded by many as the founding father of social sciences, particularly sociology, and who coined the term “positivism,” was a Conservative. He believed social change should happen only as part of an organic, gradual evolutionary process, and he placed value on traditional social order, conventions and structures. Although the notion of positivism was originally claimed to be about the sovereignty of positive (verified) value-free, scientific facts, its key objective was politically Conservative. Positivism in Comte’s view was “the only guarantee against the communist invasion.” (Therborn, 1976: 224).

The thing about the fact-value distinction is that those who insist on it being rigidly upheld the loudest generally tend to use it the most to disguise their own whopping great ideological commitments. In psychology, we call this common defence mechanism splitting.  “Fact, fact, fact!” cried Mr Thomas Gradgrind. It’s a very traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of priority and order, to assure their own ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many who are exiled from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Comte’s starting point is the same as Hayek’s, namely the existence of a spontaneous order. It’s a Conservative ideological premise, and this is one reason why the current neoliberal Tory government of self-described “libertarian paternalists” embrace positivism without any acknowledgement of its controversy.

However, positivist politics was discarded half a century ago, as a reactionary and totalitarian doctrine. It’s is true to say that, in many respects, Comte was resolutely anti-modern, and he also represents a general retreat from Enlightenment humanism. His somewhat authoritarian positivist ideology, rather than celebrating the rationality of the individual and wanting to protect people from state interference, instead fetishised the scientific method, proposing that a new ruling class of authoritarian technocrats should decide how society ought to be run and how people should behave. This is a view that the current government, with their endorsement and widespread experimental application of nudge theory, would certainly subscribe to.

Science, correlation and causality

Much scientific evidence is based on established correlation of variables – they are observed to occur together. For example, correlation is used in Bell’s theorem to disprove local causality. The combination of limited available methodologies has been used together with the dismissing “correlation doesn’t imply causation” fallacy on occasion to counter important scientific findings. For example, the tobacco industry has historically relied on a dismissal of correlational evidence to reject a link between tobacco and lung cancer, especially in the earliest stages of the research, but there was a clearly and strongly indicated association. 

Science is manifestly progressive, insofar as over time its theories tend to increase in depth, range and predictive power.

Established correlations in both the social and natural sciences may be regarded, then, as a starting point for further in-depth and rigorous research, with the coherence, comprehensiveness and verisimilitude of theoretical propositions increasing over time. This is basically a critical realist position, which is different from the philosophical positivism that dominated science and the social sciences two centuries ago, with an emphasis on strictly reductive empirical evidence and the verification principle (which is itself unverifiable).

Positivist epistemology has been extensively critiqued for its various limitations in studying the complexities of  human experiences. One critique focuses on the positivist tendency to carry out studies from a “value-free” outsider perspective in an effort to maintain objectivity, whilst the insider or subjective perspective is ignored. There is no mind-independent, objective vantage point from which social scientists may escape the insider. A second critique is that positivism is reductionist and deterministic. It emphasises quantification and ignores and removes context, meanings, autonomy, intention and purpose from research questions by ignoring unquantifiable variables.

It therefore doesn’t extend explanations and understanding of how we make sense of the world. A third critique is that positivism entails generalisation of data which renders results inapplicable to individual cases; data are used to describe a population without accounting for significant micro-level or individual variation. Because of these and other problems, positivism lost much favour amongst sociologists and psychologists in particular. 

Verification was never the sole criterion of scientific inquiry. Positivism probably lost much more methodological and epistemological currency in the social sciences than the natural sciences, because humans cannot be investigated in the same way as inert matter. We have the added complication of consciousness and [debatable] degrees of intentionality, so people’s behaviour is much more difficult to measure, observe and predict. There’s a difference between facts and meanings, human behaviours are meaningful and purposeful, human agency arises in contexts of intersubjectively shared meanings. But it does seem that prediction curiously becomes easier at macro-levels when we examine broader social phenomena, mechanisms and processes. (It’s a bit like quantum events: quite difficult to predict at subatomic level, but clarifying, with events apparently becoming more predictable at the level we inhabit and observe every day.)

Now, whilst correlation isn’t quite the same as “cause and effect”, it often strongly indicates a causal link, and what usually follows once we have established a correlation is further rigorous research, eliminating “confounding” variables and bias systematically (we do use rigorous inference testing in the social sciences). Correlation is used when inferring causation; the important point is that such inferences are made after correlations are confirmed as real and all causational relationships are systematically explored using large enough data sets.

The standard process of research and enquiry, scientific or otherwise, doesn’t entail, at any point, a flat political denial that there is any relationship of significance to concern ourselves with, nor does it involve withholding data and a refusal to investigate further.

Positivism and psychology

Positivism was most closely associated with a doctrine known as behaviourism during the mid-20th century in psychology. Behaviourists confined their research to behaviours that could be directly observed and measured. Since we can’t directly observe beliefs, thoughts, intentions, emotions and so forth,  these were not deemed to be legitimate topics for a scientific psychology. One of the assumptions of behaviourists is that free-will is illusory, and that all behaviour is determined by the environment either through association or reinforcement. B.F. Skinner argued that psychology needed to concentrate only on the positive and negative reinforcers of behaviour in order to predict how people will behave, and  everything else in between (like what a person is thinking, or their attitude) is irrelevant because it can’t be measured.

So, to summarise, behaviourism is basically the theory that human (and animal) behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to wider socioeconomic contexts, consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s dystopian novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. Quite properly so. All totalitarians, bullies  and authoritarians are behaviourists. Skinner has been extensively criticised for his sociopolitical pronouncements, which many perceive to be based on serious philosophical errors. His recommendations are not based on “science”, but on his own covert biases and preferences.

Behaviourism also influenced a positivist school of politics that developed in the 50s and 60s in the USA. Although the term “behavouralism” was applied to this movement, the call for political analysis to be modeled upon the natural sciences, the preoccupation with researching social regularities, a commitment to verificationism, an experimental approach to methodology, an emphasis on quantification and the prioritisation of a fact-value distinction: keeping moral and ethical assessment and empirical explanations distinct, indicate clear parallels with the school of behaviourism and positivism within psychology.

The political behaviouralists proposed, ludicrously, that normative concepts such as “democracy,” “equality,” “justice” and “liberty” should be rejected as they are not scientific – not verifiable or falsifiable and so are beyond the scope of “legitimate” inquiry. 

Behaviourism has been criticised within politics as it threatens to reduce the discipline of political analysis to little more than the study of voting and the behaviour of legislatures. An emphasis on  the observation of data deprives the field of politics of other important viewpoints – it isn’t a pluralist or democratic approach at all – it turns political discourses into monologues and also conflates the fact-value distinction.

Every theory is built upon an ideological premise that led to its formation in the first place and subsequently, the study of  “observable facts” is intentional, selective and purposeful. As Einstein once said: “the theory tells you what you may observe.”

The superficial dichotomisation of facts and values also purposefully separates political statements of what is from what ought to be. Whilst behavouralism is itself premised on prescriptive ideology, any idea that politics should include progressive or responsive prescriptions – moral judgements and actions related to what ought to be – are summarily dismissed.

Most researchers would agree that we ought to attempt to remain as objective as possible, perhaps aiming for a relative value-neutrality, rather than value-freedom, when conducting research. It isn’t possible to be completely objective, because we inhabit the world that we are studying, we share cultural norms and values, we are humans that coexist within an intersubjective realm, after all. We can’t escape the world we are observing, or the mind that is part of the perceptual circuit.

But we can aim for integrity, accountability and transparency. We can be honest, we can critically explore and declare our own interests and values, for example. My own inclination is towards value-frankness, rather than value-freedom – we can make the values which have been incorporated in the choice of the topic of research, and of the formulation of hypotheses clear and explicit at the very outset. The standardised data collection process itself is uncoloured by personal feelings (that is, we can attempt to collect data reliably and systematically.) However, the debate about values and the principle of objectivity is a complex one, and it’s important to note that symbolic interactionists and post modernists, amongst others, have contended that all knowledge is culturally constructed. (That’s a lengthy and important discussion for another time.)

Nudge: from meeting public needs to prioritising political needs

The idea of “nudging” citizens to do the “right thing” for themselves and for society heralds the return of behaviourist psychopolitical theory. Whilst some theorists claim that nudge is premised on notions of cognition, and so isn’t the same as the flat, externalised stimulus-response approach of behaviourism, my observation is that the starting point of nudge theory is that our cognitions are fundamentally biased and faulty, and so the emphasis of nudge intervention is on behaviour modification, rather than on engaging with citizen’s cognitive or deliberative capacities.

In other words, our tendency towards cognitive bias(es) render us incapable of rational decision-making, so the state is bypassing democratic engagement and prescribing involuntary and experimental behavioural change to “remedy” our perceived cognitive deficits.

Behaviourists basically stated that only public events (behaviours of an individual) can be objectively observed, and that therefore private events (intentions, thoughts and feelings) should be ignored. The paternal libertarians are stating that our cognitive processes are broken, and should be ignored. What matters is how people behave. It’s effectively another reductionist, instrumental stimulus-response approach based on the same principles as operant conditioning.

Nudge is very controversial. It’s experimental use on an unconsenting population has some profound implications for democracy,  which is traditionally based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Conservative policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly all about instructing us how to be.

The context-dependency and determination of value-laden nudge theory

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural theories” are merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour; as a mechanism of explanation and in terms of capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

Furthermore, in relying upon a pseudo-positivistic experimental approach to human cognition, behavioural economists have made some highly questionable ontological and epistemologial assumptions: in the pursuit of methodological individualism, citizens are isolated from the broader structural political, economic and sociocultural and established reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a deeply problematic duality between context and cognition.

Yet many libertarian paternalists reapply the context they evade in explanations of human behaviours to justify the application of their theory in claiming that their “behavioural theories” can be used to serve social, and not necessarily individual, ends, by simply acting upon the individual to make them more “responsible.” But “responsible” is defined only within the confines of a neoliberal economic model. (See, for example: Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policyDavid Halpern, Clive Bates, Geoff Mulgan and Stephen Aldridge, 2004.)

In other words, there is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and a person’s perceptions, intentions and actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The ideological premise on which the government’s “behavioural theories” and assumptions about the negative impacts of neoliberalism on citizens rests is fundamentally flawed, holding individuals responsible for circumstances that arise because of market conditions, the labor market, political decision-making, socioeconomic constraints and the consequences of increasing “liberalisation”, privatisation and marketisation.

Market-based economies both highly value and extend competitive individualism and “efficiency”,  which manifests a highly hierarchical social structure, and entails the adoption of economic Darwinism. By placing a mathematical quality on social life (Bourdieu, 1999), neoliberalism has encouraged formerly autonomous states to regress into penal states that value production, competition and profit above all else, including attendance to social needs and addressing arising adverse structural level constraints, the consequences of political decision-making and wider socioeconomic issues, such as inequality and poverty.

As a doxa, neoliberalism has become a largely unchallenged reality. It now seems almost rational that markets should be the allocators of resources; that competition should be the primary driver of social problem-solving, innovation and behaviour, and that societies should be composed of individuals primarily motivated by economic conditions and their own economic productivity. Despite the Conservative’s pseudo-positivist claims of value-neutrality, the economic system is being increasingly justified by authoritarian moral arguments about how citizens ought to act.

The rise of a new political behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

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Image courtesy of Tiago Hoisel

 

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

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“Behavioural theory is a powerful tool for the government communicator, but you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work.”
Alex Aiken
Executive Director of
Government Communications

Normalising state punishment 

Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individual pathologies of “welfare dependency” and “worklessness.” The consequence is an escalating illogic of authoritarian policy measures which have at their core the intensification of punitive conditionality. These state interventions are justified by the construction and mediation of stigma, which is directed at already marginalised social groups that the policies target. The groups, which include sick and disabled people, people who are unemployed, are painted with a Malthusian brush, as a  “burden on the state” and a drain on what are politically portrayed and publicly seen as scarce resources in an era of austerity. Political processes of scapegoating, stigmatisation and outgrouping have been amplified by a largely complicit UK corporate media. 

Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative and new political and economic responses. Behavioural economics theories, which “nudge” is a part of, for example, are aimed at “changing the behaviours” of citizens perceived to “make the wrong choices” – ultimately the presented political aim is to mend Britain’s supposedly “broken society” and to restore a country that “lives within its means”, according to a narrow, elitist view, bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on “economic competitiveness” in a “global race.”  

Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter: it has been politically reduced and is explained as a private, internal characteristic of disadvantaged individuals, rather than it being an inevitable feature of a socioeconomic form of organisation founded on competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise it, making disadvantage the private and sole responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach to changing citizen’s behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes. 

Institutions structure political struggles, they provide models, schemas and scripts for citizen’s behaviours. Bureaucratic norms within the welfare state have become increasingly about moral rectification. Debate about addressing structural inequality and poverty has been transformed into political rhetoric about behavioural incentives to change what are deemed to be poor people’s biased attitudes, cognitive deficits and faulty actions. Apparently, wealthy people don’t have these flaws. 

Welfare dependency is now a synonym for poverty, with its perceived dimensions of moral/psychological dependency accepted as a character “trait” or a “personality disorder.”  The sociopolitical relations of subordination, exploitation and economic organisation that were hidden within the discourse of “dependency” have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. 

Context

Narratives about social security in the UK that emphasise a deepening of neoliberalisation became particularly virulent in the context of the global economic crash, which raised threats to the New Right neoliberal hegemony.

In August 2008, James Purnell, then Work and Pensions secretary, ordered a review of welfare to cut costs. The review explored how behavioural economics (nudge) may be used to “motivate” those claiming  welfare support and to establish what the “right conditions” are for the long-term unemployed or to deal with those thought to be “abusing the system.”

The review also addressed issues such as how people’s aversion to loss could be used to reduce the claimant count, which included consideration of the loss of high regard in the community; respect for legitimate authority; reciprocity – including a sense of obligation to give something back – and finally, “social proof” (using normative setting) – responding to the behaviour of others, such as their successful search for work.

Following some targeted survey work carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions, it was claimed that more than half of claimants say they are more likely to look for work because of the threat of sanctions. It was also suggested that attaching more stringent conditions to welfare could draw on the then latest British interest in nudge economics, and the “hidden art of persuasion.” This took place in a context of other European countries and the US exploring similar radical welfare reforms. (See also: Experiments on Unemployment Benefit Sanctions and Job Search Behaviour, 2004).

However, the direct evidence on the impact of sanctions largely concerns how it affected the compliance; rule-following job seeking behaviour and employment rates of those who have actually experienced or been formally warned of a sanction. However, how “employment rates” are actually measured poses a problem, as, in the UK, an outcome of employment is assumed if someone’s claim is closed.

Several US studies have used high quality designs to analyse differences in post-welfare outcomes and found that, on average, those who are sanctioned out of the welfare system are less likely to enter employment than those who leave for other reasons. Sanctioned welfare leavers are more likely to experience severe hardship and some become disconnected from income and other support systems.

Purnell resigned in 2009, as Gordon Brown refused to implement his neoliberal welfare proposals. The Nudge Unit was established and formally instituted as part of the Cabinet in 2010, under Cameron’s coalition government.

I’ve written more than one critical piece about the Government’s part-privatised Nudge Unit – the Behavioural Insights Team – particularly its insidious and malevolent influence on the range of psychocratic policies aimed at “behavioural changes” which are now being imposed on the poorest citizens. 

From the shrinking category of legitimate “disability” to forcing people to work for no pay on exploitative workfare schemes, “nudge” has been used to euphemistically frame punitive policies, “applying the principles of behavioural economics to the important issue of the transition from welfare to work.” (See: Employing BELIEF:Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, 2010.)

The Conservatives have claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and harsh conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” and “incentivising” people to find work, highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of structural constraints; labor market conditions, exclusion from acceptable living standards because of cuts to income and rising living costs, bad political decision-making and subsequent policy-shaped socioeconomic circumstances.

The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed more than one manipulated semantic shift, words like “fair” , “support” , “reform” , “responsibility”, “opportunities” and “help” , for example, have become embedded in a narrative of superficial  Glittering Generalities – part of a lexicon of persuasion and precarious psychosemantics that simply prop up Tory ideology  – an idiom of belief – in an endlessly erroneous, irrational and self-referential way.

The problem is that the power of a system of such implicit beliefs to defeat valid objections one by one is entirely due to the circularity  and self-perpetuating nature of such systems, as Iain Duncan Smith, who stands firmly within this idiom, consistently demonstrates only too well. After being rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority (ONS) for his claim that his policies have “forced 8,000 benefit claimants back into work” in 2013, he was informed politely that this wasn’t empirically evidenced – his claim could not be proven with his statistics. His response was: “I have a belief that I am right […] you cannot disprove what I said.” His “theory” tells him what he may observe.

There is a gulf between the rhetoric and empirical evidence on benefit sanctions. The evidence base is both small and limited in its scope, and it does not accommodate the differing approaches to preventing poverty and promoting opportunity that arise in international policy design. Increased welfare conditionality and sanctions are too narrowly based on a rhetoric of moral(ising) philosophy, and takes a highly selective approach evidence.

Iain Duncan Smith is the expert Tory pop-psychologist, fluent in psychobabble words like “incentivise” and “behavioural change” and whilst he demands rigorous research standards from academics and his critics, he doesn’t ever uphold those same standards himself.

If you “just know” you’re right, then does it matter if you regularly make up the evidence to support your mighty powers of New Right and very neoliberal intuitions?  It ought to, and it would if Conservative policy was genuinely based on meeting public needs, evidence and objective measures of effectiveness, rather than being based on prejudice and political expediency.

Words like “fair” and “help” now signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative discourse. Nudge permeates language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help” “justice” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

The Conservatives have orchestrated semantic shifts which reflect neoliberal values and reference a distinctive New Right ideological repertoire, from which is constructed basic pseudo-scientific justification narratives, asserting that people claiming welfare do so, as I said previously, because of “faulty” personal characteristics and various types of cognitive incompetence and laziness. In short, the government have pathologised and stigmatised unemployment, redefining it as a psychological disorder.

The government have also problematised welfare, based on the absurd New Right idea that financial support when people really need it somehow creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support, justice and opportunities: social insurance and security

The government have adopted a strongly disciplinarian approach to structural problems such as poverty, using narratives that are strikingly reminiscent of the attitudes and values that shaped the extremely punitive and ill-conceived 1834 Poor Law amendment act.

The post-war welfare state is founded on the idea that government plays a key role in ensuring the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and both political and social responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for health and wellbeing.

Restricting choices to “choice”

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare “conditionality” in 2012. Sanctions are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – a cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution.

Libertarian paternalists claim that whilst it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of coercive, draconian Conservative welfare sanctions.

Last year I wrote about the connection between the Nudge Unit’s pseudoscientific obsession with manipulating people’s decision-making by utilising various cognitive bias theories – in this case, particularly, the behavioural economic theory of loss aversion and the increased use and severity of benefit sanctions. Though most people succumbing to the Nudge Unit’s guru effect (ironically, another cognitive bias) think that “nudging” is just about prompting men to pee on the right spot in urinals, or about persuading us to donate organs and to pay our taxes on time. Nudge is at the very heart of the New  Right’s neo-behaviourist turn, which entails the application of operant conditioning to individualise and privatise social problems such as inequality and poverty. 

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – read this paper, focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions, paying particular attention to the part about loss aversion, on page 7.

And this on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).”

The recommendation on that page: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as disabled people.

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012.

Sanctioning welfare recipients by removing their lifeline benefit – originally calculated to meet the cost of only basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – isn’t about “arranging choice architecture”, it’s not nudging: it’s operant conditioning. It’s a brand of particularly dystopic, psychopolitical behaviourism, and is all about a totalitarian level of micromanaging people to ensure they are obedient and compliant to the needs of  the “choice architects” and policy-makers. Nudge in this context is nothing more than a prop for austerity, neoliberalism and social conservatism.

It is all-pervasive, nudge permeates political rhetoric and discursive practices. Words like “help” and “support” disguise coercive and punitive state actions. Bland language is used to normalise inequality and discriminatory political practices. The word “incentivise,” for example, is used a lot by the Conservatives, but to wealthy people, it means financial privileges in the form of tax cuts and privatised wealth, and to poor people, it means having lifeline income taken away by the state. 

Deploying behavioural modification techniques (and without the public’s consent) marginalises political discussion, stifles public debate, sidesteps democratic dialogue, problem-solving, criticism and challenges and forecloses the possibility of social justice considerations.

Furthermore, an individual’s autonomy, which is also the basis of his or her dignity, as a person, is worthy of protection and should not be interfered with by any kind of behavioural modification, “nudge” or otherwise. Nor should removing people’s lifeline income designed to meet only basic survival needs ever be withdrawn as a state “correction” and punishment.

Nudge operates at a much broader level, too. The intentional political construction of folk devils and purposeful culturally amplified references to a stereotype embodying fecklessness, idleness and irresponsibility, utilising moral panic and manufactured public outrage as an effective platform for punitive welfare reform legislation, is one example of the value-laden application of pseudoscientific “behavioural insights” theory. The new paternalists have drawn on our psychosocial inclinations towards conformity, which is evident in the increasing political use of manipulative normative messaging. (For example, see: The Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. used social normative messages to increase tax compliance in 2011.) 

The paternalist’s behavioural theories have been used to increasingly normalise a moral narrative based on a crude underpinning “deserving” and “undeserving” dichotomy, that justifies state interventions imposing conditions of extreme deprivation amongst some social groups – especially those previously considered legally protected. Public rational and moral boundaries have been and continue to be nudged and shifted, incrementally. Gordon Allport outlined a remarkably similar process in his classic political psychology text, The Nature of Prejudice, which describes the psychosocial processes involved in the construction of categorical others, and the subsequent escalating scale of prejudice and discrimination

In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the  transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of the impacts of such policies .

The theory tells you what you may observe

There is no evidence that welfare sanctions improve employment outcomes. There is no evidence that sanctions “change behaviours.” There is, in any case, a substantial difference between people conforming with welfare conditionality and rules and gaining appropriate and secure employment.

One difficulty is that since 2011, Job Centre Plus’s (JCP) primary key performance indicator has been off-flow from benefit at the 13th, 26th, 39th and 52nd weeks of claims. Previously JCP’s performance had been measured against a range of performance indicators, including off-flows from benefit into employment.

Indeed, when asked for evidence by the Work and Pensions Committee, one minister, in her determination to defend the Conservative sanction regime, regrettably provided misleading information on the destinations of JSA, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance claimants from 2011, that pre-dated the new sanctions regime introduced in 2012, in an attempt to challenge the findings of the University of Oxford/LSHTM study on the effects of sanctions on getting JSA claimants off-flow. (Fewer than 20% of this group of people who were no longer in receipt of JSA were recorded as finding employment.) Source: Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review – Work and Pensions.

Studies have shown that being “treated” by at least one “stick” (punitive measure) significantly reduces an individual’s earnings after periods of unemployment; on the other hand, participating in a supportive programme affects earnings positively.

 Treatment and policy regime effects of Carrots and Sticks, in % of average earnings

 Effects are expressed in percent of average monthly earnings within 3.5 years after unemployment (3547 CHF = 3290 EUR = 3575 USD in sample). Treatment effects: effects of being exposed to at least one carrot (job search assistance, training) or stick (sanction, workfare programme).

Source: Arni, P, Lalive, R, and G J van den Berg (2015) “Treatment versus regime effects of Carrots and Sticks”, IZA Discussion Paper 9457.

It’s remarkably difficult to reconcile state imposed responsibilities that illiberally target only one social group, with democracy and universal human rights, which are based on core principles like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy.

We ought to question the claim that the manipulation of public decision-making to cut costs to the state is in our “best interests.” Who is nudging the nudgers, and  clearly they have their own whopping great “cognitive biases.”

Behavioural modification techniques are particularly prone to abuse because they are very effective – all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists – and such techniques represent, because of the range of subtle to threatening methods in which they exercise control and can elicit compliance, a political tool that is difficult to observe, challenge and control.

It’s also worth noting that the application of nudge is entirely experimental and nonconsenusal. For the record, when a government in a so called first world liberal democracy – that are generally expected to recognise and address public needs – decides to act upon citizens to change their behaviours to meet partisan, ideologically directed outcomes, we tend to call that authoritarianism, not nudge.

If it wasn’t for this government’s “behaviourist turn” and psychosemantic approach to the inequality and poverty that their policies tend to extend, the Department for Work and Pensions would have been renamed “The Department for Punitive State Correction and Neoliberal Behaviour Modification Experiments.” 

Nudge. It’s become another clever little euphemism. 
gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1From the Ministry of euphemism and semantic thrifts, 1984th edition

I wrote much of this as part of a considerably longer piece, but felt that this particular point and the evidence regarding the intensification of sanctions was lost in the weight of other important issues raised in the original article: The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Related

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Man with diabetes had to have his leg amputated because of benefit sanctions

Cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government


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Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies.

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I wrote an article in March about the government plans to make the receipt of social security benefits for those with mental illnesses conditional on undergoing “state therapy.” I raised concern about ethical issues – such as consent, the inappropriateness of using behaviour modification as a form of “therapy,” and I criticised the proposed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) programme on methodological and theoretical grounds, as well as considering wider social implications.

The 2015 budget included plans to provide online CBT to 40,000 claimants and people on the Fit for Work programme, as well as putting therapists in more than 350 job centres.

Since I wrote, over 400 psychotherapists, counsellors and mental health practitioners have written an open letter, published by the Guardian, about the broader, profoundly disturbing psychological and quality-of-life implications of the coalition government’s austerity cuts and policies. However, the letter was particularly critical of the government’s benefits sanctions scheme, which has been condemned by many of us – human rights advocates across the state – as brutal, unjust, ill-conceived, ineffective and inhumane.

In particular, the letter stated that the government’s proposed policy of linking social security benefits to the receipt of “state therapy” is utterly unacceptable. The measure, casually coined “get to work therapy,” was discussed by Chancellor for the Exchequer George Osborne during his last budget.

The letter’s supporters included psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach. She called the Conservative proposals “beyond shocking.” Echoing the concerns I raised earlier this year, she said:

“It undermines the fundamental principles of one’s right to physical and mental care – that you have to be able to consent and that the people you go to have to be highly trained and have your best interests and aren’t meeting targets.”

The letter’s signatories, all of whom are experts in the field of mental health, have said such a measure is counter-productive, “anti-therapeutic,” damaging and professionally unethical. The “intimidatory disciplinary regime” facing benefits claimants would be made even worse by further unacceptable proposals outlined in the budget.

Among the groups represented by the signatories were Psychologists Against Austerity, Britain’s Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, the Journal of Public Mental Health, and a range of academic institutions including Goldsmiths, Birkbeck, the University of London, the University of Amsterdam, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Brighton, Disabled People Against the Cuts and others.

More generally, the wider reality of a society thrown completely off-balance by the emotional toxicity of social conservatism combined with economic neoliberalism (which I have argued is manifestly authoritarian) is affecting Britain in profound and complex ways, the distressing effects of which are often most visible in therapist’s consulting rooms.

This letter sounds the starting-bell for a broadly based campaign of organisations and professionals against the damage that neoliberalism is doing to the nation’s mental health.

The letter said that for now, we call on all the parties in this election to make it clear that they will urgently review such regressive, anti-therapeutic practices, and appropriately refashion their commitment to mental health if and when they enter government.

Andrew Samuels, an Essex University professor, and immediate past chair of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, said he believed there was “a bit of a public school ethos” behind the work-capability regime introduced under the conservative-liberal democrat coalition and new conservative plans.

Characterising the government attitude as “Pull yourself together man, for heaven’s sake,” Samuels added: “It is wholly inappropriate. It symbolises a society that has lost all moral compass.”

Absolutely. Public schools are notorious for a culture of bullying. However, it’s one thing to be treated as a privileged and insulated public school boy by a peer from an elite background to “character building” rhetoric, but quite another to adopt that same bullying approach towards the ill and most vulnerable citizens. All to justify an ideological drive to “shrink the state” and remove support from the poorest.

All of this said, public schools are regarded by many as institutions that inflict a particularly British form of child abuse and social control. I also think it has to be said that soul trauma and pain don’t respect social status.

Samuels insisted the open letter was not “pro-Labour” but was aimed at getting a review of measures taken and proposed over the past five years.

He said: “If Labour decides afterwards all this is in order, it will go on. But I don’t think it will.”

The Labour Party does value professional opinion and rational discourse. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are not widely recognised as a party that welcomes democratic, open debate, transparency and accountability. The Tories simply exclude critical professionals and representative organisations that may challenge and disagree from the discourse.

A spokesperson for Labour said mental health “is the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age.”

“It’s essential that we give mental health the priority it deserves if we are to thrive as a nation and ensure the NHS remains sustainable for the future,” he said.

The Labour Party have pressured the government to “write parity of esteem between physical and mental health into law,” and in the response, Labour have stated that the party is committed to implementing this policy if elected in May.

The spokesman pledged the Labour will bring an end to the “scandal of the neglect of child mental health,” indicating a welcomed return to a comprehensive preventative approach. He said: “It is simply not right that when three-quarters of adult mental illnesses begin in childhood, children’s mental health services get just six per cent of the mental health budget.”

Richard House of the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the letter’s main organiser, said there had been a mounting groundswell of concern: “When one hears story after story of dramatic negative health impacts, psychological and physical, after people are subjected to these back-to-work practices, the time has surely come for an ‘emotional audit’ of the impact of what, to many, appear to be heartless, un-thought-through policies that are merely penalising and punishing the already disadvantaged still further.”

Yes, the time has come for a change of government. On May 7, we must ensure that the regressive, oppressive regime of the past five years is replaced by a progressive, inclusive and democratic alternative.

Related

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

The just world fallacy

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down – a summary of the implications of Nudge theory

Rising ESA sanctions: punishing the vulnerable for being vulnerable

Suicides reach a ten year high and are linked with welfare “reforms”

Mental Health Services in crisis because of Coalition cuts to funding

The Psychology of Austerity

A group of mental health professionals have come together under the banner of Psychologists Against Austerity (PAA) to highlight the psychological impact of austerity.

Now, with only a few weeks to go before the general election, PAA have started a campaign calling for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the psychological damage austerity has wreaked across the UK.

You can read more and sign our petition here: 38degrees/psychological costs of austerity inquiry.


 

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Inflicting suffering on those in need is now at the heart of our benefits system – Frances Ryan

430847_149933881824335_1645102229_n (1)The main part of this article was originally published in the Guardian on 10 March and was written by Frances Ryan.

I tend to think I am beyond shock at the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) now. The expectation that this government is capable of morality or even basic competence was lost some time ago, somewhere between enacting policy that pushes people already in poverty into losing their homes and denying deaf, blind eight-year-olds disability benefits. Still, Dispatches’ Benefits Britain investigation was painful viewing.

During seven weeks of undercover work at a universal credit contact centre in Bolton, Channel 4 journalists witnessed a farcical mess of centralised IT failure. But what really stood out were the underhand tactics DWP staff were found to use against claimants: from deliberately withholding hardship payments from people struggling after having their benefits sanctioned, to hiding the flexible fund put in place to pay for clothes or a bus fare they needed to help them get a job.

What Dispatches showed is not an isolated incident, a black spot polluting an otherwise untarnished record. It is an example of both attitude and action that runs through the entire system: the growing conditionality on benefits, the withholding of emergency help, all the way back to how benefits are assessed.

As of last week, there is quantitative evidence that the notorious fit-for-work tests are inflicting damage to disabled people’s bodies (not to mention the impact on their minds). Yes, we have now reached a point where the benefit system is making disabled and chronically ill people sicker. Over 60% of disabled people going through the work capability assessment – designed by the DWP and sold off to private firms – report being in pain afterwards. Others said their condition was made worse or their recovery delayed. One claimant surveyed, who has progressive rheumatoid arthritis, said she left her appointment “feeling absolutely awful and suffered a lot of pain in the following days.” She went on to have a stroke a few weeks later.

It might be worth remembering that this is an assessment that is meant to help people – one million people are due to go through the process this year – if only because those orchestrating it appear to have forgotten. It is the same cavalier attitude to the vulnerable that means claimants have killed themselves after being spat out by the benefit system, as if desperation and distress means nothing.

We are sliding back to the notion that suffering helps the soul, that the underclass – be it the unemployed, the disabled, or chronically ill – need to be trained in order to behave. And, as almost a secondary consequence, their punishment cuts the welfare bill down. A bonus all round.

The ideology of a small state or the belief that benefits build dependency are crass, irrelevant details to what at its core is simply a decision about how to treat a human being. This is particularly damning when one person has all the power and the other is forced through economic necessity to take whatever humiliation or pain they are given. To do that to someone – let alone hundreds of thousands – is no accident. It is a conscious decision, that has been made over and over again by this government.

scroll2I wrote this last year:

Here are two articles about the terrible, extremely harsh and punitive consequences of the governments’ historically regressive, ethically challenging benefit sanctions regime. This is a very cruel and limited application of operant conditioning: the government are applying punishment to vulnerable people who need the support of lifeline benefits to meet their fundamental survival needs, under the guise of “paternalistic libertarianism.”

The punishments are applied most frequently to the most vulnerable people. Our welfare system was designed to support people, but under the Tory-led Coalition, it has been transformed into an administration that is run on unethical principles, akin to the Milgram experiment, with the difference that the punishments used are real, and decisions to punish welfare claimants are resulting in very real and terrible consequences.

It’s a biological fact that when people cannot meet their basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – they will die. Everybody understands this, no matter how well-insulated by personal wealth they may be.

The government understands this.

The welfare “reforms” are harming people, and are causing deaths. Full article – Benefit sanctions are not fair and are not helping people into work.

Related

Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich, Human Rights and infrahumanisation

Techniques of neutralisation – a framework of prejudice

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down – a summary of the implications of Nudge theory

 

385294_195107567306966_1850351962_nThanks to Robert Livingstone for the memes.

 

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.

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There is an extremely anti-democratic design becoming increasingly evident in policies being formulated by the Coalition, which is aimed at protecting the interests of the very wealthy; at stifling debate, challenges and opposition; permitting political and corporate corruption whilst obscuring it; restricting access to justice for victims of government and corporate corruption and oppression; removing accountability and transparency. There is a detachment of policies from wider public needs and interests. Instead, policies are all about instructing us how to behave.

It’s only a matter of time before the new behavioural economics and so-called science of nudging decision-making is applied to influencing the population’s voting behaviour as well.

Free-will, determinism and bounded rationality in decision-making: implications for democracy

One of our fundamental freedoms, as human beings, is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – rationality, for example. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government have employed a group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” who claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our consent.

However, democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Coalition policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty whilst still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests.

But who nudges the nudgers? Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

That would be the government, of course. Thaler, who studied the psychology of decision-making, drawing on the exploitation of “cognitive bias” and techniques of persuasion that have until now been used only by the advertising industry, claims that we are fundamentally irrational. But according to Professor Thaler, we would “all invest in the stock market if we were rational.”  That’s a rather unique and remarkably narrow definition.

I wonder if he bothered asking everyone about that. I imagine that if he gets his way, university entrance criteria will change forever. Mind you, so will ideas about human diversity. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on social conformity, directed from the Conservative Cabinet office.

Nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s become a technocratic fix – pseudo-psychology that doubles up as “common sense”, aimed at maintaining the socioeconomic order.

Another phrase the authors introduced was “choice architecture”, a concept implying that the State can be the architect that arranges personal choice in way that nudges consumers in the right direction. It seems that even policies have been commodified. Poor people get bargain basement “incentives” to work harder by having their income reduced, while millionaires get the deluxe model incentives, entailing massive tax cuts and exemptions, all handed out from public funds. 

The “right” direction is towards a small State, with nothing but behavioural “incentives” to justify forcing citizens who have needs to be “responsible” and “self-sufficient,” achieving this presumably by paying taxes and then pulling themselves up strictly by their own invisible bootstraps. It’s the government’s new nothing for something culture, specifically for those who fall on hard times.

The pseudo-psychological framework

Behavioural Economics is actually founded in part on crude operant conditioning: it marks the return of a psychopolitical theory that arose in the mid-20th century, which was linked to behaviourism Advocates of this perspective generalised that all human behaviour may be explained and described by a very simple reductive process: that of Stimulus–Response. There is no need, according to behaviourists, to inquire into human thoughts, feelings, beliefs or values, because we simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons or rats in a laboratory.

In the Coalition agreement, there is mention of “finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves. David Halpern, an apparently adaptable, very pro-business behavioural economist, also plays a role in David Cameron’s Big Society project. In 2010, the entire Cabinet were impressed with Nudge, and it quickly became required reading for ministers and civil servants. 

The Guardian casually reported that Nick Clegg said he believed the new Behavioural Insights Team could “change the way citizens think.” What is particularly shocking is that the comment elicited no shock whatsoever. (The very idea of a group of right-wing authoritarians that recognise human worth only in terms of money, covertly influencing my behaviour, and that of everyone else, quite frankly appalls me.)

Formally instituted by Cameron in September 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team, which is a part of the Cabinet Office, is made up of people such as David Halpern, who co-authored the Cabinet Office report: Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain, with an accompanying psychobabble of decontextualised words such as “incentives”, “habit’, “priming” and “ego.” It’s a lot of inane managementspeak. However, the ideas behind the corporate jargon are providing a framework of experimental and often controversial policy-making on an unsuspecting public.

The report addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the public. The behaviourist educational function made patronisingly explicit through the Nudge Unit is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, forms of “expertise”, and through the State’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narratives.

Tory ideology is extended under the misleading  label of libertarian paternalism, which is all about shaping our behaviour, by offering “choice architecture”, that reduces public choices to “Choice.” At the heart of every Coalition welfare policy is a behaviour modification attempt, promoted by the influential Nudge Unit and founded on the discredited, pseudoscientific behaviourism, which is basically just about making people do what you want them to do, using a system of punishments and reinforcements. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

At the same time, as well as shaping behaviour, the psychopolitical messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for welfare “reform”, austerity, the “efficient”small State (minarchism) and also legitimizes them. (I’ve written at length elsewhere about the fact that austerity isn’t an economic necessity, but rather, it’s a Tory ideological preference.)

The Conservatives are traditional, they are creatures of habit, rather than being responsive and rational. Coalition narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion, including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatizing the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens, and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

Nudge theory has made Tory ideology seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using inane, meaningless acronyms to spell out a pseudoscientific neuroliberalism and to peddle made-up nonsense founded on the whopping, extensive cognitive biases of paternalist libertarians. Most of the nudge unit is comprised of behavioural economists, who are basically peddling the kind of techniques of persuasion that were usually reserved for the dubious end of the advertising industry. This is not “social psychology”, nor is it in any way related to any legitimate social science discipline. However, the creep of behaviourism into nudge based “interventions” is cause for considerable concern.

This government’s policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date. Nudge is hardly in our “best interests,” then. 

The Coalition aren’t engaging with us democratically, they are simply nudging us into compliance with how they think the UK ought to be. We need to ask, in a democracy, where do behavioural economists, policymakers and Tories gain the moral authority to manipulate people’s behaviour? Governments ought to be about supporting people in realising their aspirations, not about changing those aspirations so that they correspond to the worldview of the “choice architects.”

Nudge application: irrationality and ideological justification

Here’s a recent example of choice architecture being “rearranged.” Iain Duncan Smith said recently that limiting child benefit to the first two children in a family is well worth considering and could save a significant amount of money. The idea is being examined by the Conservatives, despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street because of fears that it could alienate parents. Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said:

“I think it’s well worth looking at,” he said. “It’s something if we decide to do it we’ll announce out. But it does save significant money and also it helps behavioural change.”

Firstly, this is a clear indication of the Tories’ underpinning eugenicist designs – exercising control over the reproduction of the poor, albeit by stealth. It also reflects the underpinning belief that poverty somehow arises because of faulty individual choices, (as opposed to faulty political decision-making and ideologically driven socioeconomic policies), that those choices are non-rational, stereotypical, and that reducing cost to the State involves making people change their faulty, stereotypical behaviours.

Secondly, the very casual use of the phrase behavioural change is an indication of just how influential  the Behavioural Insights Team (Cameron’s pet project, the Nudge Unit) has become in Tory policy-making and justification narratives. The new “behavioural theories” are all-pervasive.

On the Institute for Government website, the section called MINDSPACE Behavioural Economics  mentions “behaviour change theory” and “influencing behaviour through public policy.” A lot. But surely, in democracies, public policies are supposed to reflect and serve identified public needs, rather than being about the public meeting specific policy outcomes and government needs.

And how many of us have consented to allow this government to experiment on us via policy with what is, after all, simply a set of pet theories? And that’s what nudge theory applications via policy amounts to.

Again, the Nudge Unit simply reflects a pseudoscientific platform for extension of the government’s ideological reach, reflecting and legitimizing Tory dogmas, such as minarchism (small state, reduced or no public services and support). It’s aim is to persuade the public, using an old and discredited theory – behaviourism – that austerity, cuts to welfare and a massive reduction and mass privatisation of our remaining public services are the only option we have.

From the Mindspace site: “New insights from science and behaviour change could lead to significantly improved outcomes, and at a lower cost, than the way many conventional policy tools are used.”

The welfare “reforms” were hailed by the Conservatives as a system of help and incentives – to “nudge” people into changing their behaviour so that they try harder to find work – but they are in fact eroding people’s motivation. In other words, the reforms have deincentivised and hindered people looking for employment, achieving the very opposite to the intent claimed by the  Conservative-led Coalition. 

But given that the “reforms” are extremely punitive – cutting people’s lifeline benefits at a time when the cost of living is rocketing, unemployment and underemployment is high, jobs are insecure, wages are at an all time low, and at the time of the reforms bill being drafted and passed through parliament (it was very opposed by many, including the House of Lords – but it was forced through into law only because Cameron invoked “financial privilege”), we were in a deep recession – it’s inconceivable that the Coalition didn’t realise that the “reforms” would push people into utter desperation.

How can anyone claim that forcing people to struggle to meet basic survival needs “incentivises” or helps people into finding almost non-existent work that actually pays sufficiently to meet the cost of living? It’s impossible for people to be motivated to do anything but survive when they can’t meet their most fundamental needs. (See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Sanctions are used – involving the complete removal of lifeline benefits for periods of up to 3 years – when jobseekers “don’t try hard enough” to find work. However, the existence of sanction targets in job centres  indicates clearly that sanctions are being used by the government simply to remove people’s benefits and reduce the numbers of people registered as unemployed. 

Gathered evidence shows that the sanctions are rarely connected to the actual behaviours of people who are looking for work. People are being punished for simply being poor, vulnerable and claiming benefits. The recent Just about Surviving report, for example, describes a culture of fear, especially among those with serious disability or illness, who were unable to work and so felt powerless to escape or offset the financial losses causes by welfare cuts. 

Disabled people are also sanctioned, despite being deemed unfit for work by Doctors and by Atos. The report says: The sheer scale and speed of the cuts to State support left interviewees with “almost no flexibility to live with any comfort”. It meant some of those interviewed were: “Barely surviving.”

Most people who were interviewed told researchers they both wanted to work and saw benefit in working. The report calls on ministers to provide more help in getting people into work, and criticises the “lack of compassion” in the implementation of the reforms.

It is probable that the Department for Work and Pensions will dismiss the findings of the report as “anecdotal,” drawing attention to the small size and geographical reach of the research and suggest that it is not a representative analysis. But the researchers quite rightly point out: “In the absence of an official cumulative impact assessment, this report makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the impacts of the Coalition’s welfare reforms”.

I believe there are very good reasons to employ qualitative methodology, not least, to counter the Tory preference for the quantitative, where human experience is excluded, lives are reduced in worth by referring to accounts of them as merely “anecdotal”, social groups are marginalised, dehumanised and re-defined as Others,  and the Tory statistical justificationisms – a dressed-up, dogmatic pseudopositivismend up earning them yet another toothless rebuke from Andrew Dilnot.

I’ve said elsewhere that the Tories certainly have a problem confronting human needs as well as observing and upholding concomitant human rights. It’s almost as if they assume there is an ideal, unidimensional, default-type citizen that has no needs at all. Conservatives seem to think that a person who is responsible is part of an ideally invisible, non-demanding, compliant public, who simply get on quietly with working hard for Tory corporate sponsors to make rich people profits, whilst accepting insultingly low pay and poor working conditions. If you can’t or won’t do that, then you will be nudged into compliance.

And back into the 19th century. This is not only oppression at a political level – for example, material inequality has grown because of Conservative-led policies that punish the poor and reward the wealthy – people are also being repressed existentially: emotionally, psychologically and cognitively, to ensure conformity to the prevailing elite’s idea of (Social Darwinist) norms and values.

That’s why the bankers and financial institutions that caused the global recession through behaving “irrationally” aren’t included in Cameron’s nudge social conditioning experiment. It’s largely aimed at the poor, curiously enough. Though apparently, the Conservatives believe that the wealthy are incentivised differently from the rest of us: they need rewards of even more money, tax breaks and large bonuses, rather than financial punishments to ensure they are “responsible citizens.”

The Conservatives and a largely complicit media, convey the message that poor people suffer from some sort of character flaw – a poverty of aspiration, a deviance from the decenthard-working norm. That’s untrue, of course: poor people simply suffer from material poverty which steals motivation and aspiration from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival.

However, the Conservatives have decided that in addition to bearing the burden of your poverty, you now have to work at improving your behaviour.

Mind the Mindspace:

A summary of the main influences outlined in the MINDSPACE acronym framework

MINDSPACE.jpg

All of these basic ideas are being utilised to prop up Conservative ideology, to shape Conservative policies and to justify them; to deploy justification narratives through the mass media, in schools and throughout all of our social institutions.

For example, incentives being linked to the mental “shortcut” of strongly avoiding losses (a “cognitive bias” called loss aversion) shows us precisely where the Tories imported their justification narrative for the welfare cuts and benefit sanctions from. What the government calls incentivising people, by using systematic punishments, translates from Orwellian Doublespeak to “state coercion” in plain language.

“We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves” – norms, committments, affect, ego“behavioural insights”  are manipulations of a neoliberal, paternalist ideological grammar, contributing to Tory rhetoric, lexical semantics and media justification narratives that send both subliminal and less subtle, overt messages about how poor and disabled people ought to behave. And it establishs a “default setting” regarding how the public ought to behave towards poor and disabled people.

The night-watchman who looks the other way from those who need looking out for

This is political micro-management and control, and has nothing to do with alleviating poverty. Nor can this ever be defined as being our “best interests.” There’s an identifiable psychocratic approach embedded in Conservative policies aimed at the poorest. Whilst on the one hand, the Tories ascribe deleterious intrinsic motives to rational behaviours that simply express unmet needs, such as claiming benefit when out of work, and pathologise these by deploying a narrative with subtextual personality disorder labels, such as scrounger, skiver and the resurrected Nazi catch-all category for deemed miscreants: workshy,”  the Tories are not at all interested in your motivations, attitudes, thoughts, hopes and dreams. They are interested only in how your expectations and behaviour fits in with their intent to reduce the State to that of  night-watchman  proportions – one that is only watching out for the privileged and propertied class.

Poor people are not culpable, regarding their predicament. No-one would choose to be poor. They don’t formulate the policies that create rising inequality and poverty: the Tories do. Conservatives are very good at laying out the price of everything, they even go to the trouble of sending out a grossly inaccurate statement to try to persuade the public that their taxes are paying for a projected, shameful, disproportionately costly and wasteful welfare system supporting free riders – a “bad investment” for a mythological, discrete class of taxpayers that needs to be dismantled by a thousand more Tory cuts, but they never once reflect the value and worth of anyone who has been or is going to be destroyed in the wake of their dystopic, Social Darwinist, ideologically driven meddling and propaganda peddling.

And they also fail to mention that although Conservatives are claiming they don’t agree with state interventions, they do an awful lot of those anyway, just to ensure that virtually all of our public wealth is privatised, whilst the debt, risks and pain of this is carried by those people who are the very least able to bear the burden, and actually, the least expensive to society.

The Tory market place harbours no democracy, or sentiment for rights to temper our responsibilities, unless you are rich: everyone else has to content themselves with only responsibilities, the weight of which are inversely proportional to your wealth, of course.

The link between nudge and totalitarianism

As a psychology student, I remember wondering why few psychologists had commented on the political ramifications of B.F. Skinner and behaviourism. After all, he was clearly a totalitarian thinker, and behaviour modification techniques are the delight of authoritarians.

To recap, behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

Skinner and the behaviourists casually removed the person from people. There’s no-one in the “driving seat.” We are being remotely controlled.

Behaviourism was discredited and labelled “pseudoscience” many decades ago, (very memorably by Noam Chomsky, amongst others). Most psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t accept that myriad, complex human behaviours are determined by and reducible to nothing more than an empty stimulus/response relationship; our deeds and words merely a soulless, heartless and mindless cause and effect circuit.

How can behaviourists claim objectivity when they are active participants within the (intersubjective) social environment, sharing the same context that allegedly shapes everyone else’s behaviour? And how does behaviourism itself miraculously transcend the deterministic confines of stimulus-response? If all behaviours are determined, then so are psychological theories.

The Behavioural Insights Team are charlatans that are propping up the policies of an authoritarian government. Hannah Arendt wrote extensively about totalitarian regimes, in particular Nazism and Stalinism. She says that Hitler and Stalin sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the State and furthermore, they sought to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life. This domination tends to happen in stages – incrementally.

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s “Utopian” antidemocratic novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. And all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists.

The insidiousness of “libertarian paternalism” is not only due to a slippery slope from the implicit “non-coercive nudge” to explicitly coercive limits on individual autonomy and liberty.

There is also a problem with the very term, as an example of Orwellian language-use, “libertarian paternalism” renders difficult the ability to conceive of a principled distinction between policy that respects individual autonomy and policy that violates it. But there is a distinction, and the ability to defend our liberty depends on ensuring it is maintained.

Democracy involves governments that shape themselves in response to what people need and want, it’s not about people who reshape their lifestyles in response to what the government wants. Democracy is meant to involve the formulation of a government that reflects and meets public needs.

Under the nudge tyranny, that is turned totally on its head: instead the government is devising more and more ways to put pressure on us to change. We elect governments to represent us, not to manipulate us covertly.

Nudge is actually about bypassing rationality, reason, political accountability and transparency – democratic process, critical debate. The government is substituting those with manipulation, coercion, and an all-pervasive social operant conditioning experiment. The irony is that there is no scope offered with nudging for engaging with rational processes and stimulating critical thinking, in fact nudge bypasses rational and deliberative processes and therefore presents no opportunities whatsoever for people to learn and develop new cognitive skills.

 

The Nudge Unit has been part-privatised, protected from public scrutiny. It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It can sue for libel.

Another application of “behavioural insights”: How to demonise and demoralise jobseekers in one meaningless test. Psychometric tests always tell us more about the designers than about the people who fill them in. And at best, they can only ever indicate that a person is capable of completing a psychometric test. The whole approach of “working” on jobseekers’ “self-esteem” is complete nonsense. It assumes that unemployment is an individual failing that may be fixed at a personal level, rather than a problem of arithmetic where there are fewer jobs than the number of people who want them.

Related

The just world fallacy 

DEFINING FEATURES OF FASCISM AND AUTHORITARIANISM