DWP Strengths Tests: An unethical experiment based on neoliberal ideology dressed up as theory.

Photo: Martin Seligman 200px-Flickr_-_The_U.S._Army_-_Comprehensive_Soldiers_Fitness_(1)cropped                       images                       images (1)   Photo: Richard Layard

The recent scandal caused by Cameron’s controversial ‘Nudge’ Unit forcing vulnerable unemployed benefits claimants to take a now discredited psychometric test, some under threat of losing their only meagre means of financial support, has been widely reported. Despite public denials from all corners of government, incontrovertible evidence has emerged that such threats were indeed made. The ‘Nudge’ Unit have defended their callous actions by stating that the tests were administered as ‘research’ and based on valid psychological theory.

Both these claims are questionable. In this article I trace the background of the much vaunted psychological theory behind the test and highlight some of its academic critics. I also discuss research ethics and expose the complete lack of an ethical compass amongst the so-called professionals who work in Cameron’s ‘Nudge’ Unit.

Martin Seligman – the man who wants us all to be happy.

In recent years there’s been a huge growth of serious academic interest in issues of happiness and wellbeing. The new discipline has its own peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Happiness Studies and its own series of annual conferences.  Martin Seligman, Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania is attributed as being the leading light in this area of psychology, known as ‘positive psychology’ and his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment is the key academic text even though its title suggests it’s just one more of the thousands of pop psychology self-help books to have flooded the market in the last decades.

Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, is considered a substantial figure within US academic psychology whilst in the UK the main role in promoting the so-called “science of happiness” has been played by Richard Layard, professor of economics at the London School of Economics and a Labour peer in the House of Lords. Layard was also the convenor of the Happiness Forum, a group of academics, psychologists and top civil servants which met regularly at the LSE to consider issues of happiness and wellbeing during the New Labour’s time in office.

During this time there was a growing interest in happiness (or “subjective wellbeing”, as it is more often called) among Western governments and policy-makers and when in power New Labour commissioned research into the influences on personal wellbeing and their application to policy-making. In 2007 they undertook their first national survey into the happiness of the nation and applied their findings both from this research and from the new psychologies of happiness and wellbeing to public policy.

This much criticised “science of happiness” was important in directly shaping both New Labour’s health and safety at work policies and also mental health policy in England and Wales. Richard Layard was the main author of the influential Depression Report: A New Deal for Depression and Anxiety Disorders published in June 2006 and, more significantly, from 1997 to 2001 Layard was also an adviser to New Labour and one of the key architects of its “New Deal” and “Welfare to Work” policies.

shutterstock_124283335So what is this theory all about and why would it appeal to neoliberal governments?  Richard Layard refers to something he calls the “paradox at the heart of our lives”:-

“Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier… But aren’t our lives infinitely more comfortable? Indeed we have more food, more clothes, more cars, bigger houses, more central heating, more foreign holidays, a shorter working week, nicer work and, above all, better health. Yet we are not happier. Despite all the efforts of governments, teachers, doctors and businessmen, human happiness has not improved”.

There may well be a grain or two of truth in what Layard is saying here but he’s painting a very partial picture. Whilst it is true that measured against Third World countries Western capitalist economies are richer at a macro level, Layard was writing this at a time when the gap between rich and poor within those richer societies was growing faster than ever before. Let’s not forget that even under a so-called Labour government there were more and more people in Britain who were no stranger to poverty and today these words of Layard become increasingly hollow as the Coalition government have multiplied the number of families in food poverty by an enormous factor in the space of three short years.

tumblr_lsrdk29IAh1qeouuio1_500So now, enter Martin Seligman again, stage right. Happiness, Seligman argues, is primarily a product of two main factors. First, there is your genetic inheritance, which sets the boundaries for your ‘happiness range’ and accounts for roughly half of your predisposition to be happy. So put roughly, he’s saying if your parents and grandparents were miserable, then you probably will be too.  There are then a number of other factors which affect your happiness levels. Chief amongst these, he suggests, are living in a wealthy democracy, not a dictatorship, getting married, and acquiring a large social network. And, conveniently, for governments who might want to justify lower wage and benefit levels, he also argues, more money, good health and education have NO impact on happiness levels. Commenting on these “findings”, he claims:

“Even if you could alter all of the external circumstances {money, healthcare, housing, jobs etc.}, it would not do much for you, since together they account for no more than 8% of the variance in happiness. The very good news is that there are quite a number of internal circumstances that will likely work for you”(my emphasis).

ImageGenThis ridiculous comment is an absolute gift for neoliberal governments, especially when they can claim it comes from the mouth of a ‘well-respected psychologist’. It means they can argue that giving you better wages, more benefits, better health care and a good education isn’t really going to make you much happier but if you change the way you think about yourself there’s a whole lot you can do to make yourself feel happier in your life. In other words poor housing, crap jobs and wages, having to go to food banks, being disabled and sick and all the other material conditions of your lives are not what make you unhappy. You make yourself unhappy by your negative attitude towards these things!

happiness-v-wealth-cartoon{Thinks: This begs a very obvious question. Isn’t there a glaring contradiction here between, on the one hand claiming that making people do the Strengths Test was to help them feel more ‘positive’ and motivated and, on the other hand repeatedly putting out the insidious negative messages blazoned all over the Tory press that label the very same unemployed people ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’? If  the DWP really subscribe to Seligman’s theory and are not merely using it as ideology how do they square this circle?}

Richard Layard, Seligman’s British acolyte when he was a key New Labour adviser on welfare to work schemes, argued that:

“After a period of unemployment, benefit-recipients enter a period of grey resignation where any change can appear dangerous. Their “tastes” change. It is the role of the employment office to push people out of that state and into meaningful activity.” (my emphasis)

Now where have I heard that kind of bullshit recently? And there’s more…

Origins of the Strengths Test

Seligman claims that happiness is based on individuals identifying their key signature strengths such as wisdom, courage and love. Some have admiringly called his theory Aristotelian. However, what many people forget is that one of the central themes of Aristotle’s thought was the idea that there was a natural hierarchy in societies with the rich and privileged ruling class rightfully at the top and the peasants naturally at the bottom, with a few ranks in between. Whilst the poor peasants might be able to develop their strengths to a degree, the ‘laws of nature’ dictated that they would never be fit or able to occupy the upper echelons so they should just be happy with their lot. Total nonsense, of course, as history has shown countless times.

In 2007, Seligman and his team published an academic paper entitled “Character strengths in the United Kingdom: The VIA Inventory of Strengths” in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (43 (2007)pp 341–351). The article comments on the participants in the study (the emphasis in bold is mine):

“Participants in the present sample completed the VIAIS online between September 2002 and March 2005. Participants indicated their country of residence upon registration, and the current sample comprises the UK respondents whose responses were extracted from the overall research database; the UK participants were not specifically guided to the site for this project. Respondents can be skewed towards people who are better educated and have a higher socio-economic status, simply by virtue of the fact that they are more likely to have Internet access and to be Internet users. This is true of the current sample, and it is possible that the endorsement of curiosity, love of learning, and open-mindedness – strengths that are likely to be endorsed by people with greater levels of education – may not be reflective of the broader population. Participants were 17,056UK respondents (6332 men, 10,724 women) who completed the VIA-IS online between September 2002 and March 2005. Participants described their occupations as business managers or other professionals, including for example teachers, nurses, pharmacists, opticians, and social workers (34.8%); administrative personnel or other managers and professionals (29.4%); chief executives, doctors, lawyers, dentists or owners of large businesses (10.5%); students or people with no occupation (8.6%); and clerks, secretaries, salespeople, or administrative assistants (7.4%).”

So it would seem from this finding that the Strengths Test is only likely to be valid, if at all, for those with ‘greater levels of education’.  The article then draws the conclusion that:

“Happiness—‘authentic happiness’ and not merely pleasure—can be achieved if a person utilises and develops the positive personality or character traits they are endowed with (their ‘signature strengths’) in purposeful activity; and that a positive, optimistic attitude toward oneself and to events in general helps enable a person achieve his goals.”

Given that Seligman admits that this test only works well on people with a higher level of education and therefore likely to have a well-paid professional career which affords them opportunities to ‘achieve goals’ then it should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that it is not a suitable tool to use with people with lower educational attainment and whose current career chances are very poor, not least because jobs of any kind are scarce (i.e. something that no-one can claim is an ‘internal factor’).

cheeseview1 Seligman and his followers have maintained that his theories are sound and academically rigorous and have been peer reviewed in the usual accepted way. Whilst the last bit of that is certainly true there are many equally rigorous peer reviewed journal articles which strenuously criticise his work.

 Alistair Miller, for instance, writing in 2008 in The Journal of Philosophy of Education, (Vol. 42, No. 3-4) says:

 “…the new science of positive psychology is founded on a whole series of fallacious arguments; these involve circular reasoning, tautology, failure to clearly define or properly apply terms, the identification of causal relations where none exist, and unjustified generalisation… Many critics in the media have pointed out, and with some justification, that it appears to be little more than ‘self help’ (with all its attendant deficiencies) repackaged and given the veneer of respectable science… Much of the debate about the merits of positive psychology has centred on the ‘research evidence’ i.e. does it work or not? Advocates of positive psychology claim that its assertions are proved by a vast amount of research; opponents point to research evidence to the contrary.”

 And Louise Sundararajan  (2005) in the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. (Vol. 25, No. 1) also criticises Seligman’s theory:

 “There is an inherent contradiction in Seligman’s version of the good life: it fails to articulate a moral map on the one hand; and it is not free from value judgments, on the other.”

 On a more political note MacDonald and O’Callaghan (2008) in The Humanistic Psychologist (Volume 36Issue 2) have published an article in which they illustrate that positive psychology:

“ privileges particular modes of functioning by classifying and categorizing character strengths and virtues, supporting a neo-liberal economic and political discourse”. (my emphasis)

 John Chambers Christopher and Sarah Hickinbottom(2008)  in the prestigious journal  Theory Psychology   (vol. 18 no. 5 563-589) call Seligman’s theory “ethnocentric” and “the disguised ideology of individualism”.

 A quick search on Google Scholar threw up the above critiques and many, many more too numerous to mention here.

 The Coalition government have admitted that their policies on unemployment and Workfare have taken over where New Labour left off and like I said, this way of thinking is a gift for wealthy elitist government ministers like Cameron, Osborne and Duncan-Smith who can also use it as a convenient excuse to avoid any guilt trip for being filthy rich and privileged themselves.  They certainly seem to have taken on board Seligman’s ideas as we can see with the ‘Nudge’ Unit’s recent decision to experiment with a watered down version of Seligman’s psychometric test, The Strengths Test, which always gives you a ‘positive’ summary of yourself no matter what answers you tick and thus is supposed to make you feel more happy and positive no matter how miserable the conditions in which you live. It’s certainly much cheaper than paying a decent level of Job Seeker’s Allowance that might actually allow a person a less humiliating standard of living while they search for a job they might be happy and fulfilled doing, with a wage they can support themselves and their family on without needing to resort to food banks to keep body and soul together.

In fact Cameron’s government appear to rely for policy making very heavily on pop psychology such as Richard Thaler’s Nudge theory and other self help gurus.


images (3)The importance of research ethics.

What makes the current government stand out from the last is their arrogant cruelty and total lack of concern for research ethics when forcing an invalid truncated version of Seligman’s psychometric test on vulnerable people under the threat of removing all means of financial support should they fail to complete it.

The ‘Nudge’ unit claimed that the administering of this test was research, a trial using a random sample. Yet they broke every basic ethical guideline in the book and this is a very serious matter which any academic researcher working in universities today can attest to.

The ethical guidelines used by researchers today emerged from the Nuremberg doctor trials after the Second World War which resulted in a number of doctors working for the Nazis being hanged for the terrible experiments they subjected people to. The underlying principles for all research all over the world are that anyone taking part in research must give informed consent and that researchers ensure no-one will be harmed in any way as a result of taking part. Universities all have Ethics Policies and all rate any research undertaken, even by the lowliest student, in terms of low and high risk. Anything other than low risk research has to be put before an Ethics Committee for approval before the research can begin. Any research involving children, vulnerable adults or covert observation or any element of deception or possible harm is automatically classed as high risk.

There is no doubt that the random sample trial undertaken by the ‘Nudge’ Unit was high risk research.

It’s the duty of the researcher to ensure that all participants fully understand what they are getting into and can withdraw at any time. There should be no compulsion or threat involved since this automatically implies harm. There is also the very serious question of who can give informed consent. Ethics Committees have grave concerns about giving the green light to research projects that include children under 16, people with learning difficulties or certain mental health problems because of this. And they require researchers to show how they will mitigate any potential harm to vulnerable participants by, for example, engaging appropriate counselling services to refer participants to if necessary.

Ethics Committees are also not disposed to approving proposals for covert research where participants are unaware they are being researched or are deceived about the true nature of the research, unless there is a very strong public interest case. Given that Seligman himself admits that his Strengths Test is likely to be unsuitable for the kind of people the ‘Nudge’ Unit were targeting it’s highly unlikely that they would convince any Ethics Committee that there was a significant public interest in carrying out their ill-conceived trial.

Of course, no evidence has been put forward to suggest that the ‘Nudge Unit ever bothered to prepare a research proposal and submit it to an Ethics Committee before blundering in with their ‘randomised trial’. They appear to be a bunch of dangerous gung-ho amateurs with no real knowledge of research methods and an overblown sense of their own importance. The video below, which is a record of one of their meetings, seems to bear this out. There’s an awful lot of waffle being spoken about doing ‘experiments’ and they all seem very enthusiastic and ‘positive’ but sadly lacking is any indication that they live on the same planet as the people they want to experiment on. Like the now infamous Nadine Dorris said, they’re just a bunch of arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of milk.

We’ve all witnessed the harm that can follow when people like this get their hands on a theory such as Seligman’s and turn it to the purpose of a morally bankrupt government agenda.


4 thoughts on “DWP Strengths Tests: An unethical experiment based on neoliberal ideology dressed up as theory.

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  3. francesca

    Thanks for informative post. I am pleased sure this post has helped me save many hours of browsing other similar posts just to find what I was looking for. Just I want to say: Thank you!


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