Unemployed people are told they risk losing benefits if they fail to carry out meaningless questionnaire
This is, obviously, the nightmare scenario for the Government’s behavioural economics / social psychology “nudge unit”. The Nudge Unit was always going to run into trouble on one of two grounds - they do something which the press thinks is evil, or they do something which the press thinks is stupid. As it’s turned out they’ve done both.
The basic story here is as summarised - unemployed people had to do a psychometric test to ‘determine their strengths’ and then were asked to do things related to those strengths: it’s the idea, from positive psychology, that self-belief correlates with achievement, in which case increasing self-belief is a Good Thing, right?
But the test wasn’t real, and people were threatened with loss of benefits if they didn’t complete it.
And this has all been exposed, and lots of people are thinking “nasty”.
But if you’re interested in “nudging” and government applications of psychology it’s worth teasing out where that nastiness actually is.
Consider these alternative scenarios.
A. The Government asks jobseekers to do a REAL psychological test, act on the results, and threatens loss of benefits.
B. The Government asks jobseekers to do a bogus test, act on the results, but doesn’t tie it to benefits at all - it’s just part of the “getting people back to work” package.
C. The Government asks jobseekers to do a real test, act on the results, but it’s not tied to benefits - it’s just part of the package.
Are these scenarios evil, stupid, both, or neither? I’d say A was evil and stupid (if you’re trying to induce positive psychology effects you don’t start by threatening your subjects). B is just stupid (why not use a real test? you’re asking to be exposed) and C is basically neither, with the very large caveat that most psychometric tests are a bit feeble.
But C is also the most interesting one, because for a lot of people that would still feel wrong. Firms, governments, and other people use psychology on us all the time, but actually admitting it, and setting up a unit to do it, feels like crossing a line. “Mind control”, “Psy-war”, brainwashing, etc.
(There’s a whole other dimension here too, of course. I’m assuming that these people are able to work, and that trying to get people able to work back to work is a legitimate government role. Obviously this whole conversation is taking place in a context where the former assumption is itself bogus, since the current Government is hell-bent on
driving the disabled back to work making ideological “savings” by declaring the disabled fit to work whether they can or not. One of the many dreadful effects of this is to cast doubt on any legitimate back-to-work efforts.)
So if you’re a consumer-facing company exploring nudging or behavioural science, and you’re looking at this car-wreck, what lessons do you draw from it? Don’t back up nudges with threats, for a start. But there’s a more important lesson. What makes this gross is the feeling that you can’t nudge somebody into a job that isn’t there. Positive psychology has a bad flipside, which is implied blame for adversities falling on people who aren’t positive enough - whereas there are any number of structural factors far more likely to affect them. In an environment where the poor and unemployed are getting blamed for their own situation anyhow, that’s inflammatory.
In marketing terms, it’s the equivalent of using psychology to cover up bad business decisions - nudging people into buying horsemeat burgers, for instance. So the lesson for wannabe nudgers is maybe to sort your externals out before you call in the head-shrinkers.