War of the widows

One in five life insurance claims is refused by the insurers, often on technicalities. Here, Juliet

When my 47-year-old husband, Nikolai, died of cancer he left me and our three dependent children with a £146,000 mortgage and a £250,000 life insurance policy to tide us over the next few difficult years. He died knowing his family would be cared for by Scottish Widows. Six weeks later, regarded by psychologists as the lowest point following bereavement, the insurance company sent me a letter refusing to pay the claim, citing "non-disclosure of material facts".

I was faced with repossession of the house and moving the children (aged nine, 12 and 15) out of their schools and away from friends. My friends told me to put the insurance issue behind me and move on: who was I, a housewife with a part-time job, to take on a huge corporation? But I knew my husband of 20 years to be an honest man. He would never have deliberately withheld medical information.

I, too, had been at the meeting where a Lloyds TSB adviser (Scottish Widows is the bank's life and pensions subsidiary business) had completed our application form for us on her laptop. So what had gone wrong?

Nikolai told her he had been suffering from unexplained fevers for about three months, but that they had recently stopped and he believed he had recovered. Hospital tests and scans had come back negative but he was due to go for more. The adviser, probably accidentally rather than intentionally (though commissions for policies can run into thousands of pounds), wrongly recorded that his fevers had ceased almost a year before our meeting rather than a month before. She also failed to detail the hospital tests. In fact, she made a number of glaring errors on the three-page computer printout application, including wrongly identifying us both as smokers, spelling our address and our names incorrectly, transposing vital dates and giving one-word answers about medical conditions where the form sought "full details".

We were given no opportunity to see the form, which was sent electronically to the Scottish Widows underwriting system immediately. We were then asked to sign a declaration saying we had read through the form and agreed with its content and to sign against our wrongly spelt names. We were told that the completed application form would be sent to us in the post.

I later discovered that it was never meant to be printed out let alone seen by us. Incredibly, the £250,000 contract came into effect three months later with our names still wrongly spelt. I was outraged when the company dismissed this as part of "a few typographical errors".

The automatic underwriting process loaded Nikolai's premiums by 75 per cent with no explanation and no further medical inquiries. Meanwhile, Nikolai naturally presumed this was because Scottish Widows had taken out a GP report following his disclosure of ongoing tests for his former fevers - and also because he had told the adviser he wasn't in good health. Yet it was only when the claim was made that the company decided it required a GP report and then began looking for evidence of non-disclosure - irrespective of whether it was linked to his death. This common practice is odious and devastating for the policyholder.

In fact, one in five life insurance claims is not met because of this kind of "post-claim underwriting". We knew none of this at the time and completely trusted the adviser and the underwriting system. Nikolai, Russian by birth, was an internationally acclaimed photojournalist and had seen a great deal of global corruption. He wanted to bring his children up in an honest, moral society with rules by which both corporations and public abide. He believed that Britain was such a society and would have trusted implicitly a big-brand insurance company.

But, like many insurance companies, Scottish Widows had abandoned its mutual status to become a public company whose sole responsibility is to maximise profits for shareholders at the expense of policyholders. The iconic, caped Scottish widow is just a PR path to profits now. Yet, ironically, the company was originally set up to protect real young widows during the Napoleonic Wars.

Like 548,337 other people that year, I took my case to the financial ombudsman. This service has seen a general upsurge in complaints from people like myself. It took me three years of intense internet research, mounds of paperwork and many weekends and evenings, time that should have been spent with the children.

The company was determined to see me off. I was forced to sell our family home and move to Somerset. Eventually, to my immense relief, three years after my initial complaint, the ombudsman finally upheld my case, finding that, "although the firm's decision to cover the complainant's husband may have been due to a mistake, this mistake cannot be attributed to the complainant's husband; in my judgement, it is attributable to its own automated underwriting processes and data entry error by its agent".

This system of selling policies has now been changed industry-wide, says Scottish Widows. After the final ruling in my favour on 17 August it issued the following statement, which it reiterated to the NS: "In June 2004, Scottish Widows received a life policy claim following the death of Mr Ignatiev. In July 2004 this claim was declined. We do not take lightly the decision to decline a claim, but in this case we were, and still are, of the view that there was material non-disclosure of relevant information. We recognise the important role of the Financial Ombudsman Service in such cases and have always maintained we will accept the final FOS ruling. This final ruling was received on 17 August 2007 and, as a result, we will be settling the claim."

Since Nikolai's death I have uncovered many pitiful and heart-rending stories, where bereaved or terminally ill people have been refused what was rightfully theirs.

Jan Trainer appealed to the ombudsman when her 43-year-old husband Dave was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Scottish Widows refused to pay out, relying on the innocent non-disclosure of an unrelated medical condition. "It's a blatant and cruel use of a technicality to renege on an agreement," says Jan. "As a solicitor, I am up against insurance companies on a daily basis; my work involves obtaining compensation for individuals injured in often very serious accidents. It never ceases to amaze me what tactics are used to avoid meeting their obligation to victims. And the people who have to take on these powerful companies are mostly vulnerable individuals already crippled with emotional pain."

It took the ombudsman's office only three days to uphold Jan and Dave's complaint.

Jerry and Rosemary Horsman, both farmers, were devastated when their daughter Alice was crushed in a farm accident, leaving two small children. Scottish Widows denied her claim because of innocent non-disclosure of a medical condition. Her parents took the case to the ombudsman, but had to battle for two and a half years for justice. "What still horrifies me," says Jerry, "is that the 2001 application form was ludicrously flawed. It was a cheap and cheerful policy to scoop up premiums.

"The inadequate application process makes it ridiculously easy for companies to cherry-pick medical evidence in order to wriggle out of paying. It's shocking to think how many of us are living in a fools' paradise thinking we have cover when we don't."

The ombudsman looks at what is fair and reasonable as opposed to the strict letter of archaic law. However, the Law Commission is now reviewing the 100-year-old insurance law and forward-looking judges, such as Lord Eassie (former chairman of the Scottish Law Commission), are aligning themselves with the ombudsman in recognising that the law is heavily biased against the consumer. Last year, Valerie Cuthbertson, a theatre manager, won a landmark ruling in court when Lord Eassie ruled that Friends Provident was wrong in denying her critical illness cover. Her appeal to the ombudsman had not been upheld but she fought on with the help of legal aid and won through the courts.

We are being mugged by the corporate world. Perhaps ordinary individuals who stand up against the big corporations are the have-a-go-heroes of personal finance.

Do we make a difference? I would certainly like to think so.

548,337 number of complaints each year to insurance ombudsman

1 in 10 UK adults admit to having cheated on an insurance claim

52% of people fail to check life policy details to ensure they have adequate cover

1st reason for life assurance after age 60 is to minimise inheritance-tax liability

70% of insurance sales included hidden extras of which customer oblivious

49% of people never know precisely what they have insurance for

10% rise in complaints about insurance to ombudsman in the year to 2006/2007

£750,000 paid in fines by one insurer after flaws in handling complaints

Research by Jo Barrett

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge