Is Labour abolishing illness?

The new rules on incapacity benefit stake everything on a major gamble: that a large proportion of c

Incapacity benefit has become one of this year's favourite scare stories. Hardly a day passes without a new headline deploring its soaring costs and the rising numbers of claimants who get "something for nothing", at the expense of decent, hardworking taxpayers. We are told that we are footing an outrageously escalating bill for 2.4 million people, a million of whom shouldn't be on the benefit at all, and each successive work and pensions minister vows to be more ruthless than the last.

The true picture is somewhat different. The unreported version, which can be culled from Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data, is that only 1.4 of the 2.4 million actually receive any payment, the rest get national insurance credits only, and numbers have been falling since 2003. The basic benefit is worth barely £3,000 a year. After two small rises in the first year there is no further increase, other than index-linking. All those who get the benefit have to pass a rigorous "personal capability assessment" (PCA) with doctors appointed by the DWP; and they can be re-examined at any time. The audited estimate of fraud is under 1 per cent - the lowest of any part of the social security system.

Nonetheless, the 2007 Welfare Reform Act is now being implemented across the country. It replaces support, as of right, for illness/disability (one of the planks of our rapidly disappearing welfare state) with a new, conditional employment and support allowance. Claimants are held on a basic allowance until it is confirmed that their capability for work is limited. This is determined by a "work capability assessment" tougher than the old PCA. Those deemed capable of one day returning to work (and the arbiters are health professionals rather than doctors) must engage in a series of "work-focused" interviews and activities. These include, among other things, "condition management", which in practice is likely to consist of group sessions loosely based on cognitive behavioural therapy. All this brings an additional slice of benefit that can, however, be cut for those who do not engage in it without "good cause" - a potential loss of 40 per cent of income. Ultimately, any whose capability for work remains limited through failing to follow medical advice, or "any prescribed rules of behaviour", face a period of disqualification. (A further provision of the act, to be piloted in nine areas, is that people served with Asbos - antisocial behaviour orders - can face cuts in their housing benefit for refusing local authority offers "to help address any problem behaviour".)

A main selling point of the reform was the great savings it would bring. It would staunch the outflow of benefits and get many people into jobs where they would pay tax and provide for their old age. This government's cherished goal is an employment rate of 80 per cent of the working-age population - though it is difficult to find any reasoned argument in support of this since our present rate of 75 per cent is, with Canada's, the highest in the world. The government accepts that employers must be paid to take on people with an illness record and, for the time being, it has pledged not to cut the benefits of existing claimants. Any immediate savings, therefore, can only come from bumping as many as possible off the benefit, shaving future benefit levels (already well in hand), and making it harder for newcomers to get it in the first place. Delivery is being farmed out to private agencies paid by results - which means, of course, the setting of targets. The next few years will be a bad time to have a crippling accident or succumb to a serious disease, particularly a psychiatric or neurological one that does not have obvious outward symptoms.

Blaming the "cheats"

The reform of incapacity benefit has been over ten years in the making, leaving in its wake a dense trail of commissioned reports. A curious thing about this voluminous material is how little information it contains on the actual health conditions for which benefit is paid. This is no accident, for the reformers long ago made up their minds that claimant numbers are too high, therefore a large proportion - usually put between a third and a half, but lately upped to 70 per cent in some quarters - must be spurious. An appeal to history is repeated like a mantra that, back in 1979, only 700,000 claimed the old sickness/invalidity benefits. Since then, money has been poured into the NHS while health care, living standards and longevity have improved beyond all expectations. People must be healthier, which proves that huge numbers are exploiting a slack and obsolete system. Who is to blame, apart from outright cheats? It can only be the self-indulgent, who fancy themselves sicker than they really are, and complacent GPs who let them think they are too ill to work.

Crucially, the reformers bracketed illness with disability. The disability lobby had long argued that "disability" was a discriminatory label imposed by society, and it was bent on removing the barriers to work that excluded those so labelled and kept them in poverty. But the bracketing brought confusions - for those with disabilities may be extremely fit (consider the disabled athlete), whereas the able-bodied can be extremely ill. More confusion arises with conditions such as "stress", "anxiety" and "chronic fatigue" that sound trivial. As for "back pain", how unreasonable is it to take time off sick for something best dealt with by a stiff upper lip and the odd aspirin? It is easy for those in good health to pooh-pooh such things, agreeing with the government that "Work is the best therapy".

The government's declared mission is to "liberate" claimants, to bring them into its "reformed, coherent welfare state for the 21st century". It seeks to overturn a culture based on the "medical model" of illness that allows them to "drift" on to long-term benefits without realising that "symptoms, feeling unwell, sickness and incapacity are not the same" - hence the appeal of cognitive behavioural therapy, which it understands as a treatment that will talk the sick into believing they can lead normal lives.

Doctors - so often the refuge of desperate people trying to find out what is wrong with them - should as far as possible be excluded from the process. Even those working for the DWP have opinions that are "unfounded, of limited value and counter-productive", while GPs are "unaware of the importance of work, the absence of which leads to depression, poor health, higher rates of suicide and mortality, poverty, and social exclusion". (The quotations are from a 2005 study from the Unum Provident Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research at Cardiff University, whose ideas and rhetoric infuse the reform. Unum Provident is an American firm, the largest disability insurance company in the world, which is currently in litigation in different countries for refusing to pay out on some of its policies.) A private agency has now taken over the running of its first GP surgery here, and doctors dealing with disability living allowance are advised not to invite patients to explain how their condition affects them.

Features of the reform are familiar from other policy areas. First, a demonisation of a needy or vulnerable group, followed by a rebranding: so claimants become not even "clients" but "customers" (as in the just published "Commissioning Strategy" document); incapacity benefit becomes employment and support allowance; sick notes are redrafted for doctors to certify, not what patients can't but what they can do. Next come "partnerships", on an unchallenged assumption that the public sector has failed. The new system is farmed out to for-profit or non-profit-making agencies paid by results. This entails targets, and where targets are set, sanctions follow, for any who "fail to recover".

There are features of the new programme that look intelligent and humane, doubtless owing much to the efforts of the disability lobby. They include a longer and more flexible bridging period (and a back-to-work grant) between benefits and work, and a broader view of "work- focused" activities. The crunch will come with those described as not able or prepared to engage "because [of] the nature and severity of their health condition, or more a matter of attitudes, perceptions and expectations which may or may not be accurate . . . It is a question of what the claimant cannot do vs what they will not do."

For the reform stakes everything on a gamble: that a large proportion of claimants, present and to come, are fit enough to work. There seems no way of proving or disproving this, other than trying it out, at the risk of much waste of public money, and much personal grief. Deliberate rejection of the "medical model" deprives us of all we might have learned (from the wealth of data available) of the impact of illness on our society.

I have scratched my head long and hard over this reform (among other things sending out lengthy submissions to all concerned during the long consultation phase in 2005-2006) because so much in its theory and rhetoric contradicts my own experience: of chronically and seriously ill family members and friends, of several years as a Mind volunteer, and further years of peripheral involvement in action groups for chronic fatigue conditions. All this has indelibly impressed me with the courage of many who live with horrible complaints, the sheer hard work involved in their day-to-day coping, their relentless search for any amelioration, let alone cure, often at costs hard to spare from limited resources.

I have witnessed, too, and at close quarters, the hurt and stress of living difficult lives as people have to do, in a perpetual culture of disbelief and threat, where some of the most valiant are blamed for their conditions and conflated with the alleged "can't work, won't work" unemployed. For the message of the reform that comes across, for all its fashionable rhetoric, is that a person is valued only as a productive unit. Compassionate cases aside, those too ill to work are outside society and money spent on them is wasted. Sickness, disablement and inability to work have no place in a modern society - they can't and shouldn't be afforded.

No one pretends that illness is not a blight, imposing personal and social costs going far beyond the financial; but - pace the government - no one as yet knows how to remove it from the human condition. Why waste valuable time and resources on an ill-founded reform, when they could instead be used to further understanding of the real impact of illness on our society?

Alison Ravetz is a professor emeritus of Leeds Metropolitan University who writes on housing policy and welfare reform

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

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?

***

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.

***

 

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?

***

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