IDS and the skivers from Mars

Why cutting money from benefits might not save anything in the long run.

It might not be a bad idea to send Iain Duncan Smith to Mars. We’d soon see what turns a striver into a skiver. Last month, scientists released the results of a study into what happens when people are kept indolent for more than a year. They sleep more, play more video games and lose all normal motivation. Being stripped of normal routines makes it hard to revert to being a striver. The study wasn’t intended to be a critique of social policy; it was about space exploration.

The pioneering Dutch organisation Mars One has more than 1,000 volunteers lined up to take its one-way trips to the Red Planet starting in 2023. Be careful what you wish for, though: if you commit to any of the missions, you will be cooped up with your fellow astronauts in tightly fitting accommodation for nearly 18 months. The study makes it clear that, unless you’re careful, some of you may lose your mind.

The Mars500 project, which took place just outside Moscow, replicated the conditions of a trip to Mars. A multinational mix of engineers, astronaut trainers and doctors spent 520 days in a mock-up of a spaceship composed of narrow tunnels and rooms. Cut off from the rest of the world, crew members were monitored by video cameras and activity monitors worn like wristwatches, enabling scientists to record their behaviour. The mock astronauts were given various things to do but it was what they didn’t do that was most telling.

They didn’t bother with physical activity in the way they might have done when going about their normal existence. As their lethargy grew, they largely avoided the better-lit parts of their accommodation. By the time the mission drew to a close, half of them were sleeping an hour more per night than at the start. For some, playing video games became a coping strategy to deal with the endless tedium.

Nasa and the European Space Agency will be using the data to inform future astronaut training but there is a lesson for lesser mortals, too. If you strip people of normal human purpose, even those who have had the drive to become doctors and engineers struggle to get it back.

In more mundane contexts, long-term poverty leads to some very dark situations. A study published just after Christmas reported on interviews with low-income urban women. They described themselves as living with high stress, long-term exposure to violence, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and intense isolation and loneliness. The researchers who carried out the study noted that no one knows how to get the women out of this place.

Such situations lead to increased health-care burdens, too. A study of 200 breast cancer survivors, also published in December, has shown that loneliness and social isolation lead to pain, depression, fatigue and illness. It’s not all in their heads: blood samples showed that the women’s ability to fight disease and deal with pain were altered. As the researchers put it, “Loneliness enhances [the] risk for immune dysregulation.”

The message is clear, whether the news comes from space agencies, social policy researchers or cancer survivors: if you cut people off from the norms of society, they will collapse in on themselves. Unless you’re superhuman, failing to find work for an extended period will end with you giving up on everything, including staying healthy. So, the money saved from benefit cuts may end up being spent on health-care interventions for the terminally disadvantaged – unless you send them with IDS on that one-way trip to Mars.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Mars: Iain Duncan Smith's new home? Photograph: NASA

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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