Why Downing Street psychologists lied to jobseekers

Nudge Unit may have been trying to use the power of stereotypes and framing to help people get jobs - but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea.

Jobcentres have been foisting a bogus 'personality test' on the unemployed at the behest of Downing Street, bloggers uncovered earlier this week. The tests spat out random 'personal strength'’ to jobseekers who were forced to take part; traits like 'originality' and 'love of learning' – with the feedback apparently having no bearing on the responses people gave.

The ‘My Strengths’ test came from the much-hyped No.10 'Nudge Unit' (officially the Downing Street Behavioural Insight Team), which tries to use discoveries from the behavioural sciences to improve various parts of government. Why would they give the unemployed fake personality test?

One possibility that’s been floated is that they’re pseudoscientific snake oil salesmen with no idea what they’re doing. This is entirely possible. Equally likely, the problems with the seemingly pointless test could also be down to an IT screw-up – it wouldn’t be the first time.

But there is one explanation that I can think of that does make some sense. It’s possible Nudge Unit was trying to use the power of stereotypes and framing to help people get jobs.

There’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that people 'play up' to stereotypes they have imposed on them. The most famous related experiment is the Stanford Prison Experiment: a random group of subjects are taken and divided into guards and prisoners, then made to staff a pretend prison. After a few days, both groups, picked at random, internalise their roles and the guards are lording it over the prisoners – people play up to the roles you give them.

One piece of research from the University of Canterbury on gender stereotypes illustrates what Nudge Unit's thinking might have been. A group of participants were asked by the Canterbury researchers to do mental arithmetic, and were paid according to the number of questions they got right. They could choose to be paid in one of two ways: either proportionally, according to the number of questions they got right, or in competition with others. The second option would lead to higher pay offs for those successful but with more risk of being left with nothing.

The twist is that before choosing between the two pay approaches, the subjects were given one of two questionnaires. Half were given a questionnaire about their career, the other half one about gender and family issues.

The results are interesting: In the group given the career questionnaire, men and women were equally likely to choose the competitive approach – 25 per cent of each. But given the questionnaire which highlighted gender issues, there was a big gender gap: 37 per cent of men went for the high-risk approach, and only 7 per cent of women.

One plausible conclusion from these results is that even something like a questionnaire is enough to ‘prime’ people’s decision-making and get them to play up to a stereotype. So it’s not inconceivable that Nudge Unit thought that a ‘personality test’ exercise that emphasised personal strengths could have a positive effect on an unemployed person who believed themselves to be unemployable. Their plan was probably to get people to internalise the strengths given to them in the questionnaire and to play that role as someone with a ‘love of learning’ or ‘perseverance’, or whatever made-up strength they decided they want jobseekers to think they have.

So there’s a bit of evidence behind this, and the fake tests might not be entirely cranky – but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea. It still involved the government wilfully lying to people, which most people would probably think was pretty unethical. Less 'nudging' than 'making things up'. And giving people an inaccurate picture of their strengths probably isn’t very healthy anyway – overconfidence is just as much of a problem as under-confidence; both are people not understanding their capabilities and lead to bad choices. One doesn’t necessarily compensate for the other.

Then there’s the fact that Nudge Unit seem to have quite ham-fistedly tried to take a laboratory finding and apply it to the real world without much skill. The questionnaire in the gender experiment 'primed' women to act less or more like their gender stereotype in the actions they were about to take, by changing the framing and context in which imminent decisions were made. But there’s no evidence it somehow permanently stripped them of their gender identity or made them think in more gender neutral terms for anything except the thing they were about to do. Unless the Jobcentre test was given to unemployed people directly before a job interview (it wasn’t) it’s difficult to see what the point would be, as it would be unlikely to have any long-term effect.

The transition from the laboratory to the field also failed in that by choosing to use fake tests, the initiative was set up to implode. It was only a matter of time before people figured out the tests were crap, and once it was common knowledge that they weren’t credible they’d look very silly and any benefits would disappear. This might not have been a factor in a controlled environment, but it is when you go out in the real world.

But worst of all, the whole approach of going to work on jobseekers’ egos is very arguably complete rubbish. It treats unemployment like an individual failing to be fixed at a personal level, rather than a problem of arithmetic where there are fewer jobs than the number of people who want them. This approach cannot work as a strategy to bring down unemployment: if this survey ever did somehow boost someone’s self-image and land them work, someone else who would have otherwise got the job would just lose out instead. The idea that we could fix unemployment if only we would just believe in ourselves is a dangerous fantasy, and to be fair to Nudge Unit, it’s not one exclusive to them.

A street cleaner passes the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.