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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Jeremy Corbyn vows not to resign. What next for Labour?

The leader's decision to fight the rebels sets the stage for a new leadership contest or a protracted legal battle.  

Throughout Sunday as the shadow cabinet resignations mounted up (reaching 11 by the evening), Jeremy Corbyn's allies insisted that he was unfazed. "He's not wavering," one told me, adding that Corbyn would seek to form a new frontbench. At 21:54pm, the Labour leader released a statement confirming as much. "I regret there have been resignations today from my shadow cabinet," Corbyn said. "But I am not going to betray the trust of those who voted for me - or the millions of supporters across the country who need Labour to represent them."

Corbyn added that "those who want to change Labour's leadership" would "have to stand in a democratic election, in which I will be a candidate". The shadow cabinet, he said, would be reshaped "over the next 24 hours" ("On past experience, 24 hours to pick a shadow cabinet is ambitious," a Labour source quipped in reference to January's marathon reshuffle). 

Any hope that Corbyn would retreat without a fight has been dispelled. Tom Watson will meet him tomorrow morning to "discuss the way forward", a statement regarded as "ominous" by some of the leader's allies. Labour's deputy failed to back Corbyn's leadeership and warned of the need to be "ready to form a government" following an early election. But even if Watson calls on the leader to resign (which insiders say is far from guaranteed), few believe he will do so. 

Corbyn retains the support of his closest allies, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett, and has been backed by shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry and Andy Burnham ("Those who put personal ambition before the party won't be forgiven or forgotten," a senior MP declared of the Manchester mayoral contender). He will look to repopulate the shadow cabinet with supporters from the 2015 intake, such as Clive Lewis, Richard Burgon, Cat Smith and Rebecca Long-Bailey. 

The Parliamentary Labour Party will meet on Monday at 6pm and discuss a motion of no confidence against Corbyn, tabled by veteran MPs Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey. This will likely be followed by a secret ballot on Tuesday between 9am and 5pm. The rebels are confident of winning a majority (though dismiss reports that as many as 80 per cent will oppose Corbyn). But the Labour leader is still unlikely to resign at this juncture. Having entered office with the backing of just 15 MPs (now 14 following the death of Michael Meacher), he is untroubled by losing support that he never truly had. "He's an oddity. Very gentle but very robust," an ally told me. 

At this point, Corbyn's opponents would be forced to launch a direct leadership challenge, most likely in the form of a "stalking horse". John Spellar, a veteran of Labour's 1980s strife, Hodge and Barry Sheerman have been touted for the role. A matter of fierce dispute on Sunday was whether Corbyn would automatically make the ballot if challenged. Labour's lawyers have told the party that he would not, forcing him to win 50 MP/MEP nominations to stand again (a hurdle he would struggle to clear). But Corbyn's allies counter that their own legal advice suggests the reverse. "It could get very messy and end up in the courts," one senior rebel lamented.

Some take the view that natural justice demands Corbyn is included on the ballot, the view expressed by Tony Blair to MPs. In a new leadership contest, Watson and/or Angela Eagle are regarded as the likeliest challengers, though there is still no agreed alternative. Many argue that the party needs a "Michael Howard figure" to achieve party unity and limit the damge at an early election. He or she would then by succeeded by a younger figure (a "Cameron") such as Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis or Lisa Nandy.

But a Labour source told me of the potential contest: "Don't rule out Yvette. The only grown-up candidate and I believe she wants it". He emphasised the need to look beyond the task of "unifying the party" and towards the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Cooper, an experienced economist, was best-qualified to lead at a moment of "national crisis", the source suggested. Watson, he added, wanted "the leadership handed to him on a plate" with backing from grandees across the party. John McTernan, Blair's former political director, said that he would be "very happy" to have the Brownite as leader. Despite Watson's leading role in the coup against Blair in 2006, many from Labour's right believe that he is best placed to defeat Corbyn and unite the party. Some point to Eagle's fourth-place finish in Labour's deputy leadership election as evidence of her limited appeal. 

McDonnell, Corbyn's closest ally, who MPs have long believed retains leadership ambitions, insisted on Sunday that he would "never stand". Most believe that the shadow chancellor, a more abrasive character than Corbyn, would struggle to achieve the requisite 37 MP/MEP nominations. 

The Labour leader's allies remain confident that he would win majority support from members if challenged. Rebels speak of an "unmistakable shift" in opinion since Brexit but concede that this may prove insufficient. They are prepared to mount repeated challenges to Corbyn if necessary in order to "wear him down". But an early general election, which Boris Johnson is expected to trigger if elected Conservative leader, could deny them the chance. 

As the PLP assembles in Committee Room 14 at 6pm, the activist group Momentum will assemble in Parliament Square for a #KeepCorbyn protest. It is a fitting symbol of a party fatally torn between its members and its MPs. Unless the two can somehow be aligned, Labour will remain united in name only. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.