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.

Photo: Getty Images/Christopher Furlong
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A dozen defeated parliamentary candidates back Caroline Flint for deputy

Supporters of all the leadership candidates have rallied around Caroline Flint's bid to be deputy leader.

Twelve former parliamentary candidates have backed Caroline Flint's bid to become deputy leader in an open letter to the New Statesman. Dubbing the Don Valley MP a "fantastic campaigner", they explain that why despite backing different candidates for the leadership, they "are united in supporting Caroline Flint to be Labour's next deputy leader", who they describe as a "brilliant communicator and creative policy maker". 

Flint welcomed the endorsement, saying: "our candidates know better than most what it takes to win the sort of seats Labour must gain in order to win a general election, so I'm delighted to have their support.". She urged Labour to rebuild "not by lookin to the past, but by learning from the past", saying that "we must rediscover Labour's voice, especially in communities wher we do not have a Labour MP:".

The Flint campaign will hope that the endorsement provides a boost as the campaign enters its final days.

The full letter is below:

There is no route to Downing Street that does not run through the seats we fought for Labour at the General Election.

"We need a new leadership team that can win back Labour's lost voters.

Although we are backing different candidates to be Leader, we are united in supporting Caroline Flint to be Labour's next deputy leader.

Not only is Caroline a fantastic campaigner, who toured the country supporting Labour's candidates, she's also a brilliant communicator and creative policy maker, which is exactly what we need in our next deputy leader.

If Labour is to win the next election, it is vital that we pick a leadership team that doesn't just appeal to Labour Party members, but is capable of winning the General Election. Caroline Flint is our best hope of beating the Tories.

We urge Labour Party members and supporters to unite behind Caroline Flint and begin the process of rebuilding to win in 2020.

Jessica Asato (Norwich North), Will Straw (Rossendale and Darween), Nick Bent (Warrington South), Mike Le Surf (South Basildon and East Thurrock), Tris Osborne (Chatham and Aylesford), Victoria Groulef (Reading West), Jamie Hanley (Pudsey), Kevin McKeever (Northampton South), Joy Squires (Worcester), Paul Clark (Gillingham and Rainham), Patrick Hall (Bedford) and Mary Wimbury (Aberconwy)

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.