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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After a year of division, a new centre is emerging in Labour

Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds show how factionalism is being transcended. 

On 26 September, Clive Lewis sat onstage at Labour’s conference in Liverpool and puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. He had just been informed that a line in his speech as shadow defence secretary committing the party to Trident renewal had been removed by Jeremy Corbyn’s office. Such was his annoyance that he was said to have later punched a wall in anger ("I punched no walls," he told me when we recently met). 

For Lewis, however, the feud proved to be a blessing. Hitherto hostile MPs hailed his pragmatism and deference to party unity (he is a long-standing opponent of Trident renewal). The former soldier also affirmed Labour’s support for Nato and for collective self-defence. “The values that underpin Nato are social-democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression,” Lewis, an early Corbyn ally, told me. “Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats who initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it. It’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”

In October, Lewis was replaced as shadow defence secretary by Nia Griffith and became shadow business secretary. Many regarded the appointment as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis said. “I’m confident that the reason I was moved – what I was told – is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio.”

Whatever the truth, Griffith has since said that Labour’s next general election manifesto will include a commitment to Trident renewal and will support multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Many MPs had long feared that the divide between them and their leader would prove unbridgeable. Some contemplated standing on bespoke manifestos. Yet with little drama, Corbyn has retreated from a conflict that he could not win. Labour’s conference, at which the largely pro-Trident trade unions hold 50 per cent of the vote on policy and which the leader has vowed to respect, would never have endorsed unilateralism.

“Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “Everyone understands that his position hasn’t changed. He still believes in unilateral disarmament . . . But he’s also a democrat, and he’s a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

In policy terms, at least, Labour will contest the next general election as a less divided party than many anticipated. As Corbyn’s team has long emphasised, there is unity around issues such as opposition to spending cuts and support for rail renationalisation. A new centre for Labour, embodied by Lewis, is emerging.

“When I became an MP,” the 45-year-old told me (he was elected in Norwich South in 2015), “to be anti-austerity, to say that cuts don’t work and they’re bad economics, meant you weren’t in touch with reality, and that you had no interest in winning elections. Within the space of 18 months, there’s now a growing consensus that cuts aren’t the way forward and that we need an industrial strategy.”

Theresa May’s support for new grammar schools and “hard Brexit” has given Labour MPs other issues to unite around. After Corbyn’s second landslide leadership victory, many of his opponents have reached the final stage of grief: acceptance. Others, as Lewis noted, are imbued with “an eager enthusiasm to make this work”. Contrary to some predictions, more than half of the 63 frontbenchers who resigned last summer have returned.

An emblematic figure is Jonathan Reynolds. The Liz Kendall supporter, who resigned as shadow transport minister in January 2016, has rejoined the front bench as shadow City minister. Earlier this year, Reynolds backed the introduction of a universal basic income, an idea that is now being explored by John McDonnell’s team (and that Barack Obama has called for “debate” on). In July, Reynolds and Lewis wrote a joint piece in support of proportional representation (PR), warning that without it “a more equal, democratic and sustainable society is less likely”.

Another advocate of PR is Lisa Nandy, the former shadow energy secretary and a friend of Lewis (on 26 October, along with Reynolds, they called for Labour to stand aside in the Richmond by-election to aid the Liberal Democrats). In the view of some, the defining divide in Labour is no longer between left and right but between open and closed. On one side are pluralists such as Lewis, Reynolds and Nandy, while on the other are tribalists such as Ian Lavery (pro-Corbyn) and John Spellar (anti-Corbyn).

The division stretches to the top, with McDonnell in favour and Corbyn opposed. “It’s a work in progress,” Lewis said of his efforts to convert the Labour leader. “There’s a growing movement of MPs who now either support PR or understand the growing necessity for it. They may not be quite there themselves, but they’re moving in that direction.”

At times since Corbyn became leader, the parliamentary party’s divisions have appeared to many to be insurmountable, even as the party in the country has grown and been inspired by Corbyn. Yet a new consensus is being forged in the PLP: anti-austerity, pro-Trident, pro-Nato and, increasingly, committed to political and constitutional reform. If there is any consolation for a becalmed Labour Party, it is that its European counterparts are faring little better. In Spain, France and Germany, an already divided left is further fragmenting.

But Labour is likely to both fight and survive the next general election as a united force. If Lewis can retain his seat in Norwich (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654), he could one day act as the bridge between the party’s “soft” and “hard” left. After a year of factional skirmishes, the common ground in which Labour’s future will be shaped is emerging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage