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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”