Photo: Choices by Simon Carter

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) recently put benefit claimants through a series of psychometric tests, designed to ‘nudge’ claimants into a more positive frame of mind regarding job seeking. This process was exposed as meaningless by the American firm that designed the questionnaire, stating that the DWP were refused permission to use these tests and that the results were not scientifically valid.  This led to claims that people are being manipulated unfairly and tricked through the use of ‘bogus’ psychometrics. This specific instance masks deeper difficulties with psychometrics more generally and particularly in their use in the labour market. The fact that these tests are being used as a condition for receipt of benefit with little or no scientific credence is another direct example of the underlying benefit reduction ideology of this government.

Claimants are asked to complete a psychometric test called My Strengths. The 48-item assessment generates a list of five positive strengths that the participant can then assimilate into their CV. In line with the Nudge Unit ‘philosophy’ it is also intended to encourage claimants to think more positively about themselves; the rationale being that this will make them more likely to seek work and reduce the benefits burden.

Much of the bad press about this story is that the tests produce spurious results. A number of respondents demonstrated that they could generate identical results regardless of the answers they gave. Even the authors of this questionnaire have conceded that it fails to produce any meaningful information. But there is a bigger issue at stake here. Within all of the reporting on this topic there is an implicit assumption that there are ‘better’ psychometric assessments that can actually do what the DWP test is criticised for not doing. There is an assumption that ‘good’ psychometric tests can describe people’s personality constructs in a way that is helpful both for them and for potential employers. In this example, it is the DWP test that is bad, rather than the principle of using psychometrics.

Many psychometric assessments are based on a presumption that there are a range of characteristics, qualities, personal attributes that are essential to all of us and are therefore discoverable through the application of ‘psychological science’. This assumption presents a normative, often gendered and culturally specific view of human beings that regards difference or diversity as deviating from the norm. Within a labour market context this assumption functions to reduce different personal attributes to an officially sanctioned series of normal responses that inevitably discriminates against whole groups of people who do not conform to that norm. Wendy Holloway discusses the central role that psychological knowledges play in the social regulation of the workplace and workforce forming a ‘technology of the social’. This technologisation of the social is precisely the context of the DWP test, and indeed psychometrics in general. She links the development of IQ testing with the evolution of personality assessments and points out that both these psychological ‘technologies of the social’ presume the existence of predetermined, essential qualities.

Another implicit, and problematic, assumption is that these essential constructs are measureable. This requires that we accept that different aspects of human behaviour can be separated out from each other and indeed from the social context in which they occur. Consider the focus of psychometrics on motivation. If my work experiences have taught me to expect the worst of my peers then I am unlikely to be highly motivated to engage in certain work based, social behaviours. In this example it is my embodied, lived experiences that have taught me that the workplace is a scary place. It is an adaptive strategy to avoid new or risky situations and to treat some of my colleagues with a mixture of suspicion and fear. Psychometrics would see this ‘maladaptive response’ as a result of my own essential personality traits. I would argue it is a reasonable response to a toxic social environment. The discrepancy between these two views is deeply problematic and risks blaming victims of work place bullying. This is particularly so when the battery of tests has the backing of an official government office and has the potential to impact upon whether I receive benefit payments.

Beneath this highly contested and problematic series of assumptions is another, more ethical problem. This is the manner in which psychometrics are used to normalise the workforce and allow capital to shape the labour force to its own needs. Employers are provided with a psychological pseudo-scientific model that allows them to choose employees according to a series of problematic, socially constructed personality traits. This is undertaken not for the employee’s benefit, but in order to meet the needs of capital. While this story is certainly an embarrassment for the DWP and the Nudge Unit it presents a bigger dilemma for the discipline of psychology. As in the case of VIA, it is not the development of these measures per se that is harmful but the way that they can be engineered to fit ideological belief systems that are then applied to control large swathes of the population, particularly vulnerable sections of that population. Is this really the business research and applied psychologists want to be in?

About the Author: Danny Taggart is a Clinical Psychologist based jointly at the Priory Children’s Centre in Great Yarmouth and as a Lecturer in the School of Health and Human Sciences, University of Essex. At the Priory Children’s Centre he works alongside local fathers in the Great Yarmouth Father’s Project, a Community Psychology informed intervention to improve social, emotional and material conditions for families in the local area.