Nudging into Subjectification John Cromby Psychology, SSEHS
OVERVIEW • Cromby, J. & Willis, M.E.H. (in press) Nudging Into Subjectification: governmentality and psychometrics. Critical Social Policy • The Story • Context • Nudge and BIT • Positive Psychology • Character Psychometrics • Signature Strengths • Subjectification
Context • Neoliberal government policies – ‘austerity’ • Punitive changes to benefits system • Media and ministerial attacks on claimants • During periods of economic downturn “worklessness is typically named as a problem of character” (Clarke & Newman 2012, p.311)
Nudge and BIT • Behavioural economics: • Economics, neuroscience, psychology • Human decisions: neither simply rational nor simply irrational • Choice architectures, imprinting • Libertarian paternalism • People can legitimately be ‘nudged’ toward goals that have prior public consent • Whitehead et al (2011) • Policy implementations of behavioural economics frequently associate emotional decisions with particular groups • Behavioural economics “enables policy makers (and an emerging cartel of psychocrats) to foreclose discussion of what the values associated with ‘good behaviour’ should be” (Whitehead et al., 2011 p.2834, italics in original).
Positive Psychology • Test based upon the Values in Action (VIA) ‘Inventory of Character Strengths and Virtues’ - the ‘scientific backbone’ of positive psychology • Becker & Marecek (2008) show that positive psychology: • Endorses ‘the American Dream’ • Takes a selective view of ‘positive’ institutions • Largely ignores power relations of e.g. SES, gender, ethnicity • Held (2008): the double epistemic standard of positive psychology • Positive psychology has influenced previous UK social policy: • Lord Layard and IAPT • Measuring national wellbeing
Character Psychometrics • 48 questions, 5 point Likert Scale: • Issues: • Reliablity and validity • Reactivity/response bias • Introspection • Quantification • Meaning
Character Psychometrics • VALIDITY • "They are using the non-validated version … we had tested it a while back and it failed”: VIA, The Guardian, May 6th • REACTIVITY AND RESPONSE BIAS • social desirability responding: the tendency of respondents to answer questions in a manner that (they imagine) will be viewed favourably by others • More likely in relation to topics such as sexual behaviour, drug use, abilities and personality (Rust and Golombok, 1999)
Character Psychometrics • INTROSPECTION • the supposed ability to ‘look inside the self’ and objectively report what we see • behavioural economics presumes that we do not have this kind of rational insight • QUANTIFICATION • It has never been demonstrated that psychological attributes are discrete and quantifiable in character • In the natural sciences it is axiomatic that measurement viability is demonstrated before measures are deployed • Psychology sidesteps this requirement by using an ad hoc and anomolous operational definition of measurement: “the assignment of numerals to objects or events according to rule” (Michell, 2000 p. 650)
Character Psychometrics • MEANING • 5 point Likert scale: very much like/unlike me • Rosenbaum & Valsiner (2011): participants completed the NEO-PI, for each question wrote down the meanings of the end points of the scale • These meanings often varied: between questions, and between participants • “it is a misplaced assumption that participants have direct access to their response and that this response is static and can be represented as a mark along a line .. rating scale data, despite being statistically manipulated, should not (and indeed cannot) be thought of as objective” (Rosenbaum & Valsiner 2011, p.61).
Character Psychometrics • The VIA test: • may lack validity • is not a neutral ‘scientific’ process of quantification • does not provide objective assessments of character • “The contribution of psychometric modelling is fundamentally a political one, as it permits the assimilation of the reality of phenomena that are described in a qualitative way and can at best be partially ordered to an intuitively totally ordered reality, where the social utility rests on the need for comparison of human beings.” (Vautier et al., 2012 p. 818)
Signature Strengths • The focus on character and ‘signature strengths’ • Ignores experience, skills, aptitude, knowledge • Emphasises psychological attributes of the self • How much can such an emphasis actually help people to find work? • How much help can actually be derived from these very brief, decontextualised, non-specific descriptions?
Subjectification • Foucault (2008), rather than govern by dictating rights and responsibilities, neoliberalism proceeds by: • harnessing desires for independence and creativity to the interests of business • reconfiguring workers as entrepreneurs of their own skills and abilities • reconfiguring the social relations of capitalism to emphasise competition, not between workers and capitalists, but between workers themselves • Neoliberalism therefore demands a new governmentality, a changed mode of subjectification: • being subject to a power relation • working to reflexively understand oneself as a particular kind of subject
Subjectification • The VIA test as an instrument of subjectification: (coerced) personal responsibilities to: • take the test • email results to benefits advisor • work on the self in light of the results: • “aim to use each of your strengths in a new way everyday for at least a week” • The VIA test as an instrument of subjectification: the nature of the test results
Subjectification • Three profiles (paragon, neutral, very much unlike me) were identical • 15 different ‘signature strengths’ were generated • 6 of these appeared only once • 4 more appeared only twice • Of the 5 strengths presented above: • 3 of these appeared on 8 different profiles • another appeared on 7 profiles, the other on 5
Subjectification • Rationality: • asks questions, carefully evaluates every situation, does not jump to conclusions, considers only ‘solid evidence’ • Flexibility: • enjoys exploration and discovery, takes opportunities to learn, adapts to the feelings and positions of others, able to change her or his mind • Innovation: • seeks out new ideas, can take up new positions, is ready to defy convention in order to develop new ways of working
Subjectification • ‘Character Strengths and Virtues’ (2004) include: • BRAVERY: not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; speaking up for what is right even if there is opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular; includes physical bravery but is not limited to it • FAIRNESS: Treating all people the same according to notions of fairness and justice; not letting personal feelings bias decisions about others; giving everyone a fair chance • VIA Test ‘Fairness’: • Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance
Conclusion • This procedure: • nudges benefit claimants toward the adoption and rehearsal of core aspects of neoliberal subjectivities • responsibility, rationality, flexibility, innovativenss • inflects the discursive networks within which subjectivities are formed with a particular constellation of qualities • helps inculcate a collective self-image consonant with the demands of a precarious labour market • is probably unethical (informed consent, right to withdraw, confidentiality, anonymity, integrity) • trades in the allure of ‘science’, quantification and psychological expertise • illustrates the potential dangers of libertarian paternalism