Psychological Programs Designed To Forcibly “Modify” Unemployed People


In order to receive social security benefits, people in the UK are increasingly being forced to undergo psychology assessments and continual attitude-modification training, according to research published in BMJ Open. The British Psychological Society expressed concern that such programs be done “ethically.”

The BMJ Open article was based on interviews with unemployed people, reports from social media, and an analysis of legislation and practices in the UK. One of the UK-based co-authors of the study also co-authored an article about the topic in The Conversation that was previously reported on by Mad in America.

“Eligibility for social security benefits in many advanced economies is dependent on unemployed and underemployed people carrying out an expanding range of job search, training and work preparation activities, as well as mandatory unpaid labour (workfare),” the authors wrote in BMJ Open. “Increasingly, these activities include interventions intended to modify attitudes, beliefs and personality, notably through the imposition of positive affect.”

For example, unemployed interviewees in the study described feelings of “anger, humiliation and depression on receiving daily ‘positive’ emails from welfare to work contractors.” These emails would be peppered with statements aimed at increasing positive affect, such as “success is the only option”, “we’re getting there”, “smile at life”, “this can be the greatest, most fulfilling day you’ve ever known. For that to happen, you have to allow it”.

Meanwhile, “deficits in attitude and motivation can and do trigger sanctions,” wrote the authors. “Psycho-coercion of this kind is directly contributing to the escalation of the number of sanctions being applied, forcing people off benefits and plunging growing numbers into poverty: eligibility for both out-of-work and in-work benefits is contingent not only on certain behaviours but also on possession of positive affect; conditionality is linked to the ‘employability’ mindset. For example, one of the criteria for being sent on Community Work Placements (unpaid work for 30h per week, for 26 weeks) is ‘lack of motivation’, although this is never defined.”

“There is no evidence that work programme psycho-interventions increase the likelihood of gaining paid work that lasts any length of time,” the authors stated. “In perpetuating notions of psychological failure, they shift attention away from the social patterning of unemployment and from wider trends: market failure, precarity, the rise of in-work poverty, the cost of living crisis and the scale of income inequalities… The use of psychology in the delivery of workfare functions to erase the experience and effects of social and economic inequalities, to construct a psychological ideal that links unemployment to psychological deficit, and so to authorise the extension of state — and state-contracted — surveillance to psychological characteristics.”

In a blog post, the British Psychological Society’s Jonathan Calder referred to the study and wrote that, “While psychology certainly has a role to play in the welfare system, it must be used ethically and effectively.” Calder then pointed to the Society’s briefing paper criticizing the UK government’s Work Capability Assessment, a psychological testing program to evaluate people’s “fitness to work”. The briefing paper requested changes to that program, including “appropriate training in assessment, scoring and interpretation for assessors” and “supervision for assessors from qualified clinicians.”

Friedli, Lynne, and Robert Stearn. “Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy: Conditionality, Activation and the Role of Psychology in UK Government Workfare Programmes.” Medical Humanities 41, no. 1 (June 1, 2015): 40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622. (Full text)

Psychologists Call for Reform of the Work Capability Assessment (British Psychological Society press release, June 10, 2015)

Psychology and the Unemployed (British Psychological Society press release, June 12, 2015)

Briefing Paper: A Call to Action on Work Capability Assessment Reform (British Psychological Society)


  1. It sounds as if the UK “mental health” system has gone even further than here in the US in openly being an agent of social control. What we read here tells us it is so far only being used this way against the lowest on the class ladder, but I (maybe unrealistically) think that the MH system is setting itself up for some forceful political resistance in the near future. This kind of stuff is becoming more and more brazen, and I think, as long as we have some semblance of democracy left, there is going to be a price to pay for this arrogance.

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  2. So people in need are supposed to spend all their time training and searching for jobs that do not exist, and if they don’t find them then it is because they are somehow individually lacking. That’s capitalism! Now, on top of all that, one must also be cheerful and optimistic about the process or risk losing one’s existing meager social support. That’s totalitarianism.

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  3. There is an old joke about an airliner that loses its navigational aids while flying into Seattle. The pilot circles downtown, and seeing a man on the roof of a building, shouts “where am I?” The man shouts back, “you’re in an airplane”. The pilot then circles left, finds the airport, and lands the plane. The copilot asks, “how did you find the airport?” The pilot answers, “the man on the building gave me an answer that was perfectly true but of no practical help whatsoever. I figured it must be the Microsoft building, and I knew that Microsoft is due north of the airport”

    Similarly, pointing to the injustices of society is completely correct, but in the short run, offers little more practical utility than the advice of the man on the roof. Society is unjust, but some are better able to find their way in that unjust society than others. Its not as simple as blaming the problem on society or on the individual, because financial security comes at the interface between the two.

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    • The economic system is the problem and it will not be changed until enough people realize that collective problems (like not enough living wage jobs for the population) cannot be solved at the individual level (like by an unemployed person’s job training or positive thinking). That is why there is great practical utility in raising awareness about the true nature of the predicament disadvantaged people find themselves in. If they succumb to the the social Darwinist indoctrination that is manufactured and disseminated by corporations and the rich, then they will blame themselves and not challenge the system. The elite know this of course, and that’s exactly why we are bombarded with the message that anyone who cannot make a living in a capitalist society is up to no good or didn’t try hard enough. Meanwhile, in reality, no amount of personal positivity or training can help a person find a job that does not exist.

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  4. And thanks, Congress, for giving Obomber fast track authority; the corporate coup is all but complete.

    There are sites that give graphs of the corps who greased the wheels (and by how much) and another on which ‘congress person’ took how much to change their initial (posing) ‘no’ vote.

    To the poster above; so it’s OK for our culture to have ‘evolved’ into dog eat dog? Darwin speaks about diversity being the trait that saves species…

    This is so f***** up.

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  5. No it’s not “ok for our culture to have evolved into dog eat dog”, just as its not OK to twist other people’s words.

    Society has always been unjust. We make a few steps forward, and sometimes we back up. Telling people that their problems are due to injustice is like telling someone whose house is on fire that heavy rain is expected tomorrow morning. It’s true, but its not going to do them a lot of good. They have to learn how to deal with what is, and not simply to point out how it could be better.

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  6. So just sit back and enjoy the show? Nothing can be done? It’s always been this way? It seems to me we are more than taking steps backwards; we are *devolving* into selfish, hyperindividual drones while the ‘aliens’ have taken over the ship!

    Keep watching your big screen TV…

    The lemmings are heading to the cliff while texting.

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  7. The thing I’m so so concerned about is upsetting the poor little robber barons hiding among the 1% , sitting there , all of them underneath it all , scared shitless of the people knowing they’ve gone too far already for 2 long and that all their money and power and flunkies will not save them in the end when the day and time comes that no one can predict when they are overrun in a flash by the people they so vehemently hate and they are finished off by those standing next to them and they and their reign of terror are swept away.

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