Whistle While You Work (For Nothing): Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy – The Case of Workfare

This is an excellent critique of the highly coercive, pseudo-psychology used to support workfare, and which is now integral to the benefits system. It’s an academic article and so uses the appropriate scientific and psychological jargon for the pseudo-psychological techniques it attacks. Nevertheless, its central message is clear. ‘Postive Affect’ – getting the claimant to adopt appropriate ‘work-friendly’ attitudes or behaviour, is confused and scientifically unsound. The ‘Inventory of Signature of Strength Tests’ used by the workfare companies on claimants has absolutely no scientific validity and wholly contravenes the ethical code of the British Psychological Society. The authors also attack the way the ‘denial of pain’, underlying this use of ‘positive affect’ by the DWP and the workfare companies and agencies is used to support the Neo-Liberal economic system. Joblessness is held to be due to the incorrect or counterproductive psychological attitude of the benefit claimant, rather than due to economic conditions and government policy. They note the way benefit claimants are being increasingly referred to psychologists, and comment on the way eligibility for benefit is also increasingly dependent on claimants showing the right attitude. It is also used to legitimate the use of workfare and sanctions. They state that the use of such psychological techniques and testing raises strong ethical questions, especially that of the lack of questioning of psychological authority. They explicitly state that the British Psychological Authority has not criticised or raised objections to the co-option of psychology in the government’s unemployment and welfare policies. This is an excellent, and very troubling point. In the Soviet Union, psychology was used to silence and incarcerate persistent critics of the regime. Soviet psychiatrists invented a form of amorphous schizophrenia, that could be used to justify locking dissidents up in mental hospitals on the ground that they were obviously insane to attack and contradict the approved Communist view of Soviet society as perfect. You can see the same attitude beginning to take shape over here regarding unemployment and benefits. In short, this is an excellent article that utter demolishes the psychological pseudo-science supporting workfare and the Neo-Liberal policies pursued by New Labour and the Coalition.

Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

In this post, Lynne Friedliand Robert Stearnlook at the role of  psychological coercion, notably through the imposition of positive affect,  in UK Government workfare programmes. There has been little or no debate about the recruitment of psychology/psychologists into monitoring,  modifying and/or punishing  people who claim social security benefits. This silence raises important ethical questions, including about the relationship of psychology to the medical humanities.

Whistle while you work (for nothing): positive affect as coercive strategy
– the case of workfare [1]


The growth and influence of discourses of positive affect in systems of governance and ‘technologies of the self’ has been widely observed.[2]  ‘Strengths based discourse’ is a significant policy imperative in health and welfare reform[3] and underpins  ‘the application of  behavioural science and psychology to public policy’ via the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or ‘nudge unit’.  Positive affect plays an important supporting…

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