DWP presentation on ESA plans ‘confirms worst fears’ about green paper

Ministers have been accused of ignoring a public consultation and ploughing ahead with plans that will make their “fitness for work” testing regime even more stressful and unfair for sick and disabled people.

A presentation delivered by two senior Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants earlier this month suggests that ministers have decided – as many disabled activists feared after the publication of last year’s green paper – to introduce new benefit sanctions for sick and disabled people with the highest support needs.

The presentation at a DWP “Operational Stakeholder Engagement Forum” appears to confirm that the government had decided how it would reform the system of out-of-work disability benefits before its “consultation” process had finished on 17 February.

The government had claimed that it wanted to make the work capability assessment (WCA) less of an ordeal for claimants, with work and pensions secretary Damian Green telling last October’s Conservative party conference he wanted to support those disabled people who cannot work, and “sweep away unnecessary stress and bureaucracy which weighs them down”.

But slides from the presentation appear to show that his new regime will be even harsher, and that many employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants with the highest support needs and barriers to work will for the first time face having their benefits sanctioned if they do not co-operate with the regime.

The slides show DWP has already begun introducing a compulsory, face-to-face “health and work conversation” (HWC) with a jobcentre work coach that will apply to nearly all new claimants of ESA, weeks or even months before they go through the WCA process to decide whether they are not fit for work and eligible for the benefit.

The presentation says that “vulnerable” claimants will not have to take part in the face-to-face HWC.

A DWP spokesman has told Disability News Service (DNS) that work coaches will be “issued clear guidance on who will be exempted from the HWC” and “will also be able to defer the HWC if the claimant cannot attend due to temporary circumstances”.

But disabled activists have warned that these decisions will be taken by non-medically trained civil servants.

The slides say: “Currently Jobcentre staff do not routinely engage with ESA claimants before the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which can take place many months into the claim.

“We know that the start of the claim can be a challenging time for claimants and that the longer a claimant is on benefit, the more difficult it is for them to move into employment where appropriate.

“The Health and Work Conversation (HWC) will provide this early support to claimants.”

The presentation said the HWC – which it claimed was co-designed with some disabled people’s organisations – will draw on “behavioural insight techniques and research” to “develop voluntary action plans” and help claimants “move closer to the workplace”.

And it said that all new ESA claimants would have to sign a new “ESA Claimant Commitment”, which would “set out the expectations and legal requirements that claimants will be required to accept in order to receive ESA”.

http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/dwp-presentation-on-esa-plans-confirms-worst-fears-about-green-paper/

I, Daniel Blake review – a battle cry for the dispossessed

Ken Loach crafts a Cathy Come Home for the 21st century, the raw anger of which resonates long after you leave the cinema.

Mark Kermode

Ken Loach’s latest Palme d’Or winner, his second after 2006’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, packs a hefty punch, both personal and political. On one level, it is a polemical indictment of a faceless benefits bureaucracy that strips claimants of their humanity by reducing them to mere numbers – neoliberal 1984 meets uncaring, capitalist Catch-22. On another, it is a celebration of the decency and kinship of (extra)ordinary people who look out for each other when the state abandons its duty of care.

For all its raw anger at the impersonal mistreatment of a single mother and an ailing widower in depressed but resilient Newcastle, Paul Laverty’s brilliantly insightful script finds much that is moving (and often surprisingly funny) in the unbreakable social bonds of so-called “broken Britain”. Blessed with exceptional lead performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, Loach crafts a gut-wrenching tragicomic drama (about “a monumental farce”) that blends the timeless humanity of the Dardenne brothers’ finest works with the contemporary urgency of Loach’s own 1966 masterpiece Cathy Come Home.

We open with the sound of 59-year-old Geordie joiner Daniel Blake (standup comic Johns) answering automaton-like questions from a “healthcare professional”. Having suffered a heart attack at work, Daniel has been instructed by doctors to rest. Yet since he is able to walk 50 metres and “raise either arm as if to put something in your top pocket”, he is deemed ineligible for employment and support allowance, scoring a meaningless 12 points rather than the requisite 15. Instead, he must apply for jobseeker’s allowance and perform the Sisyphean tasks of attending CV workshops and pounding the pavements in search of nonexistent jobs that he can’t take anyway.

Meanwhile, Squires’s mother-of-two Katie is similarly being given the runaround, rehoused hundreds of miles from her friends and family in London after spending two years in a hostel. “I’ll make this a home if it’s the last thing I do,” she tells Daniel, who takes her under his wing, fixing up her flat and impressed by her resolve to go “back to the books” with the Open University. Both are doing all they can to make the best of a bleak situation, retaining their hope and dignity in the face of insurmountable odds. Yet both are falling through the cracks of a cruel system that pushes those caught up in its cogs to breaking point.

“We’re digital by default” is the mantra of this impersonal new world, to which carpenter Daniel pointedly replies, “Yeah? Well I’m pencil by default.” Scenes of Blake struggling with a computer cursor (“fucking apt name for it!”) raise a wry chuckle, but there’s real outrage at the way this obligatory online form-filling has effectively written people like him out of existence. Yet still Daniel supports – and is supported by – those around him; from Kema Sikazwe’s street-smart China, a neighbour who is forging entrepreneurial links online (the internet may alienate Daniel, but it also unites young workers of the world), to Katie’s kids, Daisy and Dylan – the latter coaxed from habitual isolation (“no one listens to him so why should he listen to them?”) by the hands-on magic of woodwork. Having lost a wife who loved hearing Sailing By, the theme for Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast, and whose mind was “like the ocean”, Daniel carves beautiful fish mobiles that turn the kids’ rooms into an aquatic playground. Meanwhile, their mother is gradually going under.

A scene in a food bank in which the starving Katie, on the verge of collapse, finds herself grasping a meagre tin of beans is one of the most profoundly moving film sequences I have ever seen. Shot at a respectful distance by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the scene displays both an exquisite empathy for Katie’s trembling plight and a pure rage that anyone should be reduced to such humiliation. Having seen I, Daniel Blake twice, I have both times been left a shivering wreck by this sequence, awash with tears, aghast with anger, overwhelmed by the sheer force of its all-but-silent scream.

“They’ll fuck you around,” China tells Daniel, “make it as miserable as possible – that’s the plan.” For Loach and Laverty, this is the dark heart of their drama, the use of what Loach calls the “intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy as a political weapon”, a way of intimidating people in a manner that is anything but accidental. “When you lose your self-respect you’re done for,” says Daniel, whose act of graffitied defiance becomes an “I’m Spartacus!” battle cry that resonates far beyond the confines of the movie theatre. Expect to see it spray-painted on the walls of a jobcentre near you soon.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/23/i-daniel-blake-ken-loach-review-mark-kermode

Why is poverty associated with mental health problems for some people, but not others?

By guest blogger Peter Kinderman

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better” (Mae West).

Critiques of the rather discredited “disease-model” of mental illness are commonplace, but we also need to articulate the alternative. New research by Sophie Wickham and colleagues helps do that, by providing support for the idea that we learn, as a consequence of our experiences in life, a framework of appraising, understanding and responding to new challenges. This psychological schema then shapes our emotional and behavioural responses to future events.

Wickham and her colleagues used data from over 7000 people and, based on a composite measure of each person’s neighbourhood (including data on income, health, education, and crime), they found that participants living in more deprived neighbourhoods had much higher levels of both depression and paranoia.

But the researchers did not merely correlate social deprivation with mental health. They also looked at a range of psychological mediators. They found that, if people reported low levels of stress, high levels of trust in others and high levels of social support, then social deprivation was no longer associated with more depression. The same was partially true in the case of paranoia – when people reported low levels of stress and high levels of trust, social deprivation had a greatly reduced association with levels of paranoia.

In one sense this is a relatively conventional correlational study using secondary data (the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey) to look at a rather well-established link between social factors and mental health. But I think there’s more to it than that.

There are many ways to be overly simplistic about mental health issues. A simple “disease-model” of mental health problems doesn’t really help us much, but an equally simplistic model of social causation is equally reductionist – reducing people to mechanistic pawns, pushed around by social pressures. Instead, a more elegant psychosocial model might suggest that the emotional (and behavioural) impact of life events is at least in part a consequence of how we appraise and respond to those events… and in turn that our appraisals and responses have been learned over time as a consequence of the events to which we have been exposed.

Wickham and colleagues have gone some way in exploring that hypothesis. Their data suggest that people’s appraisals of their circumstances – their perceived stress, perceived trust and perceived social support – mediate the impact of social deprivation on depression and paranoia. It is also interesting to note that these relationships appeared specific to depression and paranoia; they did not apply to auditory hallucinations or hypomania, the rates of which were not associated with poverty in this study.

If these kinds of findings are replicated in future research, the implications could be important and far-reaching. But first, it seems important to replicate this work, exploring the specific combinations of social circumstances, and mediating psychological processes, that lead to different emotional and behavioural outcomes. Wickham and colleagues speculate about what some of these may be – for example, whereas the combination of deprivation and a person’s appraisal of their situation was associated with more depression and paranoia, perhaps a combination of childhood trauma and a perceptual source monitoring problem (e.g. misattributing one’s own thoughts to a third party) might be associated with auditory hallucinations.

The researchers also speculate about the implications of their findings – how we might intervene at a population level, with social and psychological interventions targeted at specific risk factors and psychological mechanisms. Long term political and social policies could address issues of population-level social disadvantage, deprivation and inequity. Similarly, social interventions and targeted welfare packages might be effective in addressing social risk factors at an individual or family level. And, unsurprisingly given that they are psychologists, Wickham and her colleagues also point out that psychological interventions such as cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy could help individuals develop more effective psychological responses to the inevitable social stressors that accompany social deprivation.

One study cannot possibly explore all these issues. But, by examining both the social deprivation that is known to contribute to mental health problems and the psychological mechanisms that mediate the impact of this social stress on the individual, Wickham and colleagues offer a model for an elegant approach to understanding and, ultimately, intervening to improve psychological health and well-being. These ideas are important, and new, but are also evidence of the growing maturity and power of psychosocial explanations in mental health. I discuss these ideas further in my book, A Prescription for Psychiatry: Why We Need a Whole New Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing
and in my new, free, online course.

http://digest.bps.org.uk/2014/09/why-is-poverty-associated-with-mental.html

Eye contact makes us more aware of our own bodies

If you’ve ever felt acutely self conscious upon making eye contact with another person, a new study may help you understand why. Matias Baltazar and his colleagues have found that making eye contact activates people’s awareness of their own bodies. That feeling of self consciousness induced by mutual gaze might be based in part on the fact that your brain is suddenly more attuned to your body.

The researchers presented 32 participants with a series of positive and negative images on a computer screen, and after each they asked them to rate the intensity of their emotional reaction. Crucially, each image was preceded either by a fixation cross or a photograph of a man or woman’s face. These faces were either looking right at the participants, as if making eye contact, or they had their gaze averted. The participants’ were also wired up to a skin conductance machine that measured the sweatiness of their fingers. This provided an objective measure of the participants’ emotional reactions to the images, to be compared against their subjective assessments of their reactions.

The participants’ accuracy at judging their own physiological reactions was more accurate for those images that followed a photograph that appeared to be making eye contact. “Our results support the view that human adults’ bodily awareness becomes more acute when they are subjected to another’s gaze,” the researchers said.

A problem with this methodology is that greater bodily arousal is known to enhance performance in psychological tests, so perhaps eye contact was simply exerting its effects this way. But the researchers checked, and the boost to self awareness of eye contact wasn’t merely a side-effect of increased arousal – the participants’ physiological reactivity (an indicator of arousal) was no greater after eye contact photos than after gaze averted photos. The performance-enhancing effect of eye contact was also specific to bodily awareness. The researchers checked this by confronting participants with occasional memory tests through the experiment, for words that had appeared on-screen. Participant performance was no better after looking at faces that made eye contact, compared with the averted gaze faces.

Baltazar and his team said the fact that eye contact enhances our awareness of our own bodies could have therapeutic implications. For example, they said it could “stimulate interoceptive awareness in people whose condition is associated with interoceptive hyposensitivity, [such as] anorexia nervosa and major depression disorder.”

http://digest.bps.org.uk/2014/09/eye-contact-makes-us-more-aware-of-our.html

Narcissists can be taught to empathise

Narcissists are apparently growing in number. These are people who put their own interests first, constantly showing off, and taking credit where it’s not deserved. You might know someone like this – perhaps your boss, or even your romantic partner. If so, a new study offers hope. Apparently narcissists can be taught to be more empathic.

Erica Hepper and her colleagues first confirmed that narcissistic traits go hand in hand with low empathy. They surveyed nearly 300 people online, mostly students, and found that those who scored higher in narcissism (they agreed with numerous self-aggrandising and controlling statements like: “I have a natural talent for influencing people”, “I insist on getting respect” and “I wish somebody would write my autobiography”) tended to be unmoved by the story of a person’s distressing relationship breakup.

Next, the researchers tested the effect of a simple intervention. Across two further studies, nearly 200 students either watched a video of a women describing her experience of domestic abuse, or they heard an audio recording of a woman describing her traumatic relationship break up. Crucially, half the students were instructed to: “Imagine how Susan feels. Try to take her perspective in the video/audio, imagining how she is feeling about what is happening.” The other half were told to imagine they were simply watching the video /listening to the audio, at home.

As expected, students who scored highly on narcissism (especially maladaptive narcissism, involving exhibitionism, sense of entitlement and exploiting others), tended to say they had less concern for the women and felt less distress at the stories. The narcissists also showed less of an emotional reaction in terms of their heart rate. However, when they were instructed to take the women’s perspective, the narcissists showed normal levels of empathy, both in terms of their self-reported feelings, and having a raised heart rate. This suggests narcissists are capable of change – their lack of empathy is not due to lack of capacity, but more to do with lack of motivation.

“We hope that the present findings represent a first step toward better understanding of how narcissists can be moved by others, thereby improving their social behaviour and relationships,” said Hepper and her team.

We shouldn’t get too carried away by these findings – the samples are relatively small, and made up mostly of students. The scenarios all involved romantic relationships, so it’s not clear if the results would generalise. We also don’t know if the apparent boosts to narcissists’ empathy would translate to more altruistic behaviour. The researchers recognise these shortcomings, and they’re planning studies involving “real social interactions and ongoing relationships.” Meanwhile, if there’s a narcissist in your life, this study suggests it could be worth asking them make the effort to take other people’s perspective.

Hepper, E., Hart, C., & Sedikides, C. (2014). Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167214535812

-further reading-
Arrogant, moi? Investigating narcissists’ insight into their traits, behaviour and reputation
Student narcissists prefer Twitter; more mature narcissists favour Facebook
For group creativity, two narcissists are better than one

http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/narcissists-can-be-taught-to-empathise.html

When the going gets tough, supervisors pick on their weaker staff

A crisis changes everything. Friends are gone, and survivors must adapt to a new, dangerous environment. In the aftermath, predators circle to exploit the weak and vulnerable. According to new research, this not only describes the red tooth and claw of nature, it also applies to the workplace. Pedro Neves at the New University of Lisbon provides evidence that following an organisational downsize, employees are more likely to receive abuse from their supervisors.

Neves was guided by displaced aggression theory – the idea that workplace abuse is often a form of “kicking the dog” – venting our frustrations not at their source, rather at those whom we have power over. Neves predicted that this leads supervisors to target those most unable or unwilling to retaliate: submissive individuals characterised by low “core self-evaluation”(CSE; a combination of personal traits relating to self-image including self-esteem and belief in one’s own abilities), and/or those with fewer co-worker allies.

Survey data from 12 large and medium-sized Portugese organisations from a range of industries – financial to construction to healthcare – confirmed that individuals with lower CSE or less co-worker support were at the receiving end of more abuse, based on their self-ratings of items such as “my supervisor blames me to save himself/herself embarrassment” or “tells me my thoughts or feelings are stupid”. Four of the organisations had gone through downsizing in the prior two years, and in these, submissive employees were even more likely to be picked on. A post-downsizing environment involves uncertainty, ruptures to social networks, and a higher sense of individual risk – all of which heightens vulnerabilities and gives confidence to aggressors that their abuse is unlikely to be fought against.

The data also showed that submissive individuals performed more poorly and engaged in fewer organisational citizenship behaviours, which Neves argues is evidence of the employees also “kicking the dog” – in this case channeling their resentment of the supervisor into minor acts to undermine the organisation.

As this was a cross-sectional survey we have to be careful about drawing such causal inferences, but further analysis suggested two obvious alternative explanations were unlikely: that submissive traits were the consequence of supervisor criticism; or that abuse was causing both poor performance and the submissive traits.

Neves advises facilitating co-worker support as a bulwark against exploitation of the vulnerable, and to build the CSE of employees. These are good things to encourage in any case – but ultimately, the responsibility for change lies not with the abused, but the abusers, to cease picking on the weak.

ResearchBlogging.orgNeves, P. (2014). Taking it out on survivors: Submissive employees, downsizing, and abusive supervision. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology DOI: 10.1111/joop.12061

http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/when-going-gets-tough-supervisors-pick.html

A small proportion of the population are responsible for the vast majority of lies

Obviously some people lie more often than others. What’s surprising is new research showing that the spread of lying propensity through the population is uneven. There is a large majority of “everyday liars”, and a small minority of “prolific liars”.

A few years ago Kim Serota and his colleagues put a figure on this. They surveyed a thousand US citizens and found that five per cent of the sample were responsible for 50 per cent of all lies told. Now Serota’s group have analysed data from nearly 3000 people in the UK and they’ve found the same pattern – the existence in the population of a minority of extremely prolific liars.

This new online survey is based on data collected as part of a public engagement project by the Science Museum in London in the Spring of 2010. Participants (51 per cent were female; average age 44.5) reported how often they told little white lies and how often they told big lies, as well as sharing their attitudes to, and experiences of lying.

The spread of answers was clearly skewed. Serota’s statistical analysis showed that 9.7 per cent of the UK sample were prolific liars. They averaged 6.32 little white lies per day and 2.86 big lies per day, compared with an average of 1.16 daily white lies and 0.15 daily big lies (about one per week) by the majority group of everyday liars. This means the prolific liars tell an average of 19 big lies for each single big lie by the everyday liars. The two groups generally agreed what counts as a big lie, with lying about whether you love someone being the most popular example.

The research also uncovered some intriguing differences between prolific and everyday liars. Prolific liars were more likely to be younger, male and to work in more senior occupational roles, although note these differences were modest. Prolific liars tended not to see lying as something that people grow out of. They were also most likely to lie to their partners and children (whereas everyday liars were most likely to lie to their mothers). Prolific liars were also more likely to say that their lying had landed them in trouble, including losing jobs and relationships.

Caution is required because of the different survey methods used, but this new research also allows a cross-cultural comparison between US and UK lying. Combining everyday and prolific liars, it seems that people lie more frequently in the UK – just over two lies per day on average, compared with an average of between one and two lies per day in the US, based on Serota’s earlier research. Another statistic – 24.4 per cent of the UK sample said they didn’t lie on a typical day, compared with 59.9 per cent of the US sample.

An obvious problem with this research is its dependence on people’s honesty about how often they lie. We’re in a somewhat bizarre situation of trusting prolific liars’ answers about their own lying. However, Serota and his colleague Tim Levine reassure us that past research has generally found self-reported lying to be fairly accurate. When more objective or third-party measures of lying are deployed, these usually correlate well with people’s self-reported lying rates. The current survey was anonymous, which would have helped.

The finding that lying frequency is distributed unevenly in the population has serious implications for deception research, most of which assumes that lying propensity is a “normally distributed” trait more like height or weight. “These data provide a strong case that the people who tell a lot of lies are not only different,” said Serota and Levine, “they are a population that needs to be studied independently of everyday liars in order to better understand the motivation and production of lies.” I wonder if future research might find that “prolific liars” are the same people who score highly on the Dark Triad of personality traits – psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism?

Serota, K., & Levine, T. (2014). A Few Prolific Liars: Variation in the Prevalence of Lying Journal of Language and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1177/0261927X14528804

http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/a-small-proportion-of-population-are.html