Tuesday, December 17, 2013


What links widening participation to higher education, the Euro crisis and welfare reform? The answer is a bit of psychology.

This little article got me thinking. It starts by generalising about how we all tend to see ourselves as above average, but I was more interested in what it goes on to discuss, the extrinsic incentives bias. Apparently, our sense of superiority over others is reinforced by the supposed nobility of our motives. We do things because we are intrinsically motivated to do so. We see others as needing extrinsic motivation - such as a financial incentive or a proverbial kick up the backside. And this is what links the items in my apparently disparate list.

So, widening participation was a big part of my job in Hull, but I was constantly irritated by the assumption that we needed to raise the aspirations of working class people. They were seen as deficient in motivation and, as a result, needed to, well, be like us - nice, aspirational and middle class. This was to be incentivised by painting a rosy picture of the monetary rewards for escaping from their class. We couldn't accept the notion that they were in no way deficient, but were excluded by the nature of institutions that needed reform to be able to meet their aspirations.

Then there is the Euro crisis and those lazy, corrupt, Mediterranean types with their, horror of horrors, siestas. Why can't they be more like the hard-working Northern Europeans, driven by their intrinsic Protestant work ethic? A little austerity will be salutary medicine to make them change their ways.

And in welfare reform, to ensure our superiority we invent convenient fictions like 'dependency culture'.  This is something that has to be broken by intervention, work experience and benefit sanctions. Only then can work-shy scroungers be made to get up and get jobs. And won't they be grateful to us for our 'tough love'.

I do not think that psychology is as important a political force as ideology and interests, but you can see why such programmes have appeal. We are very comfortable with the notion of the inadequacy of others. Then again, those others are looking back and thinking the same about us, and often with good reason.

No comments: