So, Westminster Council have announced something thoroughly, offensively awful: they want obese people to be monitored to check if they’re using a gym, and if they aren’t, they should have their benefits cut. Seriously. That’s actually a thing they think should be done.
I took the liberty of reading their full report, “A Dose of Localism: the Role of Councils in Public Health“. It’s a very shiny-looking report, with a picture of an apple on the front. The existence of apples, illustrated by a photograph of one, is literally the only thing which is in any way evidence-based within the entire report. There is not even a reference section. The report is entirely what a few wonks think might be a good idea.
My background in psychology is in behaviour change, so a little part of me wondered if maybe there was some sort of evidence base for this level of negative reinforcement. Then my brain woke up, and I realised that of course there isn’t an evidence base for this. When conducting research, one needs to put everything past an ethics board, and there is no ethics board on earth that would approve forcing people to take up exercise by threatening them with losing their homes. In general, it’s sort of frowned upon. In fact, the only place I could find anything positive said about negative reinforcement–of a level which was not as bad as the threat of immiseration and poverty–was on “pro-ana” websites, where people share tips for maintaining eating disorders. I’m not going to link to those, for obvious reasons.
So, it’s utter nonsense, and I am confident that fairly soon we will be seeing anyone who knows jack shit about behaviour change saying “No, don’t do that, it’s awful.” However, this particular little piece of policy kite flying could see itself being implemented despite its distinct lack of evidence base nonetheless.
There is a peculiar mindset among some individuals that they are The Taxpayer, and therefore they get to decide what people they believe they are paying for get to do. They get sulky about helping others, and a part of their minds wishes to see other human beings suffer as they are blinded by resentment. They are already honking at me on Twitter about how there is nothing wrong with threats and a denial of bodily autonomy for others. Evidence means nothing to these people, they just want to punish others for an accident of circumstances meaning they require a little help to survive. It’s illogical, it’s irrational, but it is powerful.
And this is to whom councils and governments pander, these squawking sociopaths. Many of them probably hold the same beliefs themselves. They believe that somehow they have more right to exist freely than others, more right to bodily autonomy, more right to a roof over their head than others. They’re wrong. They got lucky.
I hope that this nonsense from Westminster stays in a drawer somewhere and it does not impact the discourse too heavily, but I fear it will have serious effects. For something that was pulled out of some wonk’s arse, that’s a terrifying thought.