The rat race

 

Intelligence tests are often used by employers to weed out brainless job candidates, but an increasing number of UK companies use a test designed to identify candidates who are too smart. The idea behind the Wonderlic Personnel Test is that people can be too stupid or too bright for a job. If too bright, they might become bored and leave, or they might spread a mood of frustration and disenchantment throughout the workplace.

Employers who use the Wonderlic test take the threat of over-intelligent workers very seriously. For example, many US police force job applicants have been rejected for scoring too highly in the test (one applicant sued in federal court for unfair disqualification).


Full employment – the holy grail of conservative politicians – would require low intelligence in most of the population.


The extensive use of the Wonderlic test (it’s the world’s most widely used employee intelligence test) has a sinister implication. The corporate world seems fully aware that most jobs require relatively low intelligence. High intelligence is seen as a hindrance, because there’s no way that intelligent people would tolerate 40 hours of tedious monotony every week. It follows that full employment – the holy grail of conservative politicians – would require low intelligence in most of the population. But the only guaranteed way to achieve this is mass lobotomy.

The majority of jobs being created seem to be low-paid and soul-destroying: telesales, security, office administration, etc. If large numbers of intelligent people are forced into tedious jobs, the frustration they feel must be managed and contained, otherwise their employers won’t profit. After herding people into office buildings, how do you keep them productive, week after week, in activities which insult their intelligence?

To an extent, industry has always had this problem. Captains of industry have forever been on the lookout for ways to increase management control of worker productivity. Modern psychology, in particular, has been a happy hunting ground for company bosses wanting to maximise performance and discipline.

One branch of psychology has provided important advances in management control. In the early 1900s, behaviourism revolutionised psychology by focusing entirely on objectively measurable human responses to stimuli. Subjective mental states like happiness or boredom were dismissed as irrelevant to the scientific process. At the same time, a scientific management approach was taking hold in industry – for example, time and motion studies emphasised observable, measurable worker behaviour. The job of both the psychologist and the manager was to manipulate the human environment to produce the desired results.


Behaviourism treated people like rats in a maze


Behaviourism treated people like rats in a maze, and it wasn’t too long before Gestalt psychologists challenged this reductionist, mechanistic view. Scientific management was also criticised: studies conducted in the 1930s showed that worker productivity was not determined entirely by the workplace, but had as much to do with the feelings and perceptions of workers.

During the 1950s, behaviourism became popular again, largely due to the work of B.F. Skinner. After a lot of experimenting on rats and pigeons, Skinner made some important advances on classical Pavlovian conditioning (he developed the concept of “operant conditioning”). Skinner’s advanced conditioning techniques found their way into industry by way of organisational behaviour modification and contingency management.

Modern office technology provides managers with the ultimate behaviourist tool: continuous remote monitoring of employee activity. There’s nowhere to hide anymore. And we shouldn’t be fooled by company PR about sensitivity to the feelings of employees. In spite of occasional management trends towards a warmer, more humanistic approach (consideration of the needs and goals of individuals, etc), behaviourism remains the favourite approach of those who like to be in control.

Another relevant area of psychology is cognitive dissonance, which sheds light on the peculiar psychological torture experienced by many office workers. Cognitive dissonance is a term for what happens when we think or act in ways which contradict our self-image. For example, some job roles require us to behave in an “out of character” way. This can be uncomfortable, embarrassing and stressful. We normally escape the discomfort of cognitive dissonance by distracting ourselves (get a coffee, read a newspaper, etc), but with no distractions available, we experience a kind of restless, self-loathing ennui.

Office jobs supply the two main ingredients of mental agony: cognitive dissonance and prolonged monotony. This diabolical combination is probably the biggest source of psychological suffering in Western civilisation, leading to vast amounts of stress. Dissonance is the mysterious factor which turns boredom into a major health hazard.

Our cult of Individualism makes us particularly prone to cognitive dissonance because of our need to see ourselves as stable, self-contained beings. We regard personal identity as something unchangeable and absolute – a view which ignores the whole of modern psychology. Consequently, we underestimate the role of social setting in influencing our behaviour.

If you spend a lot of time in the same social setting, it’s eventually going to get to you. If you join the army with an expectation of remaining aloof from the military mentality, then you’re in for a nasty shock. Anyone starting an office job, expecting to escape office politics, corporate-speak, employee pettiness and chronic boredom, is going to have a hard time coming to terms with their own behaviour in that environment.

Due to the nature of modern workplaces (authority hierarchies, politics, tangled communication, boredom), employees often do irrational things. For example: concealing what they’re doing from their boss, acting evasively, making dubious excuses, telling lies, subtly redirecting blame, feeling intense resentment over trivial matters, reporting that everything is fine when it isn’t, etc. Obviously this kind of behaviour doesn’t fit the beliefs we have about ourselves as essentially good, decent, rational and professional.

How can you come to terms with your pathetic employee-persona if you see yourself as basically honest and dignified? The only way to deal with your “out of character” behaviour is to justify and rationalise it. But that means making excuses, which is even more undignified. The only real escape from this torture is to quit your job.

A smart person with a boring, pointless job (ie a fairly typical job) suffers the crippling cognitive dissonance of: “I am intelligent – most of my days are spent in meaningless stupidity”. If there is no choice but to continue the job (due to money needs and a harsh labour market), more dissonance arises: “I am a free person – I cannot escape this situation”.

Most companies promote the idea of freedom with endless corporate jargon about “choice” and “opportunity”. This seems like a crude attempt to hide the fact that employees have no free choice. At most, they have an economic dilemma: continue the job or suffer the humiliation of welfare.

We're like rats in a behaviourist maze. Behaviourism describes the external control: the supply or withdrawal of money and social status. Cognitive dissonance describes the inner state of mind: confusion, discomfort and impotence. Together, they contain the potentially vast social discontent resulting from compulsory full employment.

Cognitive dissonance could be dispersed if we replaced the word “employee” with “slave”. Then there’d be no confusion about our slave-identities. Most people would want to see slavery reduced rather than extended. Full “employment” would be recognised as full slavery. At that point there would probably be a social consensus to dismantle the behaviourist mechanisms that keep us enslaved.

(Article by Brian Dean. Previously printed by the Idler and Alternative Press Review)



 
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