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).
– 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
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.
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)