Political Neuroscience: “Growth Mindsets” and Disability

By Neuroskeptic | July 10, 2017 3:06 pm

On Twitter, I learned that the British government is citing neuroscience studies as part of a new welfare initiative.

The “Health and Work Conversation” (HWC) is a newly-introduced procedure for welfare claimants receiving support because sickness or disability impairs their ability to work. The one hour “conversation” is mandatory in most cases and it seems intended to encourage people to seek whatever work they are able to do.

A Freedom of Information Act request has revealed documents relating to the HWC, including a set of training Powerpoint slides aimed at the “work coaches” whose job it is to administer the HWC.

The training material refers heavily to “growth mindsets”. This psychological model, which Neuroskeptic readers may be familar with, originated from research on schoolchildren. According to mindset theorists, children who believe that success is a product of effort have a “growth mindset”, and these children try harder and perform better than those who believe talent determines success (“fixed mindset”).

Whether it’s appropriate to apply this educational model to a disability context I’ll leave to the psychologists. Two of the HWC slides explicitly refer to neuroscience, though, and these I will comment on. Here’s the first one:


This slide is talking about a 2008 study by Driemeyer et al. The juggling training period was actually three weeks, not three months, and the brain growth Driemeyer et al. found was transient: it had vanished by three months after training, in fact if anything the brain shrank. Oh, and no multiple comparisons correction was used, so the results might be due to chance.

Maybe I’m nitpicking here. Surely, the specifics of the study don’t matter. The slide is merely making the point that people can learn new skills using their brain! Who could argue with that?

Well, no-one, but that’s because it’s an obvious and not very informative statement. Yes, humans can learn, and the brain is the organ that lets us learn. The brain images on this slide serve only to provide the illusion of scientific authority.

The second neuro-slide is a bit more mysterious:


For the life of me, I can’t work out what study this is referring to, or where the brain image came from. Much Googling failed to identify the source. I asked for help on Twitter and no-one else could find it either. If you know, please leave a comment, because it’s bugging me.

But as with the previous slide, the details of the study hardly matter in the end. Beneath the scientific veneer, it’s just saying that old people, too, have brains, and can use them to learn.

In summary, the HWC training slides discuss psychology and neuroscience, but as far as I can see this is little more than window-dressing. The basic message to be conveyed to sick people seems to be “yes, even you can get a job!” This Brass Eye scene comes to mind:

For more on the HWC, see Frank Zola’s blog post.

  • smut clyde

    “New connections after a person had spent 3 months [weeks] learning how to juggle” — Ah, we have identified the areas of the brain involved in “angry frustration”.

    Driemeyer et al. are too scrupulous to push “new connections” as the explanation for their observations, though they mention synaptogenesis as one possibility:

    In general, an increase in gray matter could be due to an increase in
    cell size, neural or glial cell genesis, spine density or even changes
    in blood flow or interstitial fluid

    They are innocent of the bullshit being peddled by the authors of the PPT.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    neuroscience studies as part of a new welfare initiative
    Corruption breeds contempt. The solution to Welfare is zero Welfare.
    Save the drama for yer momma, get down and push. “Marche ou crève” Issue them toothbrushes and have them scrub their Inner City.

    The one hour “conversation” is mandatory,” mandated diversity hired into make-work undischargeable positions only supportive of diversity.

    Powerpoint slides” When you have nothing to say and 40 minutes in which to say it. It’s called a “deck. How does one PowerPoint an employee cohort that cannot honestly earn a GED? What will they be reading on-screen? “mindset theorists” Social Intent – the triumph of ideas over facts. Psychoneuroethnolinguistologistic studies!

    The British Navy enlisted the worst of Britain. Rum., sodomy, and the lash made it work. Add the lash to Welfare.

  • lyellepalmer

    Once a new skill is constructed neurologically, continued operation at the learned level requires maintenance. Construction and operation are two different functions. When riding the bicycle after a ten-year hiatus one is nowhere near the previous skill level until a period of retraining reactivates enough cells, especially in a finely-honed skill such as juggling.

  • C’est la même

    Dear Neuroskeptic, can you please write directly to those in charge of this, explaining how this is bullshit?

  • John C

    I guess the idea is to convince at least some disability claimants that they are capable of productive work, rather than accept that “disabled” dooms 100% of those with the attached label to a miserable unproductive life.

    Public policy often wraps itself in conveniently supportive research that sounds “sciency”.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      “I guess the idea is to persuade at least some disability claimants that they are capable of productive work, rather than accept that “disabled” dooms 100% of those with the attached label to a miserable unproductive life at tax payer expense.”

      And I’m sure it will help some people. But it’s not targeted at people who are identified as needing this intervention. It’s a mandatory process, applied to everyone who receives this kind of welfare.

      If it were targeted only at people who a) are medically fit to work in some capacity and b) would truly benefit from working but c) believe they are incapable, then it wouldn’t be so objectionable.

      • John C

        To play Devil’s Advocate, Stephen Hawking is medically fit to work in some capacity. I can see how there’s a lot of ambiguity here of the type that makes bureaucrats cringe. So, it’s easier to take the default position of applying the edict to everyone, like we do at airports checking 80 year old grannies and toddlers for hidden bombs and such. That’s my guess anyway.

      • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

        “I guess the idea is to persuade at least some disability claimants that they are capable of productive work,…”

        Perhaps. But isn’t it just as likely that the bureaucrat, politician, whomever is attempting to persuade the public that their public servants are capable of doing something worthwhile?

  • smut clyde

    The juggling training period was actually three weeks, not three months, and the brain growth Driemeyer et al. found was transient”

    And the image borrowed for the PPT is not a single “person who had spent 3 months learning how to juggle”, but an average over 32 subjects (20 + 12), “superimposed on a normalized T1-image”.
    I suppose it is missing the point to criticize how the PPT’s authors misrepresent the studies they co-opted.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Yellow blobs also don’t depict “new connections”, but grey matter increase… which might indicate new connections but doesn’t directly show that.

  • wspackman

    Hopefully those British politicians are reading today’s Guardian:

    The neuroscience of inequality: does poverty show up in children’s brains?

    “There is increasing evidence that growing up poor diminishes the physical development of a child’s brain. A landmark US study is attempting to establish a causal link – and unlock new ways to help our poorest children”


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

    “Now if they take a severely debilitated person and put onerous requirements to ‘search for work’ as part of the agreement to provide them with disability, health and/or food assistance, all while trying to force them to prove both simultaneously that they are disabled and also out DOING THEIR JOB, well that’s BS (and the American way)”

    Well, that’s the concern. The British government’s welfare reforms over the past 7 years point in just that direction.

  • Pure British BS

    More from the British is best fake news propaganda machine

  • GQ

    Neuroskeptic’s stance on this is highly inconsistent. The PACE trial is a more egregious and harmful example of the government’s welfare initiative and which is the model for all other bad science for welfare savings by the UK. However Neuroskeptic refuted the severe criticism that the PACE trial has come under including by Julie Rehmeyer.

    It is nearly a year later and Neuroskeptic has not concluded on his part 2 of his article after being exposed and challenged on flaws on his part 1.


    It appears that one can sit on the sidelines and criticise this but with PACE trial the bad science is defended due to allegiances and friendships within the UK medical establishment and not wanting to upset some very powerful psychiatrists.

    Where is part 2?

    That is not very skeptical. Science should be science.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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