From emotional and psychological well-being to character education: Challenging policy discourses of behavioural science and 'vulnerability' in the UK.

Year: 2012

Author: Ecclestone, Kathryn

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


It is difficult to challenge a strong consensus in the UK that governments must intervene in a worsening crisis of emotional and psychological well-being.  The article explores how rising estimates of problems and corresponding calls for intervention in educational settings amongst very diverse interest groups arise from, and contribute to, the increasingly blurred boundaries between a cultural therapeutic ethos, academic research and policy. This allows the recent revival by the Conservative-led Coalition government of an old discourse of 'character' to build directly on the previous government's investment in school-based, universally-targeted interventions to develop emotional well-being.  A crucial continuity between therapeutically-based interventions for emotional well-being and the new discourse of character is that a behavioural and psychological depiction of emotional well-being is incorporated into a long list of 'character capabilities'.  Including attitudes and dispositions targeted by emotional well-being interventions, such as stoicism, altruism, emotional regulation, resilience, emotional literacy and optimism, the list of character capabilities adds others such as generosity and gratitude (and many others). All are claimed to be amenable to intervention and measurement.


Whilst invoking nostalgic notions of discipline, resilience, self-reliance and moral development, the new discourse of character is both highly inclusive, drawing in diverse educational and political goals and interests, and highly positivist, turning to psychology to justify calls for intervention.  Crucially, in a context of broader political interest in new forms of behavioural science, the new character discourse reinforces a search for better measurement as the basis for behaviour change strategies that avoids questions of morals and values. 


In a context where the government has set up a Behavioural Insight Unit to search for new ideas from behavioural science and apply them to social policy, the paper responds to two enduring injunctions from the sociologist C Wright Mills.  First, using a sociological imagination to illuminate how social change reflects changing images of the human subject, it is possible to argue that the depiction of well-being and character as a set of behaviours and the parallel drive to measure them is rooted in a diminished view of an essential human vulnerability.  This legitimises the imposition of psychological interventions that avoid moral and political questions about the nature of well-being and character and the conditions needed to develop them. Second, Mills' injunction that social science should not try to predict or control human behaviour offers new warnings for contemporary attempts to do just that in relation to emotional well-being and character.