3rd July 2013

Dr Ben Harkin Awarded ESRC Future Research Leaders Grant

Further information about the project:

Title: Using insights from clinical psychology to promote goal progress in debtors

Summary: Despite personal debt being an ever increasing problem within our society the psychological understanding of debt and interventions to the problem remain elusive. The present project provides a novel solution to this problem by using insights from those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, who are known to excessively monitor (e.g., "Did I turn the oven OFF?"), and applying this to debtors who avoid monitoring their financial situation (e.g., Ignoring credit card statements).

This research builds upon my recently awarded PhD and 6 peer reviewed papers which examined reasons why those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder monitor their thoughts and actions. Simply, I showed that those with OCD have poor attention which results in them looking for things which are not there, i.e., excessive monitoring. Furthermore, in Clinical Psychology Review I showed conclusively that this 'looking for things that are not there' explained a range of experimental findings which up until my paper had been described in the literature as contradictory.

Therefore, during this grant I will take my knowledge of monitoring in OCD and apply it to those who avoid monitoring their debt. I will carry out this work in a laboratory setting where I will examine which cognitive factors explain why debtors fail to adequately monitor their debt and then use this information to design an intervention called 'Manage Your Debt Application System' for the mobile phones of debtors. First, with the aid of Her Majesty's Court Services I will recruit debtors and non-debtors from previously identified creditor agencies (utility, Government Department, Local Authority). Second, in a range of novel experiments I will examine how debtors look and interact with debt-related stimuli (e.g., credit card bills) and see how this relates to how they monitor their finances. I predict that the manner in which debtors look and interact with debt-related stimuli will predict how they monitor their debt and how much they are in debt. Third, I will then modify how debtors look and interact with debt-related stimuli and measure how this changes their debt-related behaviours. Fourth, considering that poor personal responsibility likely underlies debtor behaviour I will create a 'Responsibility-Debt' questionnaire to measure this. Then, as increased personal responsibility in OCD results in greater monitoring (e.g., "I am responsible for the house burning down, therefore, I will go monitor the oven!"), I will experimentally increase responsibility in debtors with the aim of increasing their monitoring of debt-related stimuli (e.g., "I am responsible for my debt, so I will open my credit card bills and seek a way to pay them!").

I will then use the data gathered from these experiments and apply it to the design of the MYDAS (Manage Your Debt Application System) mobile phone intervention which will aim to improve how debtors monitor their debt. Thus, MYDAS will aim to change the way in which debtors look and interact with debt-related stimuli and increase their overall degree of responsibility, which in turn will increase financial monitoring, reduce financial debt and improve mental health. In relation to the last point, one of the additional aspects of my proposal that improved financial monitoring and responsibility will result in better health outcomes. In collaboration with Sheffield's Citizens Advice Debt Unit I plan to deploy MYDAS to problematic debtors within their organization and throughout the UK in their 17 associated CAD units.

My research will have broad implications for science and society. SCIENCE: By providing an empirical understanding of the thought process of debtors and providing an intervention to change those thought processes key to debt. SOCIETY: By providing new tools to identify problem debtors and interventions (MYDAS) my research will benefit debtors (seek help quicker, reduce debt), creditors (repayment) and debt relief agencies alike.