For several weeks into lockdown, in the spring of 2020, fear gave me a sick feeling of dread in my stomach a few seconds after I’d woken. Oh God, this is real, it’s not just a bad dream. I’d listen to the news on the radio in bed and my stress levels would elevate, along with my blood pressure, no doubt. That can’t have been a healthy way to start the day. Fear also disconnected me from the usual pleasures of life and my senses were dulled. Even into early summer, the honeyed lime blossom, my favourite fragrance, smelt sad.
I was not in control of these responses; fear took over. But fear also gave me new intellectual and creative direction. It’s made me reconsider what I want from my government. Fear made me write a book.
Fear can be very motivating; it is not inherently bad, and it mobilises our energy to respond to threat. Fear keeps us safe. The challenge is to identify when fear is being used deceptively or to manipulate. Governments have long-used fear to encourage docility in a population.
Like many, I was stung with a whiplash of shock by Boris Johnson’s speech to the nation on 23 March — or Fright Night, as I call it in my new book, A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic. I listened, appalled, as he told us, “The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades… you must stay at home.” Appropriately, considering my foreseeable future would involve not leaving the house, going out to work, or to see my family, friends or partner, I froze on the sofa with fear.
I had some fear about contracting Covid, but I soon realised I was more frightened of authoritarianism than death, and more repulsed by manipulation than illness. When I began investigating this book, the idea that our fear had been weaponised against us was not popular currency, but is now starting to circulate. Now there is more suspicion that talk of variants is psychological “nudge” designed to keep people alarmed and encourage vaccine uptake. The latest modelling from SAGE, predicting a resurgence of hospitalisations in the summer exceeding January, was met with incredulity by an increasingly jaded audience of journalists and public.
But going back to when the “campaign of fear” started in March 2020, in one of the most extraordinary documents ever revealed to the British public, the behavioural scientists advising the UK government recommended that we needed to be frightened.
The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour said in their report, Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures, that: “A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group, although levels of concern may be rising.” As a result, they recommended that “the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” In essence, the government was advised to frighten the British public to encourage adherence to the emergency lockdown regulations.
Behavioural psychology is now deeply embedded in government
And frighten us they did. What was the story of 2020? Covid, you would probably answer. A pandemic, of course. But what was the underlying motivation, what drove the characters of this fantastical story? Fear. I set out to explore why the government used fear, the specific tactics, the people behind them, and the impacts of fear, including stories from people who were undone by fear during the epidemic. Most of all, the book asks you to think about the ethics of using fear to manage people, and offers a clarion call for an independent consultation into the use of behavioural psychology by the government.
I analysed the ways in which our complacence was disturbed and our threat elevated, from the use of statistics, including those cherry-picked to be misleading, the horror film styled advertising, political language deliberately chosen to evoke war and the public obedience that necessarily entails, the life-destroying fines, and the tyrannical law changes.
The government has still not provided a quantifiable cost benefit analysis of lockdown. I suspect the numbers simply do not stack up in favour. Although the numbers are important, they miss illuminating the personal costs. After interviewing people who were impacted by fear, I feel the impossibility of weighing a life potentially saved by lockdown, with a life ended by jumping from a bridge, or the sickness averted by interrupting transmission of Covid, with the self-harm started by a teenager in the anxious isolation of lockdown.
The investigation into the use of fear taught me that behavioural psychology is now deeply embedded in government. There have been calls in the past for the public to be consulted on the use of subliminal techniques that work below the level of consciousness. When the nudgers were guiding us towards being model citizens by paying our taxes on time, or giving up smoking, the interventions seemed so innocuous that I suspect the calls for consultation receded in importance. Why would something so “good” need consultation when aims were being achieved, policies being delivered, and behavioural psychologists making a good living?
We are like children being guided by adults who know best
But the heavy reliance on behavioural science during the epidemic, and specifically the fear messaging to encourage compliance with the rules, are more bludgeon than nudge. Our lives and our relationships with each other were changed. Importantly, our relationship with the government underwent a noticeable change — we were infantilised, cajoled, scared into submission, threatened. This was predicted in the report MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, which warned:
People have a strong instinct for reciprocity that informs their relationship with government — they pay taxes and the government provides services in return. This transactional model remains intact if government legislates and provides advice to inform behaviour. But if government is seen as using powerful, pre-conscious effects to subtly change behaviour, people may feel the relationship has changed: now the state is affecting “them” — their very personality.
Altering our personalities, frightening us and shifting the balance of power between government and citizen deserves, at the very least, robust debate and inquiry. For if we are nudged towards a “greater good” we play no active role in deciding what “good” is. We have handed over the big decisions. We are like children being guided by adults who know best.
Some will believe that leveraging our fear can be justified, if it is in our best interests. If you agree that “Covid-19 is the biggest threat this country has faced in peacetime history”, as the government asserted in its consultation document Changes to Human Medicine Regulations to support the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, you might think it was not only acceptable but desirable to scare the British public into complying with regulations that resulted in the greatest imposition on our liberty in peacetime.
Fear is not sustainable
The obvious argument in favour of fear is that the use of fear is acceptable if it works, if it kept us safe and if there is a net benefit for society. What did the government policies — lockdown, restrictions, a blitzkrieg of behavioural psychology — keep us safe from? Not unemployment, not other types of ill health, not death and certainly not fear. In fact, they arguably couldn’t keep us safe from Covid-19 either. Now, these are strong words. You may splutter — “but, but, but!” — and think my position is ludicrously counter-intuitive, but many international studies now offer the empirical evidence that lockdowns failed to contain the virus, and at the same time they are a blunt tool which causes great harms.
Epidemics will come and go. Our basic psychology is here to stay. The pressing issue is whether and how we permit behavioural psychologists, the government and the media to manipulate our psychology.
The use of behavioural psychology and specifically the weaponization of fear were symptoms of a government that had given up on trust and transparency. If we truly believe in freedom, we must also believe we deserve it.
Despite the best efforts of the fear machine, I have some hope. Fear is not sustainable. And, as it wears thin, it is revealed to be in an inverse relationship with the growing awareness of how it was weaponised. Let us reject living in A State of Fear. This summer, the lime blossom will smell sweet again.
A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic is published by Pinter & Martin, £9.99.
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