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Letting the mask slip

An unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat used “nudging” to influence national policy

Artillery Row

David Halpern, the head of the Nudge Unit, has admitted to using behavioural science techniques on the Prime Minister.

The Telegraph reports that during an interview with behavioural scientists at the Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute, Halpern “says he turned his subliminal powers of persuasion on the prime minister himself after it became apparent he was not leading by example”:

“We did share with him a slide pack at one point. It had a series of images of pretty much every single world leader wearing a mask, and then a picture with him not,” he recalls. This nudge was used to point out that “a normal thing for a world leader to do right now is wear a mask.

“Nudging” is based on subconscious techniques which affect how we think and behave without our conscious awareness. Even the PM doesn’t know when the dark arts of influence are being wielded against him by the grey cardinals of psychology.

Patrick Fagan, a behavioural scientist who used to work for Cambridge Analytic told me:

Halpern’s experiments on the Prime Minister appear to violate some core ethics in psychology, like the need for consent, the avoidance of deception, the ability to withdraw. A psychology undergrad could tell you that. There’s also a broader question of whether it’s ethical to view humans (let alone the Prime Minister) as nothing more than lab rats to be nudged this way or that.

The British Psychological Society’s Code of Human Research Ethics states that psychologists must “respect the autonomy of individuals”, and that research must be considered high risk and go through necessary approvals if it involves deception, if it “could induce psychological stress, anxiety or humiliation, or if it could lead to “labelling” by self or others (like “I am not normal”).

Johnson presumably didn’t give his informed consent to be nudged by Halpern’s behavioural science and neither did the electorate. The people of this country have never been consulted about whether they want to be nudged. There is no official ethical framework and limited transparency about the work. Even if we approved, would we consider it to be value for money? How many of our tax pounds pay for this secretive mass manipulation? Manifestos have ignored the cost, the aims, the tactics and the impacts of behavioural science. 

SPI-B and the nudgers appear to be involved in the original U-turn to recommend masks

Lucy Easthope, Professor in Practice of Risk and Hazard, and advisor on emergency planning, thinks there should be a much more rigorous examination of the ethics. “I worry that the government has become addicted to nudge and yet there is no regulation or ethics board,” she told me. She is calling for a complete review of the use of behavioural insight techniques across government.

It’s not surprising that Johnson was not donning his mask religiously. After all, historically masks were not recommended for wearing in the community, by the WHO, the NHS, NERVTAG or other international bodies, due to weak and limited evidence as well as the potential for serious risks. The government performed a U-turn on masks, about which plenty has been written, including how they are used to encourage compliance, their reintroduction to soften us up for Plan B and how the advice changed.

Since then, good evidence for masking has not emerged. “We have tried mask mandates, and it’s fair to say they have failed to stem the tide of infections,” says Carl Heneghan, a Professor of Evidence Based Medicine. “Since their introduction in July 2020, over 20 million cases have been reported on the Covid dashboard in England. In the last two decades, there have been 15 randomised studies testing masks on the spread of flu-like illnesses, two for Covid. They all broadly come to the same conclusion that the effect of masks makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza‐like illness.”

The behavioural scientists at the Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute discussed the Bangladesh study which tested advice to wear masks. Heneghan warns it was particularly affected by the lack of blinding of those doing the trial analysis and so its causal claims should be treated cautiously. Fagan has sterner words about the methodology, commenting, “they basically harassed people about COVID for eight weeks, making COVID mentally available and thus probably impacting all sorts of other behaviours. They even found a significant increase in physical distancing in the ‘mask’ group, so even in their own study they can’t attribute the risk reduction in seropositivity to masks alone. Naturally, they didn’t measure any potential negative outcomes of masking.”

SPI-B and the nudgers appear to be involved in the original U-turn to recommend masks. When David Halpern answered MPs’ questions at a Select Committee meeting, he said, “It took a long time to get people in masks. Our view early on was that masks are effective, not least because of the signal they create and of course the underlying evidence.” Note that “signal” comes before “evidence”. Behavioural scientists pushed for masks because they create a “signal”. 

Our natural bias towards social conformity was exploited mercilessly during the pandemic

Behavioural scientists also love collectivism. SPI-B papers are strewn with words like “co-creation”, “co-design”, “co-production”, “collectivism”, “in it together” and “solidarity”. This is unsurprising as their work is based on our “powerful tendency to conform” as another Nudge Unit paper puts it.

Our natural bias towards social conformity was exploited mercilessly during the pandemic. Halpern pointed out to MPs that the British could be relied upon to do the “heavy-lifting” of mask enforcement, and he commented in this recent interview that “informal social pressure really started to operate quite strongly on people to wear masks”. In other words, the nudgers celebrate citizens policing each other, in a manner reminiscent of the ultimate collectivism: Eastern communist bloc policing.

Whilst Boris Johnson may have started donning his mask more, we all saw the mask slip. There were many clips of world leaders whipping off their pointless signals of virtue the moment they thought the cameras weren’t rolling. Who can forget bare-faced G7 world leaders mixing at drinks receptions served by masked waiting staff?

The behavioural scientists are fixated upon wearing masks for “the common good” even though the evidence is limited and weak. An unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat is de facto influencing policy at the highest level, seemingly unaware of his own bias and inability to correctly interpret the factual data. Should we be worried about any more “slide decks” he has up his sleeve to nudge PMs towards his preferred policies?

Whilst nudge has its place in the private sphere, Halpern’s comments highlight the sheer danger of a government nudge unit. We expect companies to cajole, coax, manipulate and subconsciously prompt us into buying stuff — but should governments employ the same techniques? There are several issues here. The nudgers pushed a non-pharmaceutical intervention without good evidence. They leveraged the natural human tendency to conform, even though that would lead to social stigma and “policing”. The PM was unduly influenced by a calculated manipulation.

In A State of Fear I argued that nudge is inherently anti-democratic. I wonder if Boris Johnson would now agree.

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