David Halpern, (R) Director of the Behavioural Insights Team, looks on as Owain Service, Deputy Director of the Behavioural Insights Team, speaks during an interview in 10 Downing Street on January 14, 2013. Picture Credit: CARL COURT/AFP via Getty Images

Nudge Nudge Wink Wink

Are policy makers finally waking up to the harms of behavioural science?

Artillery Row

“Will nudge theory survive the pandemic?” wrote Simon Ruda, one of the founders of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), in an article for the website UnHerd last week. In a piece which was positive — even at times quite congratulatory — about what a force for good “nudging” is, the truly extraordinary thing is that a reflection on its harms took so long. 

It would have been more helpful for Ruda to reflect that “the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public” before the fear campaign was launched, not afterwards. Fear has put a brake on recovery and hurt our mental health and lives in countless ways. Codes of ethics which would govern psychology experiments were not strictly applied to the British people en masse.

The acknowledgement that nudging can transmogrify into state propaganda could also have been reached earlier. For instance, upon the publication of my book, A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic, which laid the case out explicitly. Or, come to that, at any point in the twenty two year history of the government’s Nudge Unit. How about in 2010 after the publication of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report, Behaviour Change, which brought up issues of ethical acceptability? Or perhaps when the authors (including BIT founder David Halpern) of MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy wrote that: “policy-makers wishing to use these tools… need the approval of the public to do so”? Whatever Ruda’s musings are, they’re not fresh.

A government wielding behavioural science tools, but lacking accountability

But we are now entering the time of “in hindsight” and back-pedalling, because in the wake of Partygate, revelations of hypocrisy recalibrate fears. It is also a time of re-branding: the Behavioural Insights Team was wholly acquired by NESTA in December 2021 for £15.4m, with £2.75m going to individual shareholders. As Ruda’s article notes, this is a “healthy capital gain”, from a company set up at the taxpayer’s expense. Had such a confessional article been published before the sale it would have made for an interesting counterfactual, not least for its sale price, and therefore the benefits those private shareholders accrued. I may be able to return to this point soon.

How is the success of the UK government’s nudging to be assessed, beyond how well the individual nudgers might have done out of doing so? The capital gain, the worldwide exports and some celebrated campaigns are listed. But not everyone is convinced. Nudges fail, and “we don’t actually know how big the fail rate is because of publication bias”, according to Magda Osman, Head of Research and Analysis, Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge. One study has found 38 of 100 studies published by BIT over-reported the effectiveness of the nudges used, when they were in fact failures. Another study found that 30 per cent of randomised controlled trials conducted by BIT were not published, possibly because they also ‘failed’.

Mr Ruda’s article contained welcome moments of honest reflection and admission of the harms caused by a government wielding behavioural science tools, but lacking accountability. Or even basic scrutiny, not least from a press which, when it was even aware of what was going on, was cheering it on (and vigorously scolding anyone who presumed to criticise it). This reassessment of what the government did needs to go beyond the seriously disturbing applications of fear and social norms during the Covid pandemic.

The impact of behavioural insights on mental health was reported in Loan Charge All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on the Morse Review into the Loan Charge March 2020. It concluded that independent assessment and a suspension of HMRC’s use of behavioural insights was needed, “in light of the ongoing suicide risk to those impacted by the Loan Charge”. Clear misconduct and bullying, including using 30 behavioural insights in communications, were cited in one of the seven known suicides of people facing the Loan Charge.

This is the extreme end of the scale. I hope that nudge was thoughtlessly heavy-handed rather than callous, although there have been some truly pernicious proposals. Cass Sunstein, one of the fathers of modern nudge theory — he wrote the book Nudge — heads up the WHO’s behavioural insights group, is closely involved with the UK’s BIT, and has also worked with the US government. In 2008 he wrote a paper recommending the US government employ teams of covert agents to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites which advocate views that Sunstein deems “false conspiracy theories”. Our government’s shadowy Research Information and Communications Unit has doubtless done nothing like this. After all, who would doubt either this government’s competence or its intentions?

At the harmless end of the scale is the fly in the urinal story made famous by the other father of nudge, Richard Thaler. But within these distant ends, behavioural scientists do wield power and they are embedded in governments around the world. Psychologist Gary Sidley complained to the British Psychological Society about the use of covert psychological strategies to promote popular compliance with the draconian Covid restrictions. The request fell upon deaf ears so he is now asking the government’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to conduct an independent evaluation of the government’s deployment of behavioural science on the British people.

Nudge assumes we are not rational beings

Although Ruda did not name my book, I hear it was unwelcome within government for exposing the weaponisation of fear. A key government advisor tells me it has also prompted high level scrutiny of behavioural science. It is known that mistakes were made. Yet I fear that nudge will survive the pandemic.

The collaboration between Sky and BIT suggests the nudgers are emboldened. A BIT paper on how to nudge the public towards Net Zero referred to our “powerful tendency to conform”. Are policy makers going to let go of our emotions when they are so very useful in making us comply with policy? Unlikely. Rolling Stone reports that the Home Office has hired an advertising agency to mobilise public opinion against encrypted communications, with plans that include some shockingly manipulative tactics to sway concerned parents.

I agree with Sidley that the government must be held to account over its use of behavioural science. This should include a historical analysis of all campaigns (especially the unpublished ones), a review of the ethical framework government behavioural scientists adhere to, and scrutiny of accountability. Most importantly, a review must include the general public.

Nudge assumes we are not rational beings. It assumes that paternalistic libertarians know what is best for us. Ruda does not shy away from this, clearly stating that “behavioural science was conceived as a means of recognising and correcting the biases that lead humans to make non-rational decisions”. Stripping away our rational choices and influencing us at a subliminal level is anti-democratic. Rebranding must not hide behind handwringing. Nudge happens behind our backs. It’s time to keep it under a spotlight where we can see it. Some of us have been doing that for some time. I’m glad to see others are finally catching up.

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