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When did psychology get so cringe?

Mates don’t let mates inform manipulative politics with bad behavioural science

Artillery Row

Hoorah! Our noble betters are here again to socially engineer us into having the correct behaviours. This time it’s Sadiq Khan’s Maaate campaign, designed by behavioural scientists to try and dismantle misogyny — but really just dismantling records in cringe.

The Mayor of London has teamed up with behavioural science gurus to create the campaign, meant to tackle violence against women. Ah, great, you think, finally they’re doing something about the record highs of rape in this country. Well, no, not quite. It’s not aimed at actual violence, but rather something much worse — the violence of lads’ banter in private.

In the interactive advert, an improbably multiracial group of young men are playing video games at home. One of the friends (the white one) makes a series of chauvinistic comments. The others shift uncomfortably in their seats. You, the viewer, are expected to click the “Maaate” button to castigate him for unleashing such gendered violence as, “I’m defo in the mood for spicy breasts now!”

It’s as cringeworthy as it sounds. Nevertheless, it’s technically a smart advert. It pulls a lot of the levers of behaviour change. It uses efficacy by giving men a very simple action they can take immediately; it uses conformity by making a certain behaviour seem socially unacceptable and uncool (as was done for drunk driving in the past); and it uses triggers by showing exactly the context in which the action should occur, so that viewers will be conditioned to recognise it and respond in real life. With these three elements, it’s a clear application of the Capability-Opportunity-Motivation model from professor Susan Michie, the WHO’s chief behavioural scientist (and a bona fide member of the Communist Party of Great Britain).

The word “maaate” was chosen because “the elongated vowel gets attention” and “the hard “T” sound creates a sharp break in the flow of speech” which “tells your friend it’s serious”. You may notice this is the same technique dog trainers use when they tell the animal to siiiiit!

Yes, psychology is a feminine and leftist discipline

Yes, it is a technically smart advert. Unfortunately, it’s, well, quite rubbish. It’s condescending and tone deaf; it has been roundly trounced on social media. One wonders if the minds behind the campaign have actually ever met a man — at least outside of the soy latte zones of east London. The researchers do claim to have conducted ethnographies with construction workers, bar staff and city bankers — in short, manly men — but they also analysed millions of words from Redditors, and the model they photographed in their white paper to represent men says it all. He is, with the greatest of respect, an effete, pencil-necked geek with a hoop earing, fluffy hair and an oversized, turtle-necked fleece.

Part of the issue is that psychology is a women’s subject. Eighty per cent of psychology graduates, and the same proportion of clinical and educational psychologists, are female. There’s nothing wrong with that of course — unless you’re trying to make a campaign aimed at men, who the creators of this ad just don’t seem to get. Despite all their nuanced research into men’s worlds, they had their actors talk about football, video games and the gym. One wonders how much these groundbreaking insights cost the taxpayer.

Also, behavioural scientists tend to be weirdos. They are often ultra-lefty academics and Nathan Barley types living in Shoreditch. One paper found there are fourteen liberals to every conservative amongst psychologists.

Yes, psychology is a feminine and leftist discipline. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The whole idea of “nudging” is effeminate in the worst ways. It’s indirect and snarky and passive-aggressive. This isn’t about women, of course, but about the traits of toxic femininity, which anyone can have. Look at the tactics used in Covid by the all-male Mean Girls in government — “Get the jab or you’re not allowed to eat with us and we’ll call you names”. Like true leftists, behavioural scientists also salivate more than one of Pavlov’s dogs when it comes to the idea of state control, a handful of bureaucrats deciding on the “right” behaviour and then rewiring the entire public into compliance.

It’s a sinister attempt to police private conversations

Thus not only is the advert bad, but it’s also a bit evil. It’s a sinister attempt to get into people’s homes and police their private conversations. Since Khan is unable to transfer his dystopian posters (“Staring will not be tolerated”) from the Underground into living rooms, he’s now attempting to recruit members of the public to act as the thought police. Make sure you always toe the party line since you never know who’s listening — even at home. Say the wrong thing and you could find yourself, like Nigel Farage or the Canadian trucker protestors, de-banked and de-personed.

The campaign also sits in the wider context of the weaponization of behavioural science. Another example from the mayor’s office is the expansion of ULEZ. It uses something called the foot-in-the-door technique, where compliance is sought through gradual increments rather than happening all at once. First there was the Congestion Charge, then the Low Emission Zone (LEZ), then the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). Now ULEZ is being expanded into outer London. In the future, as Angela Rayner recently let slip on Sky News, “this is coming to towns and cities across the whole of the United Kingdom”.

Yes, the Maaate campaign was terrible, and we can all have a good laugh at it. These behavioural science techniques are everywhere, though. The government, advertisers, Big Tech — they are all battling for control of your mind, every hour of every day. They may have missed the mark this time, but they’ll surely get you the next.

Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it, by Laura Dodsworth and Patrick Fagan, is out now.

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