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Artillery Row

You are being nudged

State-sponsored psychological manipulation is becoming ubiquitous

We might expect our governments to rely on transparent rational argument to influence the electorate. Recently published research, on the other hand, has given further credence to a view that has been gaining popularity over the last decade or so: our thoughts and actions are being furtively influenced, on an unparalleled scale, so as to align them with the goals of our political elite.  

These strategies of influence exploit the fact that human beings operate almost all of the time on autopilot

A major source of this psychological manipulation is state-funded behavioural science, a discipline dedicated to strategically reconfiguring our physical, social and informational environments — by deployment of “nudges” — so as to increase the likelihood that we do the “right” thing. A nudge is a method of persuasion that often achieves its impact below the target’s level of conscious awareness, thereby providing a “low cost, low pain” way of inducing new ways of behaving “by going with the grain of how we think and act” (MINDSPACE, 2010). These strategies of influence exploit the fact that human beings operate almost all of the time on autopilot, making moment-by-moment decisions without conscious reflection and relying on imperfect heuristics to navigate the complexities of the world around them.

The most obvious example of the government’s use of behavioural science strategies occurred throughout the Covid years, when the public health messaging campaign, aimed at levering compliance with restrictions and the vaccine rollout, was infused with these covert methods of persuasion. Three of the most prominent nudges deployed during this period were fear-inflation, shaming and peer pressure — or “affect”, “ego” and “norms”, to use the language of behavioural science. A frightened population is typically a compliant one, so we were bombarded with daily death counts and slogans such as, “If you go out, you can spread it, people will die”. Humans strive to perceive themselves as virtuous, so the nudgers equated following the public health directives with being a good person; for example, those harrowing close-up images of acutely unwell patients in intensive care units and the voice-over beseeching us to “Look them in the eyes and tell them you are doing all you can to stop the spread of coronavirus”. And it is a natural inherent drive to avoid the perception of being in a minority, hence the nudgers welcomed the imposition of mask mandates for healthy people in the community — while face coverings constituted an ineffectual viral barrier, they instantly enabled the identification of the rule followers and the rule breakers, thereby harnessing the power of normative pressure to lever general compliance.

To achieve this level of intensity and breadth of nudge-infused public health messaging requires a hefty resource of behavioural science experts, and recent Freedom of Information requests (FOIs) confirm the ubiquity of these government advisors. Thus, during the Covid event, the Government had access to the SAGE subgroup, the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), composed largely of psychological specialists dedicated to strengthening official communications via deployment of nudge strategies. One prominent member of SPI-B was Professor Susan Michie, who currently occupies a globally influential position as Chair of the World Health Organisation’s “Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health”. 

While the SPI-B was a transient group, the government also draws on three enduring sources of behavioural science expertise. Since 2010, the “Behavioural Insight Team” (BIT) — aka the “Nudge Unit” — has worked closely with the heart of government, initially as a publicly-funded enterprise located in the Cabinet Office and, since December 2021, under the exclusive ownership of the innovations charity Nesta. The Government routinely commissions input from BIT. During the Covid era, this included a £4 million contract with the Cabinet Office to provide “frictionless access to behavioural insights to match central priorities”, and a £1 million contract with the Department of Health and Social Care for “Various work for Test, Trace, Contain and Enable agenda”.  

A second permanent source of nudge advice is a large group of civil servants, the “Government Communication Service” (GCS), that employs “over 7,000 professional communicators across the UK”. The GCS hosts up to five behavioural scientists, working from the Cabinet Office, that offer both “expert support to central government campaigns and behavioural science consultancy services across government, covering communications, policy and operations” (GCS, 2021).

Astonishingly, the collective behavioural science resource of the SPI-B, BIT and the GCS is insufficient to quench the Government’s thirst for this often-covert form of psychological persuasion. In addition, many state departments employ their own in-house resource of behavioural scientists; for instance, the UK Health Security Agency (formerly Public Health England) house 24 full-time qualified practitioners, and the Department of Health & Social Care and the Office of Health Improvements & Disparities incorporate up to five each among their workforce. 

It is important to highlight that state-funded nudging is not restricted to the public health domain. In 2021, the previously mentioned BIT, in collaboration with Sky TV, produced a document titled, “The Power of TV: Nudging Viewers to De-Carbonise their Lifestyles”. The explicit mission of this initiative was to “shift the behaviour of millions of people to deliver our net zero goals” by using their range of programming (documentaries, news, fictional drama) to “increase empathy, shift values or boost social acceptability of pro-environment choices”. The multiple behavioural scientists in the Department of Energy & Net Zero — whose number would take too long to count, according to their recent response to a FOI — would no doubt approve.

And in 2019, the Department of Revenue & Customs stated that they hosted 54 employees in their “Behavioural Research and Insight” team. This abundance of nudge expertise might go some way to explaining the conclusions of an All-Parliamentary Group Report (APGR) analysing the recommendations of the Morse Report (a Treasury-commissioned review into the Loan Charge). Multiple behavioural science strategies had been deployed to recoup money lent to small businesses and, in the view of the APGR, the distress evoked “has been cited in one of the seven known suicides of those impacted by the Loan Charge”. The APGR subsequently recommended an “independent assessment and suspension” of the use of behavioural science strategies by HM Revenue & Customs “in light of the ongoing suicide risk”. 

In effect, we — the taxpayers — are commissioning the nudgers to furtively influence our day-to-day thoughts and actions

Clearly, all areas of UK government now have routine access to the tools of behavioural science. In effect, we — the taxpayers — are commissioning the nudgers to furtively influence our day-to-day thoughts and actions so as to align them with what the state’s technocrats have decided is in our best interests. Open, transparent debate is no longer deemed necessary. Whether in the realms of public health, climate change or global conflicts, the guiding assumption is that our political elite always know what is good for us, so we — the populace — no longer need to trouble ourselves with effortful deliberation and critical thinking. What could possibly go wrong?

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