A ‘nudge’ too far? The rise of behavioural science and technocratic rule
From my opening talk the Battle of Ideas, at which I argued that 'nudge' is inherently anti-democratic
This is a transcript of my opening 5 minutes at the Battle of Ideas talk, A ‘nudge’ too far? The rise of behavioural science and technocratic rule. Also on the panel were Dr NobuLali Dangazele, Professor Frank Furedi, Professor Peter John and our Chair was Timandra Harkness.
Battle of Ideas, London, 10th October 2021.
Nudges guide you into making better choices, by people who know what is best for you. There are now lots of those people in government.
The classic example is that putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
How do we know when a nudge has gone too far? I’m going to start us off with a quote from MINDSPACE: influencing behaviour through public policy, co-authored by one of the directors of the UK government’s nudge unit.
“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.”
So, has a nudge gone too far when subliminal manipulation changes your personality? The nudges of the last 18 months have changed your relationship with the state.
Does nudge go too far when it doesn’t stop? When the first nudge doesn’t achieve the desired effect and so another nudge ensues. Then more. That does undermine the idea of choice. One example of that would be the drive to increase vaccine uptake which has relied upon behavioural science to an unprecedented degree for a public health campaign. Incentives such as PCR tests dropped for double-vaccinated holidaymakers, ASDA clothes vouchers, raffles for EURO 2020 tickets, cash prizes, media stories promoting the regret if the infected and unvaccinated, the looming threat of a vaccine passport, mandates for care workers, all rolled out one after the other.
Does a nudge go too far when it bypasses the normal debates? One of the campaigns that the nudge unit is proud of is making organ donation opt out rather than opt in. Because the choice is preserved there is little of that difficult debate, no tricky law to pass. There is an obvious net benefit to society. You do still own your organs. While you are alive. But we didn’t really debate it.
Is it a nudge too far when someone is hurt by the nudging? How about deliberately increasing people’s sense of personal threat because they understand the risk of Covid to their own demographic, to make them more scared in order to make them comply with the lockdown rules.
Fear is a very destabilising tactic. I interviewed people who were quite undone by fear for my book A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of them identified that it was specifically government messaging and advertising, the 24/7 doom-mongering in the media, the steep red lines on graphs of worst case scenarios, the use of terms like Covidiot to shame and other and encourage social conformity.
One of the SPI-B advisors who spoke to me anonymously said that,
“The way we have used fear is dystopian. It has definitely been ethically questionable. Ultimately, it backfired because people became too scared.”
An example of another harm. The Loan Charge All Party Parliamentary Group has recommended an inquiry into HMRC’s use of behavioural psychology and behavioural insights and a suspension of those techniques. Taxpayers were pressured using 30 behavioural insights in communications, something that has been cited in one of the seven known suicides of people facing the Loan Charge.
Who takes responsibility for the harms that are caused? What ethical framework is in place?
Has a nudge gone too far when it is embedded throughout the government? As well as the nudge unit, there are behavioural scientists in various government departments, in the NHS and Public Health England, in agencies like DEFRA and the HSE, in local government, and there are more secretive counter disinformation and terror units which overlap with the same work.
There is very little transparency. Manifestos have ignored the cost, the aims, the tactics and the impacts of behavioural science.
Behavioural scientists and politicians have called for public consultation, but it has not happened yet. A 2011 Select Committee’s into Behaviour Change noted that there are ‘ethical issues because they involve altering behaviour through mechanisms of which people are not obviously aware’. David Halpern, the head of the nudge unit, has said that if national or local governments are to use behavioural psychology tools they need to ensure that they have public permission to do so. But we have not been consulted or even informed.
The reason policy makers like nudges - and why you could argue that to a degree we under technocratic rule now - is that they avoid costly regulation, campaigning, debates and outright bans. It’s a cheap and effective way to prod and prime us into being model citizens without even being aware of it. If we allow ourselves to be nudged towards a greater good, we have given up determining what good is.
The mottos of Battle of Ideas are “Freethinkers welcome. Free speech allowed,” so what better place to start debating these vital questions?
The irony is, nudge undermines free will; subliminal manipulation affects our free thinking. It strips away our choices without us even knowing.
Nudge is inherently anti-democratic.