The nudgers want to harness social norms. But Novak Djokovic won't be harnessed.
A lot of thinking is upside down at the moment. It has a discombobulating effect on the contemporary rational thinker. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay wrote “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”
There are two incredible examples which show how cultural madness is currently spreading like a contagion.
Firstly, the US Merriam-Webster dictionary has changed the dictionary definition of female to include males who identify as female.
Now female cannot mean “of, relating to, or being the sex that typically has the capacity to bear young or produce eggs” as well as “having a gender identity that is the opposite of male”, and mean anything useful at all. Don’t look to the Merriam-Webster dictionary for useful meanings.
The categories of male and female have not changed in the real world, but the definitions have changed to justify and reflect what a vocal group of ideologues want to see in the world.
The second and equally absurd example is that Novak Djokovic is banned from competing in the US Open, because the US will not allow unvaccinated travellers to enter the country. This is rich indeed when the US president is fully vaccinated and yet has Covid-19. None of the Covid-19 vaccines prevent a person from catching or transmitting SARS-Cov-2, although they can mitigate the symptoms from the illness Covid-19.
"Per the Grand Slam Rule Book, all eligible players are automatically entered into the men’s and women’s singles main draw fields based on ranking 42 days prior to the first Monday of the event," the U.S. Open said in its statement.
"The U.S. Open does not have a vaccination mandate in place for players, but it will respect the U.S. government’s position regarding travel into the country for unvaccinated non-U.S. citizens.”
- Statement from the US Open
The CDC states a traveller must be fully vaccinated in order to enter US. It doesn’t say why. The organisation would be hard-pressed to offer a hard scientific justification for the ban. In fact, there is an Armada of studies and anecdotes to prove the vaccine is not a perfect panacea.
Likewise, here in the UK, the government’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee discovered the UK government was unable to present a scientific case for vaccine passports.
The problem is that government and public health officials in the US (and around the world) have said that vaccines do prevent transmission and illness. Speaking on the Rachael Maddow show on MSNBC in March 2021, the US’s Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said that CDC data showed that vaccinated people “don’t carry the virus” and “don’t get sick”. President Joe Biden said, “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
The US government and health authorities have made various false calls during the Covid-19 pandemic. If we are being generous we could say that they were investing their hopes in the vaccines and believed that presenting these hopes as facts would encourage the population to take the desired actions. Or you could also say they used positions of trust and authority to mislead people.
Some countries are adapting their vaccine guidance accordingly. Denmark has updated its vaccination strategy. It expects a “new wave” this winter and states that vaccines are a “safety net” that will take the country through the winter but also states that vaccines are “voluntary”. The Danish Health Authority has stated:
“In the future, the primary purpose of the covid-19 vaccination programme will be to prevent serious illness, hospitalisations and death, not to prevent infection.”
If there is no scientific evidence to justify barring unvaccinated travellers, we must deduce a behavioural science reason applies to the US entry requirements. The influence of behavioural psychology was writ throughout Biden’s “pandemic of the unvaccinated” speech. In one breath he urged travellers not to be angry with airline staff enforcing rules, while in another breath he planted the idea that people should be angry with their unvaccinated fellow citizens. He set out a carrot and stick approach. At one end of the scale was a “nudge” to ensure that being vaccinated would be covered under paid leave, and the other end of the spectrum mean no jab, no jab for federal workers.
One famous nudge expert who might endorse this strategy wrote:
“Being unvaccinated in 2021 is similar to smoking in public, though it is more immediately hazardous. The unvaccinated are endangering themselves and those with whom they come into contact. It would be good public policy if those who refuse to be vaccinated are compelled to spend more time alone.”
This rather intolerant and prescriptive view came from Richard Thaler, co-author of the seminal book, Nudge. The article was entitled “More Than Nudges Are Needed to End the Pandemic”. More like, “Sometimes nudge isn’t enough and you have to bludgeon the population instead, to force their behaviour to change to fit our beliefs”
Co-author of Nudge, Cass Sunstein is also the head of the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health. A report on “Acceptance and Uptake of Covid-19 Vaccines" made it clear that “harnessing social influences” should be in governmental tool kits. Suggestions include making vaccination in workplaces the default, requiring opt out, and making vaccination mandatory in certain activities, such as employment, education, travelling abroad or enrolling in day care. The report’s authors simply see this as part of creating “enabling environments”.
Covid-19 was a novel virus. Equally novel has been the panoply of incentives from ice cream and petting zoos for kids, to college education raffles for teenagers and exhortations not to miss out, through to jabs for joints and jabs for jobs for adults. The problem is that in the interests of creating a net shift in behaviour, the behavioural psychologists are not as focussed on issues of informed medical consent, once the bedrock of modern medicine.
The International Code of Medical Ethics (2017) says a physician must,
“Respect a competent patient’s right to accept or refuse treatment.”
UNESCO Declaration (2005, Article 6) states,
“Any (all) preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information. The consent should, where appropriate, be express and may be withdrawn by the person at any time and for any reason without disadvantage or prejudice.”
Djokovic is exercising his right to bodily autonomy and informed consent. Furthermore, he has had Covid-19 - the chances are he has long-lasting immunity protection. He is young and incredibly fit. He is being disadvantaged as as result of an unscientific rule against travel. Some politicians and journalists - who should know better - are happy to heap prejudice on him.
The reason is clear. They want to harness social norms. Government health agencies even go so far as to pay (some) celebrities to share their vaccination selfies, in order to make vaccination visible, appear popular and to amplify trusted endorsements.
But Djokovic won’t be harnessed. A high profile (and very healthy) celebrity choosing not to be vaccinated undermines the “social benefits” of vaccination which governments have pushed hard, and this risks the “social cascade” of vaccine scepticism that they fear. And so, they punish him. Human beings have a foundational need to belong. Social disapproval and exclusion are common fears. Yet Djokovic continues to put self-determination above peer approval and coercion.
The treatment of Novak Djokovic doesn’t prove the need for a Covid-19 vaccination. It proves we need to be inoculated against group think and behavioural psychology.