We need an inquiry into nudge.
Letter to PACAC about ethical concerns arising from the Government’s use of covert psychological ‘nudges’
Mr William Wragg, MP, Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
1st February 2022
Dear Mr Wragg,
Re: Ethical concerns arising from the Government’s use of covert psychological ‘nudges’.
Thank you for meeting me to allow me to explain my concerns about the government’s use of behavioural science during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. I noted your positive comments about the need to better understand how nudge sits within parliamentary democracy and ministerial accountability, in a Telegraph article dated 28th January 2022, entitled ‘Government nudge unit “used grossly unethical tactics to scare public into Covid compliance”’, which was written in response to a letter by psychologist Gary Sidley et al requesting an investigation.I concur with Gary’s letter wholeheartedly.
During the course of researching my book A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic I gained a fascinating but sometimes disturbing insight into how reliant the government is on behavioural science and how little transparency there is about the people, methods, impacts and ethics.
Behavioural scientists and politicians have called for public consultation in the past, but it has not happened. The Science and Technology Select Committee’s 2011 report Behaviour Change noted that there are ‘ethical issues because they involve altering behaviour through mechanisms of which people are not obviously aware’ and ‘ethical acceptability depends to a large extent on an intervention’s proportionality’.David Halpern, the head of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), has said that ‘if national or local governments are to use these approaches [behavioural psychology tools], they need to ensure that they have public permission to do so – ie, that the nudge is transparent, and that there has been appropriate debate about it’.
The MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy discussion document which David Halpern co-authored recommended a public consultation about the use of behavioural insights.This has never been more pertinent. Fear messaging was used to encourage compliance with the rules. This has changed our lives and our relationships with each other. It has also changed our relationship with the government. This was predicted in the same report, which warned:
‘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.’
Our personalities were changed 2020-2021. And the use of fear - a particularly destabilising tactic - has made recovery harder. The collateral damage is becoming clearer, not least with the identification of Covid Anxiety Syndrome, whereby people have heightened fears which are disproportionate to the remaining threat.While it is difficult to extricate the different causes - lockdown, the epidemic itself, government messaging, the media - the overall result merits close scrutiny.
One of the BIT founders, Simon Ruda, admitted in an article published in Unherd, 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’.It’s a pity that this revelation was made so late in the pandemic management. (After the sale of BIT to NESTA for a ‘healthy capital gain’, as Ruda observes, for the BIT shareholders.) If the previous calls for public consultation on the use of nudge had happened years ago, then maybe this egregious mistake could have been avoided. But it is never too late.
I believe the UK needs a full analysis of the tactics used and their impacts from experts, including psychologists, behavioural scientists, mental health specialists, politicians, political scientists, sociologists, philosophers, civil liberties organisations, lawyers, as well as representatives of the public.
Furthermore, the harmful impacts of behavioural science go beyond the handling of the Covid epidemic. 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.
The collaboration between a major UK broadcaster and BIT to promote one of the most controversial policies today is deeply alarming. The report, The Power of TV: Nudging Viewers to Decarbonise their Lifestyles, jointly published by BIT and Sky, shows little regard for the obligation imposed on broadcasters by Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code to maintain ‘due impartiality’ across all their output, particularly when it comes to news and current affairs.It also neglects the requirement that broadcasters expose viewers to a wide range of different views when it comes to ‘matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy’. I wrote a letter of complaint to Ofcom with Toby Young, Founder of the Free Speech Union, on 21st December 2021.
Recently, 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.
In the past two years I have noted new behavioural science appointments within the government, Public Health England (now UKHSA) and NHS, and nudge seems likely to play a bigger part in future government attempts to transform us into ‘model citizens’ and foreground acceptance of controversial policies. Indeed, this is openly acknowledged. One recent report from a team at the University of Bath already shows how behavioural psychologists hope to segue from Covid to climate behaviour change while ‘habits are weakest and most malleable to change’.A BIT paper on how to nudge the public towards Net Zero referred to our ‘powerful tendency to conform'.
I agree with Gary Sidley that the government must be held to account over its use of behavioural science. The Covid epidemic has shone a spotlight onto how embedded behavioural science is within government, but the inquiry would benefit from widening the scope to a historical review and also agree new frameworks for the future. This should include a historical analysis of all campaigns (especially the many 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, who are as yet unaware of the prolific campaigns to influence them below the level of consciousness, but nevertheless fund the campaigns through taxation.
Nudge assumes we are not rational beings. Ruda does not shy away from this in his article, 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 and we are now at a crucial point to take stock of the government’s use of these tactics. I hope that PACAC can conduct a comprehensive and independent investigation. I would be delighted to assist by sharing notes and evidence.
I look forward to speaking with you.
‘Will nudge theory survive the pandemic?’, Unherd, 13th January 2022
‘Revealed: UK Gov’t Plans Publicity Blitz to Undermine Privacy of Your Chats’, Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/revealed-uk-government-publicity-blitz-to-undermine-privacy-encryption-1285453/
‘Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives. Key principles from past government-led behaviour change and public engagement initiatives’, BIT, October 2021. It was unpublished from the internet.