Winter is coming, and so are the nudges.
The UK government's Winter Plan is rife with nudges.
There’s a chill in the air. Not from the changing seasons, it’s still beautifully balmy, but because the behavioural scientists’ fingertips have traced a hoar frost of psychocratic nudge on the government’s “Autumn and Winter Plan”.
The UK government’s Winter Plan plan contained some welcome news. The most draconian schedules of the Coronavirus Act will be revoked, including the powers to close schools, allow potentially infectious people to be detained, and restrictions on gatherings and events. The language around the plan’s launch was thankfully more cool-headed. The times are “challenging” but it is no longer claimed that Covid is the “biggest threat this country has faced in peacetime history”.
But the plan is also rife with “nudges” - sneaky ways to prime, prepare and prod you into the desired mindset and course of action.
The contents are freighted with the sunk cost fallacy; we’ve come so far, we mustn’t allow our good work to be undone. This also taps into people’s innate sensitivity to loss.
The trigger from Plan A to Plan B will be “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS rather than deaths. It’s under serious pressure every winter so consider yourselves to be put on notice.
There are other indications of the inevitability of Plan B. I spoke to behavioural scientist Patrick Fagan, who observed that:
“the Plan A / Plan B approach is a classic example of the foot-in-the-door technique. Firstly it makes us accept Plan A because, compared to Plan B, it looks more reasonable; then, once we have accepted and acclimatised to Plan A, we are more likely to then accept Plan B, because it is just one extra step on top of the commitment we’ve already made. The announcement of Plan B may also be an example of the mere exposure effect: simply by talking about the measures (even if, ironically, saying they won’t be implemented), the government makes them more familiar and therefore more psychologically acceptable.”
Bizarrely, after 18 months we’re trapped in a Groundhog Day of modelling and worst case scenarios. Almost a year ago, on the 21st September, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance warned of infections hitting 50,000 per day by mid-October in their “Shock and Awe” presentation. When the day arrived, the moving average was 16,228.
According to the doom-mongers at SAGE, up to 7,000 people could be hospitalised per day within the month. And this September the modellers were wrong once again - hospitalisations peaked at about a 1,000 a day and are now falling.
The big numbers both fuel the policies and justify them. It doesn’t matter that there are more optimistic scenarios, or that the modelling has limitations, because the first supine headline sticks in the brain. The behavioural psychology principle of “salience” draws your attention to what is novel and risky.
Dr Alex De Figueiredo, who conducts mathematical and statistical analyses for the Vaccine Confidence Project, told me that:
“Since the beginning of the pandemic it seems many modelling assumptions, such as the infection fatality rate, have been quite pessimistic. I think this has been why many of the predictions — such as hospitalisations and deaths — have been overstated. It also appears there has been little effort to validate forecasts out-of-sample, such as applying the models to Sweden or Florida, who have had far fewer restrictions.”
There are no quantifiable measures for what justifies each step from Plan A to Plan B. The parameters are fluid, unspecified. This creates confusion and stress, which infantilises people and makes them look to the government for direction. Essentially, confusion increases compliance.
The threat of lockdown hangs like a Sword of Damocles. Will we, or won’t we? It seems unlikely that the public and businesses could be persuaded again. Regardless, the threat of lockdown might be leveraged to justify the introduction of Covid Passports, in what is known as a “reciprocation nudge” - we appear to be given a concession in return for reduced resistance to another option.
Covid Passports have been vigorously opposed by MPs and civil liberties groups, and there hasn’t been a vote in Parliament yet. Despite this, they squat in Plan B as a fait accompli, in the denouement of the “door in the face” technique. This is when a huge request is made, then refused, to be followed by a second smaller request, in this case relegation to Plan B and for limited venues only. Boris Johnson said that it’s “not sensible to rule out this kind of option now when it might still make the difference between keeping businesses open or not.” But why would it be sensible when the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee produced a damning report against them and found the government could make no scientific case in their favour?
Covid Passports appear to be a behavioural science tool, used to increase vaccine uptake. This may backfire. 'A Cross-Sectional Study in the UK and Israel on Willingness to Get Vaccinated against COVID-19' found that vaccine passports deter a significant minority of people who want autonomy over their bodies. This also chimes with the research conducted by De Figueiredo and colleagues at The Vaccine Confidence Project. The bullying and resultant mistrust may impact Covid-19 vaccine uptake as well as other public health initiatives.
When my book A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic was published some people believed, quite quaintly, that public health measures and messaging were unrelated to behavioural science. I think that the book and the writings of other academics and journalists have moved the dial. Once nudge is seen it can’t be unseen. The public increasingly see the nudge. If the behavioural scientists have been dazzling people with card tricks they have over-played their hand.
As such, there is more honesty about the purpose Covid Passports serve. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, said that the passport scheme
“will not eradicate transmission completely but it will help reduce it in some higher risk settings, and it will maximise protection against serious illness. And we believe – as we have seen already in some other countries – it will help encourage take-up of the vaccine.”
Similarly, Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health and Interim Social Policy Adviser to the Scottish Government, also admitted that Covid Passports are “to increase uptake in vaccination” and the “rationale” is that it particularly boosts vaccination in 18 to 29 year olds.
While Covid Passports are in Plan B, Ministers say different things about them each day. Within the space of a week, Sajid Javid scrapped them but also didn’t rule them out for pubs. Javid admitted there’s “no evidence” for them but Boris Johnson called them “sensible”. Does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing? Or maybe a big behavioural science brain lurks in between. The epidemic management is reminiscent of the uncertainty created by Vladislav Surkov in the Soviet Union to deliberately turn politics into a performance of confusion - you don’t know what’s real anymore.
There are never-ending question marks over travel, although double-vaccinated travellers will no longer need expensive and inconvenient PCR tests. The double-jabbed will delight in the news, and it sounds sensible on the surface. However, this is not about “following the science”, since the previously infected do not benefit from the exemption. This is an incentive, a classic nudge, to encourage jabs. The vaccinated are rewarded and the unvaccinated are punished. Bearing in mind that negative tests and prior infection could suffice, this decision reeks of disdain for personal autonomy.
Vaccines for 12 to 15 year olds have been authorised. Politicians have stirred up debate amongst all corners regarding whether children should be jabbed with their parents’ consent or not. This utilises what Patrick Fagan calls “the leapfrog effect”. He says,
“it leapfrogs one stage of the debate and in doing so, sets the baseline assumptions which become accepted implicitly. Specifically, by having people debate whether or not parents’ consent should be sought, they are establishing the unspoken assumption that children should receive the jab in the first place. Those who think they are debating the government, arguing that parents’ consent is needed, are actually accepting its true goal, to jab kids.”
The government might be more in control of the narrative than many people like to believe. (Of course, chaos and confusion are alternatives…)
Worryingly, can teens truly provide informed consent? Throughout 2020 they were exhorted not to “kill granny”, which would provoke fear, shame and stress. Ads on Tiktok tell youngsters that the way to get back to normal is to take the vaccine. The vaccine will be rolled out in schools which will create peer pressure, in a particularly egregious use of “norms”. Finally, if the JCVI found the decision difficult, how is a 12 year old supposed to weigh up the evidence? (Nudging teens is the subject matter of my next article.)
Since the Cabinet reshuffle, Michael Gove has been informally dubbed the 'Minister for Christmas’. Boris Johnson joked that he “didn’t want to have to cancel Christmas again”. Did you know Christmas might be cancelled and needs saving? You do now, the idea has been “seeded”.
Although it is ostensibly supply chains which threaten Christmas, the joke draws a comparison with last year’s Covid reasons. Again, you are put on notice. The nudges are still focussed on increasing vaccination, for now, but the threat to Christmas might hint at the beginning of a behavioural science approach to meet green targets.
We must be good boys and girls if we want Santa to come. And be aware, the nudgers are drafting our collective New Year’s Resolutions.
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