How the MEAN psychologists got us to comply with coronavirus restrictions
Updated: Oct 24, 2020
The British public’s widespread compliance with the Government’s draconian diktats has arguably been the most remarkable aspect of the coronavirus crisis. The unprecedented restrictions on our basic freedoms – in the form of lockdowns, travel bans and mandatory mask wearing – have been passively accepted by the large majority of people. Despite the lack of evidence for effectiveness of these extreme measures, and the growing recognition of their negative consequences, it seems most of us continue to submit to the ongoing restrictions on our lives. Why have we witnessed such capitulation?
A major contributor to the mass obedience of the British people is likely to have been the activities of government-employed psychologists working as part of the ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ (BIT). After outlining the structure and stated remit of the BIT, I will describe the strategies deployed by this group of psychological specialists to shape our behaviours in line with the Government’s public health approach to coronavirus. In particular, I will highlight the four main tactics used in their COVID-19 communication campaigns to ‘nudge’ us towards compliance: a focus on the MESSENGER, EGO, AFFECT and NORMS (or ‘MEAN’ as an acronym), providing specific examples to illustrate how these influencers were put to work so as to get us to obey the Government’s directives. Finally, the questionable ethics of resorting to these psychological interventions to promote compliance with an increasingly contested public health policy will be addressed.
The Behavioural Insights Team – structure and remit
The BIT was conceived in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2010 as ‘the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy’ (Hallsworth et al., 2018). It is collectively owned by the UK Government, Nesta (a charity that views itself as an ‘innovation foundation’ and a ‘champion of radical thinking’), and BIT’s own employees. According to the BIT website, their team has rapidly expanded from a seven person unit working with the UK government to a ‘social purpose company’ operating in many countries around the world.
The stated aims of the BIT sound ambitious and altruistic. By working with a range of stakeholders (for example, governments and local authorities) the team aspire ‘to improve people’s lives and communities’ by applying ‘behavioural insights to inform policy, improve public services and deliver results for citizens and society’. Few would dispute that these sound like worthy goals. However, a closer inspection of the BIT’s methods raises concerns about the moral integrity of applying them for the purpose of achieving of the Government’s public health aims in regards to the coronavirus crisis.
A comprehensive account of the psychological approaches deployed by the BIT is provided in the document MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy (Dolan et al., 2010). This report – produced by the Institute of Government – states that the application of behavioural strategies can achieve ‘low cost, low pain ways of “nudging” citizens … … into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act’ (p7) (My emphasis). By expressing the process of change in this way, this statement reveals a key difference between the BIT interventions and traditional government efforts to shape our behaviour: their reliance on tools that often impact on us subconsciously, below our awareness.
Historically, in addition to compulsion (via legislation and regulation), governments have used information provision and rational argument in their efforts to alter the behaviour of their citizens. Armed with the appropriate evidence about an issue – for example, the environmental cost of excess plastic – the expectation is that people rationally (and consciously) weigh up the pros and cons of each of their options and consider changing their behaviour accordingly. By contrast, many of the nudges delivered by the BIT are – to various degrees – acting upon us automatically, below the level of conscious thought and reason.
Before describing the specific BIT strategies deployed to maximise our compliance with the coronavirus restrictions, it is important to emphasise that these interventions are, for the most part, underpinned by a robust evidence base drawn from the psychological sciences. As such, these are powerful tools that should always be used responsibly.
The specific nudges used by the BIT
The BIT rely on a range of interventions to mould our activities so as to better align with Government policy. The specific strategies employed for this purpose can be summarised by the acronym MINDSPACE (as shown below).
We are influenced by the source of the information
We employ predictable shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses
We are strongly influenced by what others do
We ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options
Our attention is drawn to what is novel & seems personally relevant
Our acts are often influenced by subconscious cues
Our emotions powerfully shape our actions
We seek to be consistent with our public promises
We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves
The four most relevant nudges deployed to gain the public’s compliance with the coronavirus restrictions appear to be ‘messenger’, ‘ego’, ‘affect’ and ‘norms’ (or MEAN as a mnemonic), and specific examples of each of these strategies in action will be given below. Although described separately, these nudges often overlap and act together. Apart from MEAN, other tools from the MINDSPACE acronym have also, to some extent, been evident in the coronavirus campaign – one obvious example, the ‘incentive’ to avoid losses underpins the imposition of fines for breaking the ‘rule of six’ and the mandatory masks diktats.
The characteristics of the person communicating the message will significantly influence the degree to which the recipients take heed of the information conveyed. If the messengers are perceived as possessing high levels of authority, or to be worthy of admiration, people will be more likely to believe them and follow their advice and directives. Consequently, we’ve repeatedly witnessed the senior academic duo of Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor, respectively) inform us of the latest COVID-19 statistics and projections, notably just before the Government is about to impose further restrictions on our freedoms. Similarly – playing on the widespread respect for NHS staff – nurses in full uniform continually appear on our TV screens bombarding us with the latest Government mantras.
The Government’s behavioural specialists also recognise that messages delivered by people with whom we can identify are likely to be impactful. Hence, it is not incidental that the multiple voices on TV and radio urging us to wears masks, socially distance, or download the Government’s track-and-trace app speak with a range of regional accents; to date I’ve heard Geordie, North West, West Midlands, South Western and Welsh, but I suspect this is not an exhaustive list. Similarly, the media messengers have included men and women, young and old, drawn from a variety of ethnic and socio-economic groups.
We all strive to maintain a positive view of ourselves and, in so doing, exhibit cognitive biases in the way we make sense of the world. For example, to preserve a virtuous self-image, each of us routinely display what psychologists refer to as a ‘fundamental attribution error’, whereby we take the credit for good outcomes while blaming others for bad ones. This inherent drive to protect our ego, to act and think in ways that make us feel better about ourselves, has been comprehensively exploited by the BIT specialists to nudge – nay, push – us to conform with coronavirus restrictions.
Aided by a mainstream media slavishly committed to promoting the Government’s coronavirus narrative, throughout the crisis we have been bombarded with slogans and mantras that insist that compliance is akin to the altruism of helping others:
‘STAY HOME, PROTECT THE NHS, SAVE LIVES’
‘PROTECT YOURSELVES, PROTECT YOUR LOVED ONES’;
‘IF YOU GO OUT YOU CAN SPREAD IT. PEOPLE WILL DIE’;
‘VACCINATIONS PROTECT US ALL’
‘STAY ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES’.
A ritual was spawned that acted to showcase the good guys. At 8.00pm every Thursday evening, for 10 consecutive weeks, we were encouraged to ‘Clap for Carers’ so as to demonstrate our appreciation for those NHS staff and key workers courageously risking their lives on the coronavirus frontline. Neighbours stood on their door steps whooping, clapping and clanging pots and pans, smiling at each other in mass recognition of their self-righteousness; meanwhile, those who opted not to participate in this pre-orchestrated show of virtue often felt like skulking Beelzebubs by remaining indoors. The message was clear: to qualify as a laudable human being you must comply with the Government’s coronavirus narrative.
Over recent weeks the ego-massaging slogans have swung into overdrive. Professor Whitty, in a TV press conference on the 21st September, said that anyone who increased their own risk of exposure ‘increase the risk of everyone’ around them. Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has resorted to telling university students not to ‘kill your gran’. And the unrelenting media campaign has peppered us all with a new batch of virtue-signalling statements that equate following the rules with being a good person: ‘I wash my hands to protect my Nan’; ‘I wash my hands to protect my family’; ‘I wear a face covering to protect my mates’; and ‘I make space to protect you’.
Furthermore, the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (mentioned above) ensures that the altruistic majority who are openly conforming with the diktats will blame any subsequent increase in coronavirus cases or deaths on those who didn’t comply, while themselves taking the credit for any positive change in the statistics.
Although these ego-boosting messages claiming that compliance with coronavirus restrictions is synonymous with goodness can border on the nauseating – a bit like an acquaintance repeatedly stating what a great guy he is - the BIT psychologists know they are very effective in nudging us towards conformity.
There is, however, another motivator that is the most potent of all: fear.
It has long been recognised by psychologists that our current emotional state will significantly influence our mental processes and behaviour. This ‘mood congruence effect’ will result in a person selectively noticing and remembering information that is consistent with an existing mood. Thus, if I’m happy, I will be more likely to remember my past successes, to notice the positives in my current life and to develop optimistic beliefs about the future. If I’m sad, I’ll display preferential access to memories of failure and loss, notice the negatives in my current life and subsequently harbour pessimistic beliefs about myself and the world. But if I’m fearful, my memory will be skewed in favour of past scary events, my attention will selectively focus on potential dangers in my current environment, and my mind will be swamped with thoughts about future threats and potential disasters; this re-calibration of our mental faculties towards fear mode has been superbly exploited by BIT psychologists to ensure mass compliance with the Government’s coronavirus diktats.
The decision to scare us into submission was a strategic one. The minutes of a meeting of the Government’s expert advisors (SAGE) on the 22nd March – a forum that includes psychological specialists – displays a clear intention: ‘The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent' by ‘using hard-hitting emotional messaging’. They knew that a frightened population is a compliant one. And haven’t they delivered.
In tandem with a subservient mainstream media (that has, almost exclusively, towed the Government line), the BIT has inflicted a prolonged and concerted scare campaign upon the British public the primary aim of which has been to inflate levels of fear. Methods deployed have included:
a) Daily statistics, displayed without context: First it was the death meter, macabrely displaying the number of people who had died each day from coronavirus. This victim count was reported out of context, without any reference to the number of daily deaths from other causes or the fact that around 1600 people die in the UK each day under normal circumstances. When the COVID-19 mortality rate dipped, the statistical focus shifted, first to rates of transmission and subsequently the scarily high number of ‘cases’ – who can easily forget Vallance and Whitty’s recent shock-and-awe presentation about the potential for 50,000 new cases per day?
b) Recurrent footage of death and dying: First it was Lombardy (the hotspot of the pandemic in Italy) with repeated screening of patients gasping for air in the Intensive Care Units. And then it was coffins piling up in the New York mortuaries or bodies littering the streets in Ecuador. Real-time images of death and dying will always be shocking, irrespective of the cause; to exclusively focus on COVID-19 deaths and not the many more victims of other illnesses is crass and grossly misleading, but calculated to exaggerate people’s fear of coronavirus.
c) Scary slogans: Every media channel has continually bombarded us with fear-inducing mantras, for example:
‘IF YOU GO OUT YOU CAN SPREAD IT. PEOPLE WILL DIE’;
‘CORONAVIRUS: ANYONE CAN GET IT. ANYONE CAN SPREAD IT’.
To maximise the impact, the posters displaying these dire warnings have often been accompanied by images of emergency personnel wearing medical masks and visors. Even driving in our cars with the radio off doesn’t protect us from this assault, as roadside warnings proclaiming ‘STAY ALERT’ and ‘YOU ARE IN A HIGH RISK AREA’ have become more common.
d) Mandatory face coverings
Once the mission to ratchet up the fear levels had been accomplished, mandatory mask wearing was introduced. Acting as a crude, highly visible indicator that danger is all around, face coverings are making a major contribution to the maintenance of the widespread hysteria. (See previous blog).
This deliberate and intensive campaign to elevate fear levels above what would be rational for the threat posed by a respiratory virus has been a remarkable success. Surveys show that UK citizens believe that coronavirus has killed around 7% of the population, a death toll that, if true, would be in excess of 4,500,000 people – at the time of writing, the official mortality figure is around 44,000. But research is not necessary to grasp how scared people are; just take a walk outside and watch pedestrians swerve off the pavement into the road to get out of your way, or hold their breath and press themselves against a wall as if you’re a bio hazard.
After using messengers we respect or identify with to promote compliance-inducing fear and self-righteousness, the BIT has deployed another weapon to pound us into submission: a hefty dose of peer pressure.
Awareness of ‘social norms’ - the prevalent views and behaviour of our fellow citizens – can exert pressure on us to conform. We are strongly influenced by what others do; awareness of being in a deviant minority is a source of discomfort. The Government has repeatedly used normative pressure throughout the coronavirus crisis to gain the public’s compliance with their escalating restrictions.
The most straightforward example is how, during interviews with the media, ministers have often resorted to telling us that the vast majority of people are ‘obeying the rules’. Whether the diktat concerns social distancing, travel restrictions, or ‘rule of six’, Government representatives continually state that almost all of us are conforming. Although relaying details of social norms in this way can help improve compliance, ongoing repetition is required to prevent the potency of the approach decaying over time. A further disadvantage is that normative pressure is less effective in changing the behaviour of the deviant minority if there is no visible indicator of pro-social compliance rooted in communities. And this is where the BIT specialists delivered their masterstroke: mandatory masking.
In order to enhance and sustain normative pressure, people need to be able to instantly distinguish the rule breakers from the rule followers; the visibility of face coverings provides this immediate differentiation. Appearing unmasked in public places can feel comparable to not openly displaying the icon of a dominant religion while being among devout followers. Even if no explicit challenge ensues, the implicit demand to conform is palpable.
Back in 2010, the authors of the ‘MINDSPACE’ document recognised the significant ethical dilemmas arising from the use of influencing strategies that impact subconsciously on the country’s citizens. It is acknowledged that the deployment of covert methods to change behaviour ‘has implications for consent and freedom of choice’ and offers people ‘little opportunity to opt out’ (p66 – 67). Furthermore, it is conceded that ‘policymakers wishing to use these tools … … need the approval of the public to do so’ (p74 – my emphasis). So have the British people been consulted about whether they agree to Government using covert psychological techniques to promote compliance with contentious public health policies? I suspect not.
In recognition of the importance of gaining public permission to implement their subconscious nudges, the proponents of ‘MINDSPACE’ suggested several practical ways of doing so. Thus, ‘focus groups’ and ‘citizens’ juries’ have been proposed (p53-54) where a small, demographically diverse range of people are brought together to express their views about a topic. However, the small scale of these events – even if they have taken place and addressed public health policy - means their conclusions cannot be seen as synonymous with a legitimate public endorsement. More ambitiously, the ‘MINDSPACE’ authors recommended ‘deliberative forums’ involving a representative sample of several hundred people brought together for a day or more to explore an issue and reach a collective decision. Has any public consultation of this type been carried out to seek permission for the widespread use of covert strategies for the purpose of gaining our compliance with public health restrictions? If so, I’m not aware of any.
Clearly, BIT specialists, along with their Government paymasters, are operating in ethically-murky waters in implementing their nudges, without our consent, to promote mass acceptance of infringements on our basic human freedoms. The British Psychological Society is the lead organisation for psychological specialists in the United Kingdom, and their Code of Ethics and Conduct (2018) describes one of its ‘Statement of Values’ as:
3.1 ‘Psychologists value the dignity and worth of all persons, with sensitivity to the dynamics of perceived authority or influence over persons and peoples and with particular regard to people’s rights.
In applying these values, Psychologists should consider: … consent … self-determination.
3.3 ‘Psychologists value their responsibilities … to the general public … including the avoidance of harm and the prevention of misuse or abuse of their contribution to society.’ [All my emphasis].
While the application of subliminal prompts to gain our cooperation with unequivocally worthwhile campaigns – for example, to stop young men stabbing each other or to reduce vandalism – would, in all likelihood, be universally acceptable to the British public, it is much more uncertain as to whether citizens would approve of their use to win our compliance with unprecedented lockdowns, travel restrictions and state diktats determining with whom we can, and cannot, mix.
And the ethical position of the behavioural psychologists becomes even more precarious when one considers the ongoing carnage associated with the elevated fear levels. The strategic decision to scare the general population (based centrally on the advice of the BIT specialists) will be responsible for the ‘collateral’ deaths of many thousands of people with non-COVID illnesses who, too frightened to attend hospital, are dying in their own homes at a rate of around 100 each day. There is also evidence that parents have been too scared to take their ill children to Accident & Emergency departments. Furthermore, the damage inflicted on the mental health of the nation, including escalating suicide rates, is as yet difficult to quantify but is likely to be substantial. Such is the cataclysmic responsibility of the SAGE experts who recommended fear inflation as a means of achieving compliance.
The covert strategies proposed by BIT specialists, and incorporated into the Government’s coronavirus information campaign, have achieved their aim of getting the large majority of the population to obey the draconian public health restrictions. The nature of the tactics deployed – with their subconscious modes of action and the emotional discomfort generated – do, however, raise some pressing concerns about the legitimacy of using psychological techniques for this purpose. An open, public-wide debate about the ethical integrity of these approaches, and the extensive collateral damage associated with them, is now urgently required.