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Nothing unethical about covert psychological 'nudges', says the BPS



After six months of evasion and obfuscation, the British Psychological Society (BPS) has made its position clear: it sees nothing ethically questionable about deploying covert psychological strategies (often referred to as ‘nudges’) on the British people as a means of increasing compliance with public health restrictions.


Since the beginning of the year, I – together with many other psychological specialists – have expressed our concerns about the use of ‘nudges’, as recommended by Government-employed behavioural scientists, throughout the COVID-19 communication campaign. (See here for a timeline). Particularly alarming has been the deployment of covert interventions, that often impact below people’s level of awareness, and which rely on fear inflation, shaming and scapegoating as the means of promoting compliance with the unprecedented COVID-19 restrictions. On the 1st July 2021 I received a further response from the BPS:


Sent on Behalf of Dr Roger Paxton, Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee:


1st July 2021


Dear Dr Sidley and colleagues,

The Ethics Committee considered your email of 6 January 2021, the reply to your questions sent by Debra Malpass on 5 February, the BPS statement issued on 5 February and your subsequent blog post. Committee members were also aware of the large number of recent emails on the same subject addressed to me.

The Committee first endorsed the responses from Debra Malpass and the BPS statement. Members then noted that the methods you refer to as covert are in fact indirect but not concealed or secret. The Committee rejected your characterisation of decisions about social contacts as in the sphere of individual health decisions. With the transmissibility and seriousness of covid-19 these are clearly matters of social as well as individual concern. Indirect behavioural interventions are commonly employed in public health campaigns and you acknowledged their legitimacy. Given the scale of the mortality and morbidity caused by the pandemic it was thought unsurprising that awareness of these facts led to fear, but of course it is deeply regrettable that fear of covid-19 led some people to avoid hospital attendances for other health problems.

Overall the Ethics Committee believed that the contributions of psychologists in responding to the pandemic were entirely consistent with the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct, demonstrating social responsibility and the competent and responsible employment of psychological expertise.

Yours sincerely

Dr Roger Paxton

Chair, British Psychological Society Ethics Committee

It is clear from this latest response the BPS is suggesting that:

1. The strategies we referred to were ‘indirect’ rather than covert;

2. The application of psychology in this instance fell outside the realm of individual health decisions (so informed consent was not an issue);

3. Levels of fear within the general population were proportionate to the objective risk posed by the virus, rather than having been strategically inflated;

4. The psychologists’ role in the pandemic response demonstrated the ‘competent and responsible employment of psychological expertise’.

Furthermore, the failure to address the shaming and scapegoating issues clearly implies that the BPS views these tactics as acceptable.


The BPS, on its website, claims to be the organisation ‘responsible for the promotion of excellence and ethical practice in the science, education, and application of the discipline’. Also, their Code of Ethics highlights the BPS’s aim to promote ‘ethical behaviour, attitudes and judgements on the part of Psychologists’. Despite these earnest aspirations, their outright dismissal of our ethical concerns was predictable: a cursory glance at the membership of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) - the subgroup of SAGE, which has recommended covert psychological ‘nudges’ as a means of maximising the impact of the Government’s Covid-19 communications campaign – shows that several of its members are also influential figures in the BPS.


An increasing number of people – including both health professionals and concerned members of the public - believe that a comprehensive independent review, addressing the ethical basis of deploying covert psychological strategies to lever compliance with public health restrictions, is now urgently required. In light of the rejection of our concerns by the BPS, alternative ways of achieving this much-needed inquiry are now being actively explored.


Watch this space.



Photo courtesy of Taras Chemus at Unsplash




8 comentarios


Thank you for an excellent article giving yet another instance of lack of transparency surrounding our governments handling of the Covid pandemic.


It is a fact that mental illness has increased during the pandemic. I wonder what sort of risk assessment the members of the SPI-B conducted before they started their ill judged 'fear for compliance' psyop and if a FOI request would provide any answers?

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Peter Underwood
Peter Underwood
04 ago 2021

As an humanistic counsellor I am appalled at the acceptance of the BPS of unethical activities associated with all matters Covid. This is nothing less than military style PysOps and must be challenged. What's the problem of being honest in these matters?

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To a non-expert, the BPS’s letter means: avoid and ignore all varieties of psychologist.

To assess ethics, think ‘180’:

Does BPS want its own criteria applied to itself?

Does BPS want ‘indirect’ tactics’ used on it? Does BPS want no say in what’s done to its health? Do BPS want to be denied right to informed consent?

Does BPS mean that subjecting it to terror would be a competent, responsible use of expertise? Does BPS mean it would find being bullied and falsely accused acceptable?

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I’m glad that the BPS aren’t my professional body but, as a psychotherapist, they nevertheless shame me by association. Keep going Gary, you’re one of the lamps lighting the way forward.

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Sadly, the BPS response is not a surprise, given the current lack of political impartiality of this governing body.


I try to explain this misuse of behavioural modification techniques by the SAGE psychologists on a daily basis to try to counter-balance the fear narrative of the government and the MSM.


I find more and more people are starting to question what is actually going on and a growing sense of anger that the public are being "taken for fools" by all involved in this campaign of fear and coercion.


I cancelled my membership of the BPS after twenty one years. I will not be associated with or condone this blatant misuse of psychological knowledge and therefore, power.


We learn that…


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Many thanks for your support - together we continue the fight.

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