The delayed response of the BPS to ethical questions about covert 'nudging'



I would like to provide an update on progress (or lack of it) of our efforts to seek the view of the British Psychological Society (BPS) regarding the ethical basis of deploying covert psychological interventions - typically involving fear inflation, scapegoating and shaming – as a central driver of the Government’s coronavirus messaging campaign. The guidance for the Government’s communication strategy comes from the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE. Given that the membership of SPI-B comprises mainly of behavioural scientists and psychologists, and the central stated purpose of the BPS is to ‘promote excellence and ethical practice in the science, education, and application of the discipline’ [my emphasis], it seems reasonable to expect that the BPS would take concerns about unethical psychological interventions very seriously.


Many of you will recall the letter we sent to the BPS, signed by 47 professionals from the psychology and therapy world, drawing attention to the dubious ethics of using psychological ‘nudges’ in this way to gain people’s compliance with the COVID-19 restrictions. (My recent article in The Critic provides an updated overview of how these covert techniques have been used to achieve the public’s widespread conformity with the regulations and subsequent vaccine campaign). A summary of the ensuing communication chain is as follows:


6th January 2021: Letter sent to the BPS asking this learned society to comment on our major ethical concerns;


5th February 2021: I received a detailed response from Dr Debra Malpass (Director of Knowledge and Insight) at the BPS which, regrettably, failed to address any of our ethical concerns;


9th February 2021: I emailed a Dr Lisa Morrison Coultard (Head of Research and Impact) at the BPS, who I believed to be chair of their ethics committee, with the following message: Would you kindly clarify whether or not our letter was considered by your ethics committee and, if it was, can we assume that the reply from Dr Malpas indicates that the BPS reached the view that the use of covert psychological strategies in this context - including fear elevation, shaming and peer pressure - does not raise any valid ethical concerns that are worthy of open debate?


16th February 2021: I received an email from Dr Malpas stating: Your letter will be considered at the next meeting of the BPS’s Ethics Committee on 1 March. I will update you on the outcome of their discussion following the meeting.


12th March 2021: Having not heard anything further from the BPS, I emailed Dr Malpas again to ask if she was in a position to provide feedback from the ethics committee about our concerns.


23rd March 2021: I received an email from Dr Malpas, headed ‘Sent on Behalf of Dr Roger Paxton, Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee’ stating: Dear Dr Sidley, My intention was that the Ethics Committee on 1 March would consider the wider ethical issues raised in your letter. I'm sorry that, owing to a very full agenda and an oversight on my part, this discussion did not take place. I apologise for this.

I plan now to take your letter with a short introductory paper to the June meeting. I shall write to you again after that meeting.


What conclusions can be drawn from this communication chain? The obvious one is that the BPS do not construe the ethical questions we posed as of sufficient import to warrant prompt consideration. Meanwhile, the same morally dubious strategies are increasingly employed to ‘nudge’ people into accepting the COVID-19 vaccines. For example, the tactic of fear inflation is apparent in a recent NHS document (yet another advisory paper informed by the behavioural scientists on the ‘Behavioural Insights Team’) that encourages healthcare staff to ‘leverage anticipated regret’ on the over-65s by telling them they are ‘three times more likely to die’, and to follow-up with, ‘Think about how you will feel if you do not get vaccinated and end up with Covid-19?’ Shame is the weapon targeted at young people who are to be told, ‘Normality can only return, for you and others, with your vaccination’.


The use of covert psychological strategies to increase people’s compliance with coronavirus restrictions and the vaccination programme raise ethical concerns in three areas. First, should a civilised society knowingly increase the emotional discomfort of its citizens as a means of changing their behaviour? This question becomes more pressing when one considers the widespread collateral damage associated with these methods, such as people dying in their homes because they are too scared to attend hospital with serious non-COVID illnesses.


Second, it is highly questionable as to whether covert ‘nudges’ – that act subconsciously on their human targets – should be deployed for the purpose of promoting compliance with unprecedented and untested coronavirus restrictions that both infringe basic human rights and inflict substantial damage on our general physical health and mental wellbeing.


Third, a vital precursor to acceptable psychological or medical practice is the acquisition of informed consent from the recipients. Covert influencers to gain people’s compliance with both coronavirus restrictions and vaccination, in the absence of informed consent, fail to meet this fundamental ethical requirement.


Clearly, the activities of the Government’s behavioural scientists fall well below the expected ethical standards. If a psychological student proposed a piece of research that involved the infliction of emotional pain on the participants, and without their informed consent, it would be rejected by every university ethics committee in the country. Why should the public health psychologists be treated any differently? The BPS must let the British public know their position on this important matter, without any further procrastination.




Photo courtesy of Brett Jordan at Unsplash.com