The 'Nudge of the Week' challenge

It is increasingly recognised that the Government’s coronavirus communications campaign has relied heavily on covert psychological strategies (‘nudges’) to achieve high levels of compliance with the unprecedented restrictions and the vaccination programme. Adhering to advice from behavioural scientists on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) - a subgroup of SAGE - public health messaging has deployed ethically dubious methods that, although very effective in ensuring that people do what the Government wants them to do, have left a terrible legacy. Despite the respiratory-virus threat being currently no greater than that typically experienced at this time of the year, and all the vulnerable groups having been offered a vaccine, many within the general population remain in a state of emotional paralysis, unable to think rationally, and reluctant to take the initial steps towards reclaiming a normal, worthwhile lifestyle.

How can people escape this collective hysteria?

It will not be easy. With a slavish mainstream media continuously pumping out the Government’s propaganda, and authoritative (but often conflicted) scientists habitually highlighting the worst case scenarios, multi-faceted forces are at work to keep the population compliant with, and accepting of, the ‘new normal’ as envisaged by global powers. However, one useful skill in the escapee’s toolbox would be an ability to recognise the specific psychological ‘nudges’ in real time, thereby reducing the power of these SPI-B-inspired manipulations. With this in mind, I would like to launch my ‘NUDGE OF THE WEEK’ challenge.

Currently, no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to totally avoid the Government’s coronavirus messaging. Harnessing the covert psychological strategies of the behavioural scientists, the ‘nudges’ can pop up anywhere: mainstream media news; newspaper reports; TV and radio advertisements; billboards; social media ‘public information’ announcements; cartoons; and even TV soap operas. As these covert psychological strategies often impact on us subconsciously, we can be influenced by them without even knowing. But if we can instantly recognise a covert ‘nudge’ when we’re unfortunate enough to hear or see one, this awareness may reduce its potency and allow us space to think rationally.

There are many specific ‘nudges’ in the behavioural science literature. Readers wanting to learn about these approaches can consult the Government document, MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, and books by pioneers of these techniques such as Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern (a current SPI-B member) and Influence: the psychology of persuasion by Robert Cialdini. For our purposes, the most important ‘nudges’ used to win our compliance with the COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine roll out are:

AFFECT: shaping our moods, particularly fear inflation, to influence our judgements and decision making.

Examples: Scary mantras and images; reporting ‘COVID-19 deaths’ out of context.

EGO: exploiting the human need to maintain a positive self-image by portraying compliant behaviour as akin to being a virtuous person.

Examples: ‘I wear a face covering to protect my mates’; ‘Vaccinations protect us all’.

NORMS: harnessing peer pressure by indicating what most other people are doing.

Examples: ‘Most people are following the restrictions’; mandating masks to easily identify the non-conforming minority.

CONTRAST PRINCIPLE: Threatening us with an even worse scenario before proposing something not quite as bad.

Example: Leaking to the press an intention to put a region on Tier 4 restrictions before implementing Tier 3.

In the ‘NUDGE OF THE WEEK CHALLENGE’ I invite readers to engage with me in the following way:

1. At the beginning of each week, if you’ve witnessed a ‘nudge’ in the previous few days, let me know the specific details by leaving a comment after this blog or by Tweet at @GarySidley.

2. Around Wednesday of each week, I’ll narrow the ‘nudges’ down to two or three finalists and ask people to vote for the most potent/sinister/manipulative one.

3. On Friday I’ll announce the one that’s received most votes, the ‘Nudge of the Week’ winner.

Hopefully, it will be interesting – even fun – as well as serving the useful function of enabling us all to get better at spotting (and thereby neutralising) these covert and ethically- dubious methods of persuasion.

Photo courtesy of Lesley Juarez - Unsplash