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The persecution of the unvaccinated: Are the behavioural scientists culpable?

The last few weeks have witnessed an outpouring of vitriolic abuse and imposition of prejudicial policies directed against a group of people in our society who have decided not accept the offer of the COVID-19 vaccine. Established western democracies are hosting the overt expression of hate – in words and deeds - directed at a minority outgroup, the likes of which have not been observed for almost a century. Who are the people primarily responsible for this vilification of the unvaccinated?

In this blog I will propose that the Government’s behavioural scientists, in their enthusiastic peddling of covert psychological ‘nudges’ to increase people’s compliance with COVID-19 restrictions and the subsequent vaccine rollout, may have ignited a previously-dormant authoritarian streak in our politicians, journalists and celebrities.

After an overview of how governments - following advice from their behavioural-scientists - manufactured fear, shame and scapegoating as a means of achieving compliance with unprecedented public health practices, a range of specific examples of recent hate speech and discriminatory policies will be described. I will argue that strategic recommendations made by the Government’s behavioural scientists to ‘nudge’ greater compliance with public health diktats resulted in a media bombardment of slogans, images and selective data presentations intended to encourage a fearful population to perceive those not fully adhering to the rules as deviant and selfish. As a direct consequence of this psychological manipulation, an ‘outgroup’ has emerged (the unvaccinated) that many people in positions of power now feel justified to abuse and demonise, energised by the inherent belief that they hold the virtuous higher moral ground.

Nudging compliance with public health recommendations

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, behavioural scientists have advocated the use of an array of ‘nudges’ (detailed in the Institute of Government document, MINDSPACE) intended to increase adherence to the various public health recommendations. With regards to the creation of a despised ‘outgroup’, three of these covert psychological strategies are of particular importance: fear elevation, shaming and peer pressure – or ‘affect’, ‘ego’ and ‘norms’, to use the language of the MINDSPACE document.

Compliance through fear

Armed with the knowledge that a fearful population is often a compliant one, on the 22nd March 2020 the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of behavioural scientists and psychologists advising SAGE, recommended scaring the general public. As recorded in the SPI-B minutes, these experts believed that, ‘A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened … The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging’. The subsequent onslaught of daily death counts (presented without context), scary slogans, disturbing video footage and fear-perpetuating mask requirements clearly shows that the Government enthusiastically embraced this advice as a means of increasing compliance with the COVID-19 restrictions (see here and here for specific examples).

Crucially, this fear-inflation strategy was a generalised one, inflicted on everybody irrespective of age and existing vulnerabilities, and thereby failing recognise that – for the large majority of people - the SARS-COV-2 virus posed little threat of serious harm or death. Furthermore, the scare tactics have continued to be deployed during the vaccine rollout, one example being a behavioural-science inspired NHS document (later redacted) where clinical staff were advised to ‘Leverage anticipated regret’ in older people by telling them that the ‘Over 65s are three times more likely to die if you get COVID’ and to ‘Think about how you will feel if you do not get vaccinated and end up with COVID’.

The campaign to frighten people was very effective. By summer 2021 one-in-five UK citizens were ‘markedly affected’ by COVID-19 Anxiety Syndrome, with up to 40% of the population engaging in maladaptive (fear-perpetuating) coping strategies.

Compliance through shame

We all strive to maintain a virtuous self-image and this inherent tendency has been repeatedly exploited by the behavioural scientists as a way of getting us all to follow public health guidance. The infamous SPI-B minutes of March 2020 urged that messaging should be framed ‘in terms of protecting oneself and the community’ (my emphasis) and that prominence should be given to ‘the duty to protect others’ and to ‘consider the ‘survival of the seriously ill’. By April 2021, the behavioural scientists were stating that, ‘Fostering self-identities that value … the safety of one’s community could support lasting enactment of COVID-19 protection behaviours’.

In keeping with this expert recommendation to cleanse egos, the British public endured a media onslaught comprising: ubiquitous slogans such as, ‘Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save lives’ and ‘Protect yourselves, Protect your loved ones’; the pre-orchestrated weekly Clap-for-Carers ritual; TV actors repeatedly conveying their moral superiority by saying, ‘I wear a face covering to protect my mates’ and ‘I make space to protect you’; politicians telling university students not to ‘kill your gran; and close-up images of hospitalised patients on the cusp of death delivered with the voice over, ‘Can you look them in the eyes and tell them you’re doing all you can to stop the spread of coronavirus’.

As with fear inflation, this shame-inducing strategy has also been deployed to promote vaccinations, differentiating the goodies from the baddies on the basis of their willingness to accept the jabs. Thus, those delivering the immunisations are ‘the latest NHS heroes’ while clinical staff are reminded that, ‘Being able to stay in the workforce, and provide for one’s family, might also encourage vaccination (my emphasis). And more blatant shaming is encouraged by the recommendation that NHS staff should inform young people, ‘You have a very important part to play in the national effort’ (note the implied war analogy)) and that, ‘Normality can only return, for you and others, with your vaccination’ (my emphasis).

Compliance through peer pressure

Alongside the promotion of conformity-inducing fear and self-righteousness, the behavioural scientists have 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 to public health regulations. We are strongly influenced by what others do; awareness of being in a deviant minority is a source of discomfort.

In March 2020, the Government’s psychological experts were recommending that ‘communication strategies should provide social approval for desired behaviours’ and that ‘members of the community can be encouraged to provide it to each other’. More ominously, the ‘nudgers’ advised ministers to, ‘Consider use of social disapproval for failure to comply’. It is clear from the formal minutes of their meeting almost two years ago that these experts were aware of the dangers of harnessing disapprobation in this way: ‘Social disapproval from one’s community can play an important role in preventing anti-social behaviour or discouraging failure to enact pro-social behaviour. However, this needs to be carefully managed to avoid victimisation, scapegoating and misdirected criticism’ (my emphasis).

The SPI-B minutes of April 2021 incorporates the statement that, ‘With face coverings, we have seen from other cultures that these can be embedded into social norms’, an observation consistent with the argument that compulsory masking of the healthy was primarily introduced as a compliance device rather than as a viral barrier. The most straightforward example of the use of peer pressure in the COVID-19 communication campaign has been how, during interviews with the media, ministers have often resorted to telling us that the vast majority of people are ‘obeying the rules’ or that almost all of us are conforming, commonly accompanied by reference to the results of opinion polls. However, 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.

The same peer-pressure tactic is apparent in the vaccine-rollout campaign where NHS staff are urged to deploy, ‘Messages that will land well’, with a specific example being to inform the public that, ‘Most people are getting vaccinated’.

The resultant vilification of an outgroup

You do not need to be a psychologist to realise that frightening the general population, and then shaming and scapegoating a minority group within it, would not end well. Despite informed consent prior to any medical intervention constituting a longstanding cornerstone of ethical practice, the expert guidance of behavioural scientists, with their mono-focus on levering compliance with – often unprecedented and non-evidenced – public health policies, has inevitably resulted in the demonisation of the unvaccinated.

The vilification of those who have opted not to accept the jab is apparent from the words and actions of politicians across the developed world. The power-crazed Austrian chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, boldly announced that, ‘We have told one-third of the population … you will not leave your apartment anymore apart from for certain reasons’ as his administration locked down two million of its unvaccinated citizens for 10 days in late 2021. Subsequently, police – clad in black – patrolled the streets, checking papers and issuing fines to any unvaccinated Austrian found to be outdoors for purposes other than work or food shopping.

Meanwhile in Hamburg, Germany, the local politicians imposed a form of street apartheid, erecting fences to separate the vaccinated from the unvaccinated at their Christmas markets. Macron, the French president, said he wanted to ‘piss off’ the unvaccinated, Further afield, the tyrannical Dan Andrews threatened Australians living in the state of Victoria with a two-year jail sentence should they not comply with his public health diktats, while American president, Joe Biden, accused the unvaccinated of ‘refusing to do their patriotic duty’ and suggested that patience with them was ‘running thin’.

Politicians in the UK have also been emboldened to verbally abuse the unvaccinated minority. The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, accused them of having a ‘damaging impact’ on society as ‘they take up hospital beds that could have been used for someone with maybe a heart problem, or maybe someone who is waiting for elective surgery’. Would Javid apply this same logic to other groups in society (the obese, alcohol consumers, smokers, competitive sports people) who might also place a disproportionate demand on our health services? Former prime minister, Tony Blair was more concise: ‘If you’re not vaccinated you’re an idiot’. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury got in on the act, accusing those who decline the vaccine of opposing the Christian principle of ‘love thy neighbour’.

Celebrities and journalists have been all too keen to jump on board the hate train: Observer journalist, Nick Cohen, proclaimed that the unvaccinated held ‘ignorant delusions’ and were the ‘victims of their own stupidity'; Piers Morgan tweeted that footballers opting not to have the jab should be refused treatment for injuries; the entrepreneur, Karen Brady recommended that the unvaccinated should ‘face their own lockdown’; Daily Express columnist, Carol Malone expressed the hope that ‘they don’t get to live the lives the rest of us do’; Andrew Neil said it was ‘time to punish the refuseniks’; and American art critic, Jerry Saltz, pushed the hate message to a new level by urging his half-a-million Twitter followers to ‘let them die’.

Who is responsible for the persecution of the un-jabbed minority?

So how much responsibility do the Government’s behavioural scientists hold for the demonisation of the unvaccinated? The British Psychological Society, the professional organisation trusted with the role of ensuring ethical psychological practice in the UK, take the view that the ‘nudgers’ have shown ‘social responsibility’ by acting for the greater good of society. I suspect most, perhaps all, of the Government’s ‘nudgers’ genuinely believe that their contributions have been positive ones, despite the likelyhood that inflated fear levels will have significantly contributed to the tens of thousands of excess non-COVID deaths and the accumulating evidence that the restrictions - such as lockdowns - have caused far more harm than good.

Even if there was no malevolent intent, the ‘nudgers’ are, at the very least, guilty of paternalistic narrowmindedness and a wilful disregard of ethical principles. And it was not a virus that magically re-wired the brains of many politicians and celebrities, transforming them into vindictive germaphobes who felt justified and empowered to express prejudice – in words and actions – towards the unvaccinated minority. Responsibility for unleashing this tyrannical monster lies mainly at the door of the behavioural scientists who for the last two years, from their privileged position embedded in the heart of government, have skilfully orchestrated the unprecedented propaganda campaign.

An independent review of the role of behavioural science within our society is long overdue. I, in alliance with many other health professionals, have already formally requested that the Government's Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee - PACAC - conduct this investigation in an open and transparent way. The general public have a right to know about the systematic manipulation they have endured, and red lines need to be identified to ensure that future governments' attempts to influence and persuade the British people remain within the envelope of ethical acceptability. State-inspired hate crimes must never happen again.

Photo courtesy of Jason Leung at Unplash

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