Who is responsible for inflicting unethical behavioural-science 'nudges' on the British people?
The state’s strategic deployment of fear, shame and peer pressure – or ‘affect, ‘ego’ and ‘norms’ in the language of behavioural science – throughout the covid-19 pandemic, as a means of ‘nudging’ people’s compliance with restrictions and the vaccine rollout, has been widely criticised. Ethical concerns about the Government’s use of these psychological techniques in their messaging campaign arise from several aspects of this form of influence: the wilful infliction of emotional distress on the general population as a means of increasing conformity; the failure to seek informed consent from those targeted; the contentious and non-evidenced public health policies which these strategies helped to implement; and the fact that ‘nudges’ commonly exert their influence below a person’s level of consciousness, thereby fuelling the accusation that they are manipulative.
But who is primarily responsible for inflicting these morally dubious, and often damaging, behavioural-science ‘nudges’ on British citizens?
There are four groups of stakeholders who could feasibly be culpable for these egregious actions:
1. British Psychological Society (BPS)
2. Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)
3. Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B)
4. Elected politicians and their civil servants
To date, all four seem to be shirking any responsibility. Indeed, when probed, the responses of these collectives resemble a duplicitous hybrid of a police officer’s, ‘Move along, nothing to see here’, and the reggae musician Shaggy denying his misdemeanours with the mantra, ‘It wasn’t me’.
Let’s consider each group of potential miscreants in turn.
1. British Psychological Society (BPS)
The BPS is the professional organisation representing psychologists in the UK. Several of its prominent members have been actively involved in SAGE, providing psychological advice to Government about how to maximise the impact of the covid-19 messaging campaign. One of the central roles of the BPS is to ensure that its members practice in a responsible and morally acceptable way. According to its Code of Ethics, psychologists should respect ‘consent’ and ‘self-determination’, while always ensuring ‘the avoidance of harm and the prevention of abuse or misuse of their contribution to society’. Given this remit, and the BPS’s role as the guardian of ethical psychological practice, surely this learned organisation would thoroughly address our concerns about ‘nudging’, expressed in a letter signed by 46 psychologists and therapists, and submitted on the 6th January 2021.
But no, they were having none of it.
An initial response from Dr Debra Malpass (Director of Knowledge and Insight) questioned whether the ‘nudges’ under scrutiny were actually covert, asserted that it was ‘not appropriate’ for the BPS to respond to concerns about unnamed psychologists, and that they were ‘incredibly proud’ of the ‘fantastic work done by psychologists throughout the pandemic’. When it subsequently became apparent that our questions had not been addressed by their ethics committee, we prompted them further and on the 1st July 2021 Dr Roger Paxton (chair of the BPS Ethics Committee) responded, stridently arguing that:
1. The psychological strategies deployed were ‘indirect’ rather than covert;
2. The application of psychology in this instance fell outside the realm of individual health decisions (so the ethical requirement to obtain informed consent was not an issue);
3. Levels of fear within the general population were proportionate to the objective risk posed by the virus;
4. The psychologists’ role in the pandemic response demonstrated ‘social responsibility and the competent and responsible employment of psychological expertise’.
Dr Paxton’s claims constitute a misleading cocktail of distortion, evasion and disingenuousness (as discussed in detail here).
So if the guardians of ethical psychological practice deny any wrongdoing – ‘move along, nothing to see here’ – who else might be responsible for the unethical application of behavioural science?
2. Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)
In 2010, in the Prime Minister’s office, the BIT was spawned: ‘The world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy’. The psychological strategies deployed by the BIT have been described as providing ‘low cost, low pain ways of nudging citizens … into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act’. Many of these techniques of persuasion operate – to various degrees - below people’s conscious awareness.
Since its inception, the BIT has been led by Professor David Halpern who, along with at least two other BIT members, also participated in the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE that advised the Government on its covid-19 communications strategy. Over the last decade, the BIT has witnessed major expansion and now operates in many countries across the world.
Importantly, a 2010 document describing behavioural science techniques and co-written by Professor Halpern states: ‘Policymakers wishing to use these tools … need the approval of the public to do so’ (p74). More recently, in Professor Halpern’s book, Inside the Nudge Unit, he is even more emphatic about the importance of consent: ‘If Governments … wish to use behavioural insights, they must seek and maintain the permission of the public. Ultimately, you – the public, the citizen – need to decide what the objectives, and limits, of nudging and empirical testing should be’ (p375). As such, the leading voice of the BIT blatantly contradicts the above-mentioned Dr Paxton, chair of the BPS Ethics Committee.
The malevolent influence of the BIT in promoting deployment of fear, shame and scapegoating as weapons of influence can be detected in a (subsequently redacted) document advising front-line healthcare staff about how to effectively promote the covid-19 vaccines. The paper – the product of a collaboration between the BIT and the NHS - included recommendations 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 tell young people that ‘normality can only return, for you and others, with your vaccination’ [my emphasis].
In light of the flagrant abuse of behavioural science throughout the covid-19 pandemic, have members of the BIT been screaming their disapproval? One of their former founder members, Dr Simon Ruda, has recently expressed concern, stating that ‘the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public’ – another comment at odds with Dr Paxton’s testimony. In contrast, the current BIT practitioners have remained silent about the ethical basis of their recent work, despite their sphere of influence broadening into many areas of our day-to-day lives, including zero-carbon green messages in the media and the work of Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs (the latter involvement potentially implicated in tragic consequences for some of those targeted).
Intriguingly, on the 31st January 2022, I received an email from the BIT’s communication department denying any responsibility for the Government’s use of fear, shame and scapegoating in their covid-19 messaging. According to this spokesperson, ‘none of the examples you reference were actually our work or anything we worked on at all, and we categorically do not believe in using fear as a tactic’.
So it’s an emphatic, ‘It wasn’t me’ from the BIT.
3. Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B)
The SPI-B is one of the subgroups that provided expert advice to SAGE throughout the covid-19 pandemic. Its membership includes mainly behavioural scientists and psychologists, alongside representation from other professions such as sociology and criminology. The number of BIT members involved is at least three; it is not possible to give a definite number as four members of the SPI-B have opted to remain anonymous. Prominent figures within the BPS – including Professor Susan Michie – also participated in the work of the SPI-B.
According to its terms of reference, the SPI-B offers the government the ‘best possible behavioural science advice’ to inform the response to covid-19, by providing ‘strategies for behaviour change, to support control of and recovery from the epidemic and associated government policy’.
In regards to transparency about who holds responsibility for the decision to inflict unethical ‘nudges’ upon the British people, it is unfortunate that meetings are not routinely minuted. However, the SPI-B do publish an occasional ‘high-level summary’ of their activities and recommendations, and one of these documents suggest a substantial degree of culpability for the government’s use of fear, shame and peer pressure in their covid-19 messaging strategy.
The (now-infamous) minutes of the 22nd of March 2020 announced 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’. In addition, the same document encouraged the victimisation of an outgroup with its recommendation 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’. Furthermore, it seems that these behavioural-science experts were aware, even then, of the dangers of harnessing peer-to-peer censure 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).
Laura Dodsworth’s excellent piece of investigative journalism for her book, A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic, revealed that several participants in the SPI-B held major concerns about the group’s recommendations. One group member, educational psychologist Gavin Morgan, expressed the view that his colleagues ‘went overboard with the scary message to get compliance’ and confirmed there was no exit plan from the fear narrative. Another – who wished to remain anonymous – recalled that, in March 2020, ‘There were discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance & decisions were made to ramp up fear’. The same SPI-B member described their use of fear as ‘dystopian’ and ‘ethically questionable’, and went on to say that, ‘It’s been like a weird experiment. Ultimately, it backfired because people became too scared’. A third group member (again anonymous) offered more generalised criticism: ‘People use the pandemic to grab power and drive through things that wouldn’t happen otherwise … We have to be very careful about the authoritarianism that is creeping in’.
In light of the incriminating SPI-B minutes, together with the grave concerns expressed by some members of the group, it was reasonable to expect that the SPI-B co-chair – Professor Ann John – would accept some responsibility for promoting the use of unethical ‘nudges’ during the covid-19 pandemic. Such an opportunity arose when Professor John was invited to appear in front of the Government’s Science & Technology Committee on the 30th March 2022. (She had actually been scheduled to give evidence on the 2nd March but, due to unforeseen circumstances, did not attend). Perhaps, for the first time around the issue of behavioural science as deployed in the pandemic, we would hear acknowledgement of errors by an expert in a position of power. Or maybe expressions of humility, of lessons learned, an apology and a pledge to never err in this way again.
Sadly, not a bit of it.
During her interview, Professor John denied any responsibility for the unethical use of covert psychological strategies over the last two years. When challenged by MP Graham Stringer about the strategic decision to indiscriminately ramp up fear (as referenced in the SPI-B minutes of the 22nd March 2020) she responded, ‘I was not actually sitting on the SPI-B then’. When further pressed on this issue, Professor John implausibly claimed that her group advised against using scare tactics as a way of increasing compliance with covid-19 restrictions, stating ‘We never advised on upping the level of fear. I think it was presented as part of the evidence base … we absolutely advised that fear does not work’.
In an early part of the interview, Professor John contradicts her group’s terms of reference by insisting that the SPI-B was not trying to change people’s behaviour, but instead pursuing the altruistic motive of ‘ensuring that disproportionate and unintended impacts were not felt by different sectors of society’. When Graham Stringer asked which ethical framework her group was operating within, she shirks any responsibility for ensuring the morality of her group’s output, saying that, ‘although we present the advice, where policy decisions are made the Government have an advisory group on ethics’.
So it’s another resounding ‘It wasn’t me’ from the SPI-B.
4. Elected politicians and their civil servants
One can credibly argue that the ultimate responsibility for the methods used in the Government’s covid-19 communications strategy lies with the elected politicians and their senior advisors. While expert scientists are bound by their professional codes to practice ethically, it is the government decision makers who decide what policies to unleash upon its citizens. Yet attempts to trigger some serious reflection about the Government’s use of behavioural science have, to date, been unsuccessful.
One exception to this collective inertia of our politicians has been the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) that is focusing on ‘Pandemic Response and Recovery’. I – and several others with serious misgivings about the ethics of ‘nudging’ – were invited to present our concerns to the APPG on the 28th February 2022. Members of the APPG listened with interest to our presentation and one of the co-chairs of the group – Graham Stringer – subsequently put some of our specific questions to Professor John (as discussed above).
The previous month, I had sent another letter (co-signed by 55 health professionals) to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) (a Commons select committee chaired by William Wragg MP) formally requesting an independent inquiry into the Government's use of behavioural science. I received a prompt response from a PACAC administrator informing me that an inquiry into the Coronavirus Act 2020 was already underway, one element of their remit being to consider behavioural science, and the committee was still accepting oral evidence. I asked if I, or another psychologist with concerns about ‘nudging’, could be given the opportunity to contribute. Alas, no such invitation was forthcoming. I continued to press the PACAC for a stand-alone inquiry into state-sponsored behavioural science, but – to date – they have made no commitment to conduct such a review. Indeed, when my local MP asked the PACAC about the prospect of such an inquiry he was informed by an administrator that ‘there are no current plans to do so’.
Further indication of our elected MPs’ disinterest in exploring the ethics of ‘nudging’ came in the form of the omission of any mention of behavioural science or propaganda in the draft terms of reference for the Inquiry into the covid-19 pandemic, published on the 10th March 2022. This glaring exclusion has been highlighted in the feedback to the inquiry; one can only hope that a behavioural science review is included in the finalised terms of reference, but it is difficult to have confidence that this will be the case.
It is plausible that Government ministers, and their senior civil servants, are reticent about the prospect of further scrutiny on this issue. Maybe the publically expressed concerns in the aftermath of Dodsworth’s book, A State of Fear, have prompted some high-level introspection regarding their strategic deployment of fear, shame and scapegoating on the British people. Whatever is occurring in the corridors of power, it is apparent that our elected representatives are – with a few exceptions – keen to convey the message, ‘Move along; nothing to see here’.
Throughout the covid-19 era the world has witnessed an unprecedented campaign of propaganda ostensibly aimed at increasing compliance with lockdowns and other restrictions. In the UK, and many other countries, a prominent weapon within this crusade has been the strategic use of a range of behavioural-science techniques, including the covert (and ethically dubious) deployment of fear, shame and scapegoating. The British people have a right to know which state-funded players were responsible for the decision to resort to these distress-evoking methods of persuasion that have caused immeasurable collateral harms.
To date, there has been a stark reluctance for any stakeholder – behavioural scientist or political official – to accept responsibility for these manipulative and damaging tactics. The BPS and the politicians in the PACAC apparently see nothing remiss in the Government’s use of ‘nudges’, while the behavioural scientists in the BIT and SPI-B insist they are in no ways culpable. In the implausible event that all these stakeholders hold no responsibility for scaring, shaming and othering citizens into submission, who else could it be? Behavioural scientists are now ubiquitous across government departments – including the Cabinet Office, the Home Office’s Research Information and Communication Unit (RICU) and the Counter Disinformation Cell – so perhaps the blame resides in one or more of these groups? Or maybe it is the commercial advertisers the Government has commissioned (at huge expense) to broadcast their covid-19 messaging?
Whoever it is, we need to know.
Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Day at Unsplash