The ‘nudgers’ deny responsibility for covid fear mongering

An example of self-serving memory bias?

Alongside society’s increasing recognition of the pervasive harms caused by the unprecedented covid responses, those culpable for the disastrous policies seem to be struggling to accurately recall their contribution to the madness. One example of this phenomenon is a recent opinion piece in the British Medical Journal by four prominent government psychologists/behavioural scientists in which they claim that the blatant fearmongering witnessed throughout the covid era had nothing to do with them.

Despite early recognition that the SARS-CoV-2 virus posed no greater risk than influenza to the large majority of the population, fear levels among the general public were ramped up to disproportionate levels. The collateral damage of this fear inflation, to both physical and mental health, has been considerable. The four authors of the article – Professors Reicher, Michie, Drury, and West – were all members of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE, which offered advice to the government about how to maximise the impact of its covid-19 communications with the aim of promoting compliance with restrictions and acceptance of the corresponding vaccine rollout. 

The human mind has an extraordinary ability to protect itself against feelings of guilt and blame. To preserve a virtuous self-image, we all routinely display ‘fundamental attribution errors’, whereby we take the credit for good outcomes while blaming others for bad ones. Ironically, in writing this opinion piece, these behavioural scientists – experts regarding how cognitive biases operate – appear to be demonstrating a self-serving thinking error of their own.

In the article under scrutiny – titled, ‘The UK government’s attempt to frighten people into covid protective behaviours was at odds with its advice’ – Reicher et al. argue that the research literature shows that fear is an ineffective way of persuading people to engage in ‘health-protective behaviours’ and therefore, as empirical scientists, they would never recommend such an approach. Instead, the authors claim that they urged the government to adopt the more successful method of enhancing the ‘self-efficacy’ of the British people, by furnishing them with the wherewithal to follow the public health guidance.

In support of this strategy they cite an evidence review that concluded that ‘fear appeals should be used cautiously, since they may backfire if audiences do not believe they are able to effectively avert a threat’. As for the incriminating minutes of the SPI-B meeting of 22nd March 2020 – in which they wrote that, ‘The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging’ – they dismiss this as just being part of an overall review of possible options of persuasion.

The authors are, however, keen to emphasise the importance of people being given ‘a realistic understanding of what confronts them’ and that ‘where they underestimate the risk, that needs to be tackled’. And they dismiss the widespread criticism of their approach in their strident conclusion: ‘To suggest that this is, in any sense, seeking to control people, is nonsense. Not only is it based on sound science; arguably it is plain common sense’.

At the start of their opinion piece these four government advisors explicitly exclude addressing the ‘ethical and political dimensions’ of the guidance they offered throughout the covid era, instead focusing solely on countering the accusation of fear mongering. This decision seems disingenuous. The morality of using covert psychological strategies (‘nudges’) on a country’s citizens as a means of promoting compliance with contentious and unprecedented covid restrictions has attracted widespread criticism, and the stakeholders involved have, to date, displayed a stubborn reluctance to address these ethical concerns. Also, their expressed intention to be apolitical is rendered rather hollow when they devote the last third of their article to berating the Tory Government – perhaps not surprising when one considers the communist affiliations of one of the authors. And then we come to the article’s central claim that these four SPI-B members hold no responsibility for the prolonged scare campaign of fear inflicted upon the British people.

HART finds their denial of culpability for strategic fear inflation totally unconvincing. There are several reasons for this conclusion:

1.  Testimony of other experts

In writing her bookA State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the covid-19 pandemic – investigative journalist, Laura Dodsworth, interviewed several expert government insiders whose testimonies tell a very different story to the one espoused by Reicher et al. These alternative perspectives include:

There were discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance & decisions were made to ramp up fear … The way we have used fear is dystopian … The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been like a weird experiment. Ultimately it backfired because people became too scared’ (Anonymous SPI-B member).

Everything about the government’s messaging this year has been designed to keep fear going … The psychologists didn’t seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic & became manipulative’ (Anonymous Independent Scientific Advisor).

They went overboard with the scary message to get compliance’ (Gavin Morgan, SPI-B member, and educational psychologist). Morgan denied that he had recommended using fear, but when Dodsworth suggested that his SPI-B colleagues had, he responded, ‘Oh God; it’s not ethical’.

2.  The misleading ‘self-efficacy trumps fear’ assertion

Although there is some empirical support for Reicher et al.’s assertion that promoting self-efficacy can be a more effective behaviour-change strategy than fear, a lot will depend upon the complexity of the actions one is trying to encourage. Much of the research highlighting the importance of increasing self-efficacy is drawn from literature focusing on campaigns striving to encourage multi-faceted and enduring life-style changes, such as that required to reduce illicit drug misuse, quit smoking or to adopt safer sexual practices during the HIV/AIDS era.

Where the threat is portrayed as an immediate one (imminent death from a virulent virus) and the protective action a remarkably simple one (stay at home and isolate) fear is highly effective at inducing behaviour change. In simple terms, if someone points a gun at you and tells you to lie on the floor, very few of us would have insufficient ‘self-efficacy’ to follow the instruction. In these circumstances, acute fear is a remarkably effective method of control. Furthermore, there is research evidence to support the effectiveness of fear as a prelude to compliance.

3.  The silence of the government’s psychological experts

Arguably the most damning evidence undermining Reicher et al.’s claim that they had no culpability for the fear-inducing messaging is their collective silence on the issue throughout the covid era. Despite their involvement in multiple media appearances and news reports, and a prominent social media presence, it is difficult to recall any instances of visible dissent by these four SPI-B members.

Where were they when Whitty and Vallance delivered their fantastical ‘shock & awe’ projections of covid infections?

Where were they when ministers were relaying fear-inducing lies, such as ‘No one is safe’ and ‘The virus doesn’t discriminate’? (Messages that can hardly be described as conveying ‘a realistic understanding’ of the risk).

Where were they when we were all coerced to wear ineffectual masks, an imposition that they knew would both increase and perpetuate fear? (Susan Michie even wanted face coverings to be a permanent fixture).

Where were they when we were subjected to unprecedented and non-evidenced lockdowns which, as well as causing profound damage to individuals and society, inevitably evoked fear?

Where were they when we endured daily bombardment with non-contextualised (and unreliable) covid-death statistics?

Where were they when our media habitually relayed gruesome images of dying patients with the slogan, ‘Look him in the eyes and tell him you always keep a safe distance’?

While the state strived to ‘scare the pants off’ us all, there was barely a whiff of expressed opposition from these expert behavioural scientists, the select few who had the power and influence to curtail this psychological abuse of the British people.Based on the above observations, Reicher et al.’s pleas of innocence sound implausible. Why now, belatedly, have these four members of the SPI-B attempted to distance themselves from involvement in the planning and execution of the prolonged scare campaign? Might it be that – as awareness grows of the devastation caused by inflated fear – the recently leaked Hancock WhatsApp messages allows them an opportunity to blame ministers and thereby defend themselves against future censure?

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