The nudgers’ key role in the authoritarian template
It is increasingly apparent that people’s day-to-day lives are being shaped by a global elite that reside outside of our democratic systems. And our experiences over the last three years strongly suggest that these powerful actors are repeatedly deploying a three-stage process – an authoritarian template – to achieve their self-serving goals. The process approximates to:
STEP 1: Identify the specific restrictions or controls to impose (such as less travel, less meat-eating, digital IDs, and social credit systems).
STEP 2: Claim there is an imminent existential threat (be it from a plague, climate catastrophe, food shortages, war, pollution).
STEP 3: Deploy coercion, propaganda, censorship, and psychological manipulation to promote mass compliance with restrictions and controls.
State-funded behavioural scientists – via their application of often-covert ‘nudge’ techniques – are a crucial component of Step 3. By means of their deployment of psychological strategies that commonly weaponize fear, shame, and scapegoating, they facilitate the top-down control of ordinary people. HART believes it is important to increase awareness of this process of mass manipulation by this insidious group of government scientists, particularly in light of recent evidence of their growing stridency and double speak.
Without doubt, the global elite are an extraordinarily powerful collective. Typically operating in a murky stratosphere outside of democratic systems, where conflicts of interests go unchallenged, they include: corporate multinational companies; the World Bank; coalitions of wealthy nations, such as the G7 and G20; the World Economic Forum; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (and its various offshoots), and the World Health Organisation. While these organisations wield considerable levels of influence in their own right, their impact on our day-to-day lives would be much less if it were not for behavioural scientists’ pivotal role in achieving the obedience of the masses.
Ethical concerns associated with the state’s strategic use of nudge techniques have been well documented. Should a government deliberately inflict emotional distress upon its own citizens as a means of gaining their compliance with what are often non-evidenced and collaterally damaging restrictions? And, given that behavioural science interventions commonly achieve their influence below the target person’s awareness, are such tactics rightly tagged as manipulative? Lamentably, the stakeholders actively involved in nudging during the covid event have displayed a stark reluctance to address these important questions.
If the gross neglect of ethical principles was not troubling enough, the recent pronouncements by prominent UK behavioural scientists – the enforcers of stage 3 of the authoritarian template – also indicate escalating stridency and duplicity.
Professor David Halpern (the chief executive of the Behavioural Insight Team [BIT], aka the ‘Nudge Unit’) exemplifies this increasing confidence. In a January 2023 interview with The Telegraph, Halpern described how he had nudged Boris Johnson, the serving Prime Minister, into wearing a mask: ‘We did share with him a slide pack at one point. It had a series of images of pretty much every single world leader wearing a mask, and then a picture with him not’. This subliminal prod, to covertly exert normative pressure on Johnson, was used to point out that ‘a normal thing for a world leader to do right now is wear a mask’. In the same interview, Halpern goes on to express his intent for a behavioural ‘scaffolding’ to be put in place to encourage mask wearing in Britain. So despite the wealth of empirical evidence that the wearing of face coverings in community settings is both ineffective and harmful, Halpern felt justified in promoting widespread masking, presumably because such a policy chimed with his own ideological beliefs.
In a more recent (July 2023) interview with The Telegraph, while discussing the receptiveness of the general population to future lockdowns and other restrictions, Halpern glibly talks about human beings as if they are machines to be tinkered with. In the world of this arch nudger, those of us living a life without fear are ‘wrongly calibrated’, in need of scary messaging to return us to the right track. He goes on to say that ‘once you’ve practised something’ … lockdowns, mask wearing … ‘you can switch it back on … you’ve got the beginnings of a habit loop … we’ve practised the drill’. And he seems to imply that the collateral damage of these interventions is an acceptable price to pay: while recalling an incident he had observed on a train, where a maskless person was close to being physically assaulted by masked passengers, he casually refers to it as ‘social pressure in action’.
Furthermore, behavioural scientists appear to have undergone a transformative experience. Perhaps a growing awareness of the considerable net damage of their scare-and-restrict approach to pandemic management has led to a series of self-serving memory biases – or just plain duplicity – as a means of evading the escalating criticism of their approach. To illustrate, let us compare some of their earlier output with their more recent comments and actions:
|The Changeable Views of Behavioural Scientists
‘Policymakers wishing to use these tools … need the approval of the public to do so’ (MINDSPACE, 2010) – A document describing ‘nudge’ techniques, co-authored by Halpern.
‘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.’ (Halpern, 2019) An excerpt from his book, ‘Inside the Nudge Unit’; p. 375).
Silence from Halpern and the other state-funded behavioural scientists throughout the covid event, despite the Government’s intensive deployment of behavioural science nudges without the consent of UK citizens.
In a December 2020 document (later redacted), a Behavioural Insights Team and NHS collaboration, healthcare staff administering vaccines are advised to covertly nudge young people into accepting the jab by telling them ‘your vaccination is vital… normality can only return for you and others, with your vaccination.’
‘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.’ (SPI-B minutes, March 2020). [The SPI-B was a subgroup of SAGE advising Government on their communications strategy. Its membership included Professors Susan Michie, Stephen Reicher, John Drury, Robert West, and David Halpern].
Quotes from Laura Dodsworth’s book, ‘A State of Fear’ (2021):
‘They went overboard with the scary message to get compliance’ (Gavin Morgan, SPI-B member).
‘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 a weird experiment. Ultimately it backfired because people became too scared’ (Anonymous SPI-B member).
In the run-up to Boris Johnson’s ‘Freedom Day’ (June 2021), Professor Stephen Reicher berated the prime minister by tweeting, ‘What sort of sign does he want? The Thames turned to blood? A plague of frogs? Writing on the wall that spells out “we are all doomed if you don’t stop your dithering”’
Collective silence of nudgers throughout the covid event, while Hancock was ‘scaring the pants off’ people.
‘The scientific literature … shows that frightening people is generally an ineffective way of persuading them to engage in health protective behaviours …When Hancock & Case advocated scare tactics they were going against the scientific advice they had been given. They were not, as some have suggested, in lockstep with their scientific advisors’. (Reicher, Drury, Michie & West, March 2023, opinion piece in the British Medical Journal.
A member of HART received an email (dated 31st January 2022) 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’.
Reicher’s Twitter account is currently de-activated.
‘Nudgers, or behavioural scientists, must be very wary about setting themselves up as unconstrained engineers and architects of the human condition’ (Halpern, 2019) An excerpt from his book, ‘Inside the Nudge Unit’; p. 335).
In Halpern’s Telegraph interviews in March 2023 (described above) he talks about the desirability of ‘scaffolding’, along with the need for human beings to be ‘drilled’ and ‘calibrated’.
What can account for this volte-face?
As behavioural science is now a lucrative business, with the nudgers embedded in all areas of government (national and global), actively influencing every aspect of our day-to-day lives, it is understandable why they might not wish to relinquish their privileged positions. Furthermore, it may be that they are relishing their key role in enforcing the world elite’s top-down authoritarianism, this government overreach chiming with their own political ideology – a hypothesis made more plausible by the fact that Michie (a life-long communist) now occupies a key role at the WHO, chairing their ‘Behavioural Insights’ group. If these prominent behavioural scientists ever experience uncomfortable moments when they question the morality of their work, perhaps they self-soothe by reciting their collectivist ‘for the greater good’ and ‘social responsibility’ mantras.Prophetically, in his 2019 book, Inside the Nudge Unit, Halpern issued a warning to his own profession: ‘It is just too easy for us to tell ourselves a story that the “best” option for another person just happens to be the one that is in our own best interests’ (p325).
It is high time the behavioural scientists reflect upon this remarkable piece of foresight from one of their own.