What authority would scare and shame an already frightened population?

Answer: The UK Government & their behavioural science advisors

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In the knowledge that people are already in a state of heightened anxiety, what government would choose to further frighten and shame them? When citizens have amended their lifestyles in order to function under difficult circumstances, what government would seek to actively disrupt these necessary and understandable adaptations? And what government believes that a fearful population during a ‘pandemic’ is not acceptable, and opts to instil panic instead? A recently published paper by HART member, Dr Gary Sidley, has revealed that such a regime is our very own UK Government, aided and abetted by their advisors and behavioural science experts.

The state’s strategic deployment of fear, shame and peer pressure/scapegoating – affect, ego and normative pressure ‘nudges’ – to promote compliance with covid restrictions has been widely documented (for example, see here and here). Focusing on the harrowing, and highly contentious, ‘Look them in the eyes’ (LTITE) messaging campaign of January 2021, Sidley has conducted a forensic analysis to expose the rationales offered by the Cabinet Office to justify the use of these emotionally disturbing advertisements on the British people. The findings provide insight into the mindsets and motivations of our political leaders and expert advisors, and convey their callous disregard for the wellbeing of those they are paid to serve.

The advertising agency responsible for the production of the LTITE videos and posters was MullenLowe, and a reminder of the harrowing tone and content of this campaign can be found on their website. The adverts comprise close-up images of acutely unwell patients in intensive care units, alongside weary and stressed healthcare staff (all, of course, clad in respirators or masks), ominous background music, and a voice over saying, ‘Look them in the eyes and tell them you are doing everything you can to stop the spread of Covid 19’. Multiple behavioural science nudges underpin the images and slogans, with fear inflation and shaming being particularly prominent.

Based on the Cabinet Office’s responses to a series of Freedom of Information requests, Sidley has revealed the official explanations proffered by our political leaders and state-funded experts in their attempt to justify the infliction of further emotional distress on an already overly anxious population. Specific aspects of the Cabinet Office reasoning in January 2021 – used to support the endorsement of the LTITE campaign – are listed below, followed by a brief evaluative response:      

Level of perceived risk … is not as high as March 2020. March a shock to the system but now have learned to live alongside COVID’ (FOI, 2023).

Humans have been ‘living alongside’ respiratory viruses since the time of Adam and Eve. It is, therefore, reasonable to suggest that such an observation is a positive one, and a political establishment that have the welfare of their people to the fore would welcome this finding rather than using it to justify the infliction of more fear and shame on its citizenry.

They have settled into their own level of “acceptable behaviour” … that fits with their lifestyle, their specific needs and circumstances’ (FOI, 2023).

It is perverse to view these adaptations as reasons for state intervention. A more rational interpretation of these behavioural changes would be that people were increasingly making their own individualised, balanced risk assessments to inform their pragmatic decisions about how best to function in challenging circumstances.

Significant and visible difference in behaviour and attitude between the two lockdowns … Fearful but much less panic this time around’ (FOI, 2023).

The implication here is that the observation that people were ‘fearful’ was insufficient to satisfy our policymakers; they wanted full blown ‘panic’. In a liberal democracy, those in positions of influence should endeavour to maintain calm rather than increase alarm; only tyrants purposely terrify their own people.

The challenge is in overcoming people’s established ways of managing their lives within the lockdown rules’ (FOI, 2023a).

In a civilised society, during times of national ‘crisis’, our elected leaders (and their expert advisors) would strive to support and empower the creative efforts of their citizens to continue to function through difficult times. To strategically aim to override people’s coping strategies is unforgivable.

What role did state-funded behavioural scientists (‘nudgers’) play in these decisions to inflict further fear and shame on an already overly scared population? Sidley’s research suggests some answers

The quotes cited in the FOIs (as detailed above) derive from the Cabinet Office’s own qualitative research, conducted by ‘Solutions Research’ (a private research agency). However, Sidley revealed other key state actors that were directly involved in the development of the LTITE campaign. Conrad Bird (Director of Campaigns & Marketing at the Cabinet Office) was the senior civil servant who led the commissioning team that provided the creative brief to MullenLowe. Furthermore, the senior minister ultimately responsible for signing off the harrowing LTITE videos and posters was the then Health Secretary, Matt – ‘don’t kill your gran’ – Hancock. As for the behavioural science input, the ‘internal Cabinet Office Government Communication Service Behavioural Science team provided insight and guidance to Conrad Bird’ (FOI, 2024). Thus, this small group of behavioural scientists, located in the heart of government, were formally tasked with furnishing Bird with expert advice on the appropriate use of nudges within the LTITE communications; as such, it is reasonable to assert this band of experts hold a significant degree of responsibility for the fear-inflation and shaming intrinsic to this campaign, via either their active guidance to Bird and his team, and/or their failure to intervene to prevent the unethical deployment of these psychological strategies of persuasion.  

The central conclusion to be drawn from Sidley’s critical analysis of the genesis of the LTITE campaign is that we have a government, and a corresponding group of behavioural science advisors, who are willing to frighten and shame an already fearful population in order to lever compliance with state diktats. As things stand, we can expect the same tone and content in government communications the next time our political leaders choose to declare a ‘global crisis’, whether it be under the banner of health, climate, pollution or some other assumed world-wide threat.

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