We need to talk about behavioural science…

…but those in positions of influence don’t want to

The Government’s use of behavioural-science – particularly ‘nudges’ that use fear inflation, shaming and peer pressure to increase people’s compliance with the state’s agenda – has evoked major concerns in relation to both the ethics and the collateral damage. Throughout the covid-19 crisis, the morality of strategically inflicting emotional pain upon citizens to influence their behaviour has been questioned, along with the disregard for informed consent, a longstanding fundamental precondition to any medical or psychological intervention. In addition, the unintended negative consequences of these covert psychological interventions have included a significant contribution to the tens of thousands of non-covid excess deaths and an escalation in the number of people suffering mental health problems. Prior to the covid-19 era, the deployment of nudging as a means of recouping the Loan Charge may have even contributed to suicide among the taxpayers targeted.

Given the gravity of these unintended consequences, you would expect the Government and their scientists to be urgently scrutinising the legitimacy of state-sponsored behavioural science. Alarmingly, this is not the case. Indeed, there appears to be active avoidance of discussing the issues, as evidenced by the following:

  1. In January 2021, HART member Dr Gary Sidley wrote a letter (co-signed by 46 psychologists and therapists) to the British Psychological Society (BPS) raising serious concerns about the activities of the Government’s behavioural scientists. As the professional body for psychologists in the UK, and the dedicated guardians of the ethical application of psychological knowledge, it was reasonable to expect that our expressed concerns about the strategic use of fear, shame and scapegoating would be taken seriously. Yet their response was haughty and dismissive, stating they were ‘incredibly proud’ of the work done by psychologists during the pandemic. Specifically, the BPS claimed that the nudge techniques in question were ‘indirect’ rather than covert, that fear levels among the British people were proportionate to the objective risk posed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and that – because psychologists had demonstrated ‘social responsibility’ – they were exempt from the requirement of seeking the informed consent of their targets. Perhaps this response was predictable, given that several of the Government’s behavioural scientists are prominent figures in the BPS?
  1.  In January 2022, Dr Sidley 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 deployment of behavioural science. An immediate response from the PACAC office drew attention to an ongoing review of the Coronavirus Act (2020) that included an element of nudging in its remit, but then – despite requests – failed to offer experts with concerns about these approaches the opportunity to contribute. As for a stand-alone inquiry into behavioural science, the latest response from the PACAC is that there is ‘no current plans to do so’ (personal communication).
  1. After presenting our concerns about the ethics of behavioural science to an  All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) that is focusing on ‘Pandemic Response and Recovery’, an MP within the group kindly offered to ask pertinent questions of the chair of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviour (SAGE’s behavioural science subgroup) at a Science and Technology Committee session taking place on the 2nd March, 2022. Alas, neither the Chair of the behavioural science group (Professor Ann John) nor her deputy attended the session. In light of this surprising no show, some ethics-of-nudging questions were put to Professor Graham Medley (a modeller) but, understandably, he was not able to answer.
  1. A further snub to those seeking an open debate about the ethics of nudging was 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.

The Government’s use of behavioural science now shapes almost all aspects of our lives, including public health campaigns, tax collection and media broadcasting. These often-covert psychological strategies raise pressing ethical concerns that should be addressed in a comprehensive and transparent way. We need to talk about behavioural science, yet those in positions of influence seem reluctant to do so. Why?

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