PiPs Newcastle met at The Telegraph pub to discuss the moral and social implications of nudge policy.
Psychological manipulation – or ‘nudging’ – to influence behaviour is not new. We expect to be nudged by advertisers and retailers, and we expect parents to nudge their children. But how did nudge weave its way into the heart of government? And can such tactics ever be justified?
The introductory talk was given by PIPs member Paula Watson, who began by explaining the concept of nudge theory. A nudge is a means of altering people’s behaviour without actually restricting their choice or imposing significant financial incentives. Putting a photograph of diseased lungs on a cigarette packet is a nudge, but banning smoking in public places or putting a hefty duty on tobacco products is not. Paula emphasised that behavioural science and nudging are not the same thing; nudge theory draws on behavioural science and psychology, but many behavioural scientists disapprove of this application.
Is nudge a method for delivering government policy or a political ideology that became embedded in government?
Nudge theory was popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge, which introduced the concept of ‘libertarian paternalism’ – which Paula argued is a contradiction in terms. This theoretical concept was promptly put into practice when Sunstein was appointed head of the US Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in 2009 and Thaler was invited to help set up the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team or ‘Nudge Unit’ in 2010.
Paula conceded that government nudging has had some beneficial outcomes for society, such as reducing speeding, persuading people to pay their taxes on time and encouraging children to eat more healthily. She also accepted that nudging was generally done with good intentions, but asked ‘what if we have competing ideas of what is good?’.
Is it ever right to use fear or to create an outgroup to deliver public policy?
Paula described how nudging took a more sinister and harmful turn during the Covid pandemic, playing on fear and guilt to manipulate behaviour without ever giving a thought to the long-term consequences. The ‘Don’t Kill Granny’ campaign was particularly abhorrent, aiming to frighten children by making them feel responsible for things that were beyond the control even of adults.
The campaign of fear culminated in the formation of an outgroup, the unvaccinated. Despite evidence that vaccination did not prevent infection or transmission, the unvaccinated were abused and threatened in the media and on social media. Vaccine passports were introduced, excluding young people from socialising and attending events.
Nudge had taken the country from ‘clap for carers’ to ‘sack the carers’ in under two years. Forty thousand of the lowest paid and hardest working people in our communities – those who had worked in care homes while others stayed at home – lost their jobs, and the public cheered.
Where is this going and what can we do to change things?
Nudge is spreading like a virus through our institutions, Paula warned us, and like a virus it can’t be stopped but we can take precautions to protect ourselves from it.
But how do we know if we are being nudged?
This is challenging, as the very essence of nudging is to give you the impression that you are making a free choice. Paula advised us to beware of memorable mantras, especially three-word slogans such as ‘Build Back Better’, ‘Hands, Face, Space’, or ‘Protect our NHS’. We should also watch out for denials, as this is a common tactic used by governments to gauge reaction to a new proposal or policy. During the pandemic, the UK Government denied that they were considering introducing vaccine passports on eleven separate occasions. A sudden proliferation of news articles alerting us to a risk is another strong indication that we are being nudged, as is the use of popular celebrities or authority figures to endorse a message. We should also be wary of government officials offering to help us ‘make the right choice’, by which they mean their choice.
One quality that makes us more susceptible to nudging is herd mentality, a tendency to copy and follow what others are doing. Illusionists and stage hypnotists select members of the audience to participate in their performance based on this quality. A sceptical attitude and willingness to evaluate different sources of information are therefore useful in maintaining freedom of choice. Paula said that a stronger personal morality can help give us the confidence to resist nudging, and that we should be cautious of joining the herd – especially when the herd appears to have lost its mind!
The group discussed examples of nudging that they had come across in different situations. It was agreed that nudging can have good outcomes such as improving public health or reducing road accidents, although the removal of choice always carries ethical implications. Some considered nudging to be acceptable when based on firm science, for example the proven health risks of smoking. However, nudge tactics are increasingly used even when there is no evidence that the desired behaviour change will bring any benefit, such as the wearing of facemasks.
The relative merits of nudging versus banning were discussed. Both restrict individual freedom, but if you are strong-willed enough, you can ignore a nudge and make your own choice, which you couldn’t do (without breaking the law) if the behaviour were simply banned. Banning a behaviour is more restrictive, but at least it does not compromise an individual’s freedom of thought or manipulate their emotions. Paula stressed that no one is immune to nudging, even those who pride themselves on being critical thinkers.
Nudging has many undesirable outcomes, not least a growing distrust in government and the media (as discussed at our September meeting), which at its most extreme can lead to conspiracy theories. The use of fear and guilt messaging has widespread negative implications; many of the younger generation experience anxiety due to being constantly bombarded with climate catastrophism. Far from prompting environmentally-conscious behaviour, this over-use of nudging simply engenders nihilist defeatism.
The most worrying development in the use of nudge tactics came to light when the ‘Lockdown files’ of WhatsApp messages revealed that the Behavioural Insights Team had been nudging the Prime Minister during the pandemic. Nudging had previously been used to get people to accept government policies – now it was being used to make policy.
The use – and abuse – of nudge therefore seems to be escalating.
Fortunately, as this debate showed, so is our awareness of it.