Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 15 November 2020

How the MEAN psychologists got us to comply with coronavirus restrictions


The British public’s widespread compliance with the Government’s draconian diktats has arguably been the most remarkable aspect of the coronavirus crisis. The unprecedented restrictions on our basic freedoms – in the form of lockdowns, travel bans and mandatory mask wearing – have been passively accepted by the large majority of people. Despite the lack of evidence for effectiveness of these extreme measures, and the growing recognition of their negative consequences, it seems most of us continue to submit to the ongoing restrictions on our lives. Why have we witnessed such capitulation?

A major contributor to the mass obedience of the British people is likely to have been the activities of government-employed psychologists working as part of the ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ (BIT). After outlining the structure and stated remit of the BIT, I will describe the strategies deployed by this group of psychological specialists to shape our behaviours in line with the Government’s public health approach to coronavirus. In particular, I will highlight the four main tactics used in their COVID-19 communication campaigns to ‘nudge’ us towards compliance: a focus on the MESSENGER, EGO, AFFECT and NORMS (or ‘MEAN’ as an acronym), providing specific examples to illustrate how these influencers were put to work so as to get us to obey the Government’s directives. Finally, the questionable ethics of resorting to these psychological interventions to promote compliance with an increasingly contested public health policy will be addressed.

The Behavioural Insights Team – structure and remit

The BIT was conceived in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2010 as ‘the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy’ (Hallsworth et al., 2018). It is collectively owned by the UK Government, Nesta (a charity that views itself as an ‘innovation foundation’ and a ‘champion of radical thinking’), and BIT’s own employees. According to the BIT website, their team has rapidly expanded from a seven person unit working with the UK government to a ‘social purpose company’ operating in many countries around the world.

The stated aims of the BIT sound ambitious and altruistic. By working with a range of stakeholders (for example, governments and local authorities) the team aspire ‘to improve people’s lives and communities’ by applying ‘behavioural insights to inform policy, improve public services and deliver results for citizens and society’. Few would dispute that these sound like worthy goals. However, a closer inspection of the BIT’s methods raises concerns about the moral integrity of applying them for the purpose of achieving of the Government’s public health aims in regards to the coronavirus crisis.

A comprehensive account of the psychological approaches deployed by the BIT is provided in the document MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy(Dolan et al., 2010). This report – produced by the Institute of Government – states that the application of behavioural strategies can achieve ‘low cost, low pain ways of “nudging” citizens … … into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act’ (p7) (My emphasis). By expressing the process of change in this way, this statement reveals a key difference between the BIT interventions and traditional government efforts to shape our behaviour: their reliance on tools that often impact on us subconsciously, below our awareness.

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