I’m a nostalgic sort of fella. I yearn for those times when our politicians used some degree of rational argument to influence the electorate. The era where politicians appeared to hold some transparent values and principles that they would use to inform policies that were – purportedly – in the national interest; the era where politicians were obliged to listen to the views of ordinary people (or risk being displaced at the ballot box); where explicit policy proposals could be meaningly debated and criticised in the run up to an election.
Alas, things are not what they were.
We now have a homogenous batch of political parties all broadly following the same agenda, an agenda seemingly set largely by global elites who operate outside of any democratic system. And behavioural scientists – commonly referred to as ‘nudgers’ – play a pivotal role in levering the compliance of the masses with this top-down authoritarian mission. By means of their (often covert) deployment of psychological strategies that weaponise fear, shame and scapegoating, they facilitate the control of ordinary people. And to perform this essential role requires a huge resource of behavioural science expertise. Consequently, nudgers are everywhere.
As part of an ongoing research initiative to explore the U.K. Government’s deployment of behavioural science during the Covid event, I have scrutinised official documents and made a series of Freedom of Information requests. These reveal the scale of nudge activity being routinely utilised to secure the public’s compliance with top-down diktats. The findings are remarkable.
For ease of comprehension, I will divide the state’s behavioural science resource into five categories:
- Government advisory groups
- In-house employees embedded in Government departments
- The Behavioural Insight Team (aka ‘Nudge Unit’)
- The ‘Government Communications Service’
- Private advertisement agencies
1. Government advisory groups
When global elites announce that there is a world-wide ‘crisis’, governments typically respond by gathering a group of experts to advise them on relevant actions to take. Early in the Covid pandemic, the U.K. relied on the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and its subgroups. One such subgroup was the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), whose membership was mainly comprised of behavioural scientists and prominent psychologists who have expertise in the deployment of nudge techniques.
A key element of the SPI-B’s remit was to advise on “strategies for behaviour change, to support control of and recovery from the epidemic”. At the start of the Covid era, the group was asked to “provide advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical or epidemiological experts”.
High profile behavioural scientists Professors David Halpern and Susan Michie also participated in the full SAGE forum, as did co-chairs of the SPI-B (Professors Ann John, James Rubin and Lucy Yardley).
All-in-all, it is clear that the Government’s expert advisory groups during the Covid event were well stocked with professionals who specialised in the craft of behavioural science.