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‘Nudge’ has no place in our democracyThe government’s use of behavioural science violates our freedom to judge and act for ourselves.
Nudging is apparently a thing. It appears to be an Influence Activities thing.
Do we apply it externally or internally?
The government’s use of behavioural science violates our freedom to judge and act for ourselves.
Behavioural science, aka ‘nudging’, has been used by the government during the pandemic to scare people into doing the ‘right’ thing. This insidious development has even been acknowledged by Simon Ruda, one of the co-founders of the Behavioural Insights Team, aka the Nudge Unit, which is part-owned by the UK government. He wrote that the ‘most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed [to] the public’.
... On 22 March 2020, a paper written by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Behaviour Advisory Committee (SPI-B) for the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) complained that the public was too relaxed about the pandemic. ‘A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened’, it stated, adding that too many ‘are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group’. It then urged the government to increase ‘the perceived level of personal threat… among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging’.
Some members of SAGE have since reported feeling ’embarrassed’ by the nature of SPI-B’s advice. As one regular SAGE attendee put it last year: ‘The British people have been subjected to an unevaluated psychological experiment without being told that is what’s happening.’
And here we come to the principal problem – namely, that nudging is fundamentally anti-democratic. Behavioural scientists start from the assumption that human beings cannot be trusted to make rational choices. People’s behaviour, they conclude, should be the subject of government management. They treat people’s emotional lives, lifestyles and relationships as legitimate objects of policymaking and professional intervention.
This politics of behaviour has given rise to a new form of technocratic governance. Then prime minister David Cameron gave this technocracy its most explicit form when he helped set up the Nudge Unit in 2010. This was charged with the task of developing policies that could shape people’s thoughts, choices and actions. As far as the nudgers were concerned, subliminal psychological techniques were preferable to democratic debate and argument.
When Britain’s then deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, casually remarked in 2010 that the Nudge Unit could change the way citizens think, he spoke like a totalitarian ruler. Since when was it within a democratic government’s mandate to try to manipulate and change its citizens’ thoughts?