Britain's unethical Covid messaging must never be repeated

6 February 2022

7:30 PM

6 February 2022

7:30 PM

Over the last two years – under the guise of a Covid-19 communications strategy – the British people have faced a psychologic bombardment from their own government.

Who can forget the constant images during the pandemic warning people to stay indoors to ‘save lives’, students being told that breaking the rules would be ‘killing their granny’, or the ‘Look him in the eyes’ campaign, which showed Covid patients in hospital wearing an oxygen mask, imploring people to never bend the rules and to keep a ‘safe distance’ from others. Even now, as the number of Covid cases continues to fall, we are surrounded by billboards showing black Covid particles hanging in the air like smoke, enveloping people going about their everyday lives.

The consequences of this unprecedented state-sanctioned campaign have been visible everywhere: from the old lady in the street, paralysed with fear of contamination from another human, darting into the road to avoid someone walking the other way, to the neighbour donning a face covering and plastic gloves to wheel the dustbin to the end of her drive. These kinds of incidents are the product of an intensive messaging campaign, designed by the government’s behavioural scientists, to ‘nudge’ us into compliance with the Covid-19 restrictions and the subsequent vaccine rollout.

The deployment of behavioural science as a means of inducing people to adopt what the state deems to be the ‘right’ actions gained impetus with the advent of the ‘Behavioural Insight Team’ (BIT) in 2010. From humble beginnings as a seven-person unit working with the UK government, the BIT has rapidly expanded to become a ‘social purpose company’ operating in many countries across the world.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, several BIT members – along with other psychologists with ‘nudging’ expertise – have been an integral part of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviour (SPI-B), a Sage subgroup tasked with advising government about how to maximise the impact of its pandemic communications strategy. Behavioural science expertise is also deployed across many other areas of government.

Human beings spend 99 per cent of their time on automatic pilot, making moment-by-moment decisions without conscious reflection. Although this is cognitively efficient, it also leaves us vulnerable to behavioural-science ‘nudges’ which can shape our actions without us knowing. Behavioural scientists have a range of techniques at their disposal (as described in a Cabinet Office and Institute for Government ‘Mindspace’ report published in 2010) and many of them have been woven into the Covid-19 messaging campaign.

But three particular interventions during the pandemic raise major ethical concerns: fear inflation, equating compliance with virtue and the encouragement of peer pressure to conform. The use of these covert psychological strategies infringe the basic ethical principles of psychological practice.

It can be argued that a civilised society should not strategically frighten, shame and scapegoat its citizens as a way to increase compliance. This deliberate creation of distress resembles the tactics used by regimes to eliminate beliefs and behaviours that the state thinks is deviant.

And the collateral damage associated with these methods is considerable. It is likely that fear inflation may have significantly contributed to non-Covid excess deaths recorded during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the shaming and scapegoating of the those deemed to be non-compliers has inevitable created minority outgroups (the unvaccinated, for example) that others feel empowered to vilify and verbally abuse.

Second, behavioural scientists have routinely infringed a sacrosanct cornerstone of ethical practice: the need to obtain a recipient’s informed consent prior to the delivery of a medical or psychological intervention. Professor David Halpern (chief executive of the BIT and a Sage member), co-authored the 2010 ‘Mindspace’ document that explicitly recognised the significant ethical dilemmas associated with ‘nudges’ that act subconsciously on their targets. The report noted then that ‘Policymakers wishing to use these tools… need the approval of the public to do so’. No attempt has yet been made to obtain the public’s permission to use these psychological interventions.

Attempts by psychologists and behavioural scientists to justify the use of ‘nudges’ have, to date, been inadequate and disingenuous. The British Psychological Society (BPS) – the formal guardians of ethical psychological practice in the UK – when challenged about the morality of these covert psychological strategies, claimed that members involved in these practices were exempt from seeking consent as they had acted with ‘social responsibility’. Seemingly, the BPS believes that the government’s Covid-communications strategy was intended to influence some anonymous collective rather than the actions of as many individuals as possible.

The behavioural science tentacles extend far beyond the public health domain. For example, a recent document outlining a collaboration between Sky TV and the Behavioural Insights Team, titled The Power of TV: Nudging Viewers to De-carbonise, suggests that news, drama and documentary programmes could soon be underpinned by covert messages prompting us to adopt lifestyles that enable the realisation of the zero-carbon goal. No doubt the ‘nudgers’ would argue that they are enabling the British people to do the right thing, but who decides what is ‘right’? In democratic societies desirable goals, and subsequent policies are typically included in political parties’ election manifestoes and voted for (or rejected) via the ballot box, rather than being unilaterally determined by the state.

In light of these escalating concerns about the government’s deployment of behavioural science, I – together with 54 other health professionals – have written an open letter to the Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee (a Commons select committee chaired by William Wragg MP) to formally request an independent inquiry into the government’s use of covert psychological strategies. Denying individuals rational choices, and an over-reliance upon subliminal influence, is both unethical and undemocratic. Transparency regarding how government departments use ‘nudge’ techniques is now long overdue.

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