Behavioural science has been used inappropriately during the CCP virus pandemic to scare the public into complying with the rules, a former leading member of the government’s controversial “Nudge Unit” said.
Simon Ruda, a co-founder of the Behavioural Insights Team (BI)—the UK government’s original nudge unit before its privatisation and global expansion—questioned if behaviour science has inadvertently been used to sanction “state propaganda” during the crisis.
Two BI executives currently sit on the government’s 48-member Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a sub-group under the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Other SPI-B members are mostly university professors and scientists from a number of government departments.
According to the government’s estimate, the information campaign on CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic—using every means possible including social media, influencers, radio, TV, and widespread digital marketing—has reached 95 percent of adults on average 17 times per week at the peak—the biggest since World War II.
A SAGE document published in the early days of the pandemic, which presented options the government could use to increase adherence to social distancing measures, included advice such as increasing the “perceived level of personal threat” with “hard-hitting emotional messaging”; using media to increase the “sense of personal threat” and “sense of responsibility to others”; using social approval for desired behaviours; and considering the use of social disapproval for failure to comply.
Writing in Unherd on Thursday, Ruda said he considered it “nuts” to think of behavioural science as “tactics befitting an unsavoury authoritarian regime” six years ago, but having witnessed how governments around the world had responded to the pandemic, he now appreciates “the vulnerabilities of well-intentioned, democratic regimes, and the potential for behavioural science to be used inappropriately.”
Still a supporter of using behavioural science in public policy, such as finding ways to help parents engage with their children’s homework and measuring improved education and parental engagement, Ruda warned against using the tool in ways he said are “less appropriate” and “more propagandistic,” such as “invoking different emotions to convince people to stay at home during the pandemic.”
Ruda suggested that although the tactic could help achieve effects that are “immediately measurable,” they may also cause unintended longer-term effects, such as “worse inter-societal relations and reduced trust in institutions.”
Some of the consequences have already materialised, he indicated.
“In my mind, the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public,” he wrote.
“Initially encouraged to boost public compliance, that fear seems to have subsequently driven policy decisions in a worrying feedback loop.”
Ruda said he suspected that government communicators and news broadcasters are more to blame, but urged behaviour scientists to reflect on where to draw the line “between the choice-maximising nudges of libertarian paternalism, and the creeping acceptance among policymakers that the state should use its heft to influence our lives without the accountability of legislative and parliamentary scrutiny.”
“Nudging made subtle state influence palatable, but mixed with a state of emergency, have we inadvertently sanctioned state propaganda?” the behaviour scientist questioned.
Ruda also criticised the governments for “placing all value on data,” as it “risks de-prioritising reflection, reason, and debate—and obscuring the limitations of that data as a depiction of reality.”
He said metrics such as CCP virus infections may be the most feasible to measure now, but they’re not necessarily what’s most important overall, and the “the trade-offs many governments are making in their responses to the pandemic” don’t seem to be “grounded in utilitarian rationality.”
The narrow fixation on data has obscured people’s objectivity, Ruda suggested, observing that “it is the proponents of evidence and empiricism, our best and most educated elites, who are now often the least willing to hear information that challenges their worldview or runs contrary to their identity.”
Ruda urged institutions using behavioural science to “look beyond the immediate policy objective,” make sure they “themselves understand how best to use it,” and have “multidisciplinary teams, a strong culture of intellectual humility, and designed-in cognitive diversity to tackle problems, especially in times of uncertainty.”
A government spokesperson said: Since the start of the pandemic we have followed the advice of our world-leading scientists and medical experts, taking the right measures at the right time to defeat coronavirus.
“As a responsible government, we have informed the public through every means possible as to the severity of COVID-19, providing clear information and guidance about the behaviours they should take to protect themselves, their families, and others, including most recently encouraging everyone eligible to get boosted.”