Tag: Richard Thaler

Choice architecture, neoliberalism and the politics of compliance

 

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The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model” – Simon Clarke (2005). (See also If You Look Behind Neoliberal Economists, You’ll Discover the Rich: How Economic Theories Serve Big Business. The road to serfdom – sponsored by big business).

Nudge: when the luxury of making choices has been commodified and packaged

Choice architecture is a term was coined by libertarian paternalists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008). It refers to the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented to people.

For example, this can be done by setting defaults, framing, or adding decoy options. 

Choice architecture influences decision-making by simplifying the presentation of choices, by automatically evoking particular associations, or by making one option more salient or “easier” to choose than the alternatives. It works “beneath” our rational and reflective processes.

Personally, I see choice architecture as starkly lit Orwellian features along the short road and cul-de-sac to choiceless choices. It’s a reductive and determined journey, which ends by the state deciding and determining how citizens ought to be

A government that is acting upon the perceptions and behaviours of citizens in order to align them with politically defined socioeconomic outcomes turns democracy on its head. It detaches public policies from genuine wider public needs and interests. Governments are elected in the expectation that they will behave in ways that meet the needs of a population.

Democracy entails a dialogue between government and citizens. However, nudge closes down that dialogue, and restricts human agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Policies are increasingly about the government instructing us how to behave. How to be.

Choice architecture redesigns our experiences without our consent. Diversion from the path of those choices chosen for us by choice architects is considered to be pathological. Nudge doesn’t accommodate creative opportunity, critical thinking or any form of genuine learning. It simply claims that we each operate within the confines of bounded rationality. We are cognitively flawed. But nudge doesn’t present the opportunity for citizens to develop awareness of potential limits, to problem-solve or to learn how to become better cognitively equipped.

It’s precisely because we are ALL cognitively flawed that the production of knowledge for governance itself needs be governed.  In this respect, behavioural econmics displays an arrogance and epistemoloical authoritarianism in that it is assumed the theories it’s founded on somehow escape the confines of rational boundaries that everyone else is unable to transcend. It’s like saying “that’s your “human nature”, but not ours”. If we are all cognitively flawed, then no-one is exempt from that rule.

Nudge reduces our experiences to measured, measurable, politically defned quantitative “outcomes”, at the expense of the crucial qualitative accounts and participation of citizens that contribute to a functioning democracy.

Thaler and Sunstein define a “nudge” as:

Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

This statement puzzles me. If a behaviour is altered in a predictable way, then how will we know if any of the other potential options were forbidden or not, and surely, it means at the very least that the other possibilities – alternative choices – have been foreclosed intentionally by the choice architect. If it didn’t mean that, then why use nudge at all, how exactly does nudging work, and why are we funding it?

Libertarian paternalism or “nudging” is a mechanism to exploit the ways that individuals deviate from rational choice in order to benefit themselves or society at large – for instance, by using our bias toward the status quo to encourage employees to put more of their paychecks into savings.

This benefits employees because it means they will be able to afford to live when they hit hard times, as state provision such as unemployment support and pensions have been incrementally cut away to almost nothing. The powers that be in the UK regard any kind of welfare provision as a “perverse incentive”. This benefits the government because if everyone pays for their own pension, periods of unemployment, sickness and so on, then the government can spend your national insurance contributions and taxes on other things. Like very wealthy people’s tax cuts. 

The privatisation of choice and consent

Power is defined in the social sciences as the ability to influence (“soft power”) or shape and outright control the behaviour of people (“hard power”). Attempts by a government to shape and control the behaviour of citizens (including the targeting of specific social groups), either via policies or by brute force, isn’t generally considered to be compatible with democracy, social justice or notions of inclusion.

Thaler and Sunstein have claimed that governments always influence citizens’ behaviours. We have laws to deter clearly defined crimes such as murder, theft and so on. However, those laws are clearly stated and citizens are aware of their purpose and that they aim to control socially harmful behaviours. They are transparent. Most people would  agree that they are necessary to protect citizens, and most are aware of the probable consequences of being found breaking those laws.

These are overt attempts to dissuade people from behaving in potentially harmful ways towards others and wider society generally tends to endorse them, regarding them as necessary. Such laws permit us to engage our rational processes precisely because they are visible to us. Nudge is designed to bypass our critical and rational capacities.

Nudge or “behavioural economics” is the attempt to shape people’s socioeconomic behaviours without people being aware of the process or the aim. Nudge ceases to work when people become aware that they are being nudged – it only works “in the dark”. 

The Nudge Unit was part-privatised in 2014, which means it is protected from public scrutiny.  It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and it can sue for libel.

Ian Dunt said at the time of the Nudge Unit’s privatisation: “The secrecy and legal might of private firms offering public services is morally indefensible whatever the sector. But in the case of nudge it is particularly dangerous, because this is an organisation specifically tasked with implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public.

However sympathetic we are to the goals nudge is trying to achieve – such as reducing car accidents or increasing tax collection – we should be deeply sceptical of its tactics, which involve influencing the public without them knowing it is happening.

This is what makes nudge so toxic an idea. While it seems more liberal than using legislation to clamp down on unhealthy behaviour, it is actually more pernicious. At least when something is banned, you know you are being prevented from doing it. With nudge, you will never know.”

The application of nudge tends to be asymmetrical – is targeted disproportionately at poor citizens. This is because of the political belief – a weighted bias – that poor people are poor because they make “irrational” and “wrong” choice. Conversly, wealthy people are deemed “rational” precisely because they are wealthy. This is a line of teleological reasoning – rather than being causal explanation of the phenomenon of inequality, the aims, ends, or intentions of the observed phenomenon or behaviour are used to explain the process. Teleology refers to a view that justifies certain phenomena, which are explained by reference to their purposes.  The Conservatives see inequality as functional, because it “encourages competition” and serves as an “incentive”. Social scientific arguments among positivists in particular quite often rest on rational short cuts like this. This short cut is a weighted bias that becomes embedded in the process of how particular areas of research are chosen, how the research is designed, and how interpretation of the results and conclusions are framed. Rather than the “scientific method” in social research serving to ensure value neutrality, quite often it simply distils the ideological premises of it.

Nudge reduces a persons’ choices to one choice – that of the state or “choice architects”. Nudge tends to draw on punishments, threats of punishment and negative reinforcements to change the behaviours of poor people – such as those embedded in welfare conditionality and sanctions, which exploit a cognitive bias we have, apparently, called “loss aversion”

Something that the government and libertarian paternalists choose to ignore is that it is poverty itself that restricts choices, not poor people’s cognitive “abilities” or decision-making. A good example is how the use of credit scoring ultimately leads to the poorest people having to pay the most interest on credit, if they manage to get any at all. Being poor limits our choices for credit, and other ways out of financial hardship. It’s difficult to find work that pays an adequate wage to support an adequate standard of living, especially when you have so few resources that you can’t meet all of your basic needs, let alone pay your broadband bill and meet travel costs.

It’s a very dangerously slippery slope when a group of technocrats claim they have perfected the art of knowing what is best for us, and what our best interests are, especially when it is especially geared towards the political goal of fulfilling “small state” ideology. 

Psychopaths see others as a means to an end, they also like to define other people’s “best interests”. They use justification narratives for their behaviours to manipulate people, which are often plausible, but ultimately, this is simply to get their own way.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ use of nudge reflects their ideological agenda, and their justification narratives reflect an authoritarian turn. 

The rise of nudge refects a miserly neoliberal government with an ideological agenda

If people who are poor are struggling with decision-making, then nudging people – even if “opt out” provision is made (and it generally isn’t) – without their knowledge or informed consent cannot be justified as a “non intrusive” intervention, as behavioural economists try to argue. Nudging reduces our autonomy and imposes a framework of psychological reductionism and determinism.

Nudge reflects a basic “stimulus-response” view of human shaping behaviour, except the word “incentive” has replaced “stimulus” in the old behaviourist terminology. Many behavioural economists talk about cognitive processes, and how flawed most people’s are. But nudge methodology reflects a behaviourist approach – there’s no opportunity for learning, and no consideration of human subjectivity – our inner states, meanings, understandings and so on – all that matters is getting people to comply and behave the way the “choice architects” think we should. Cause and effect.

Nudge was introduced as a policy strategy as a way of cutting costs. Libertarian paternalism is a political doctrine, and is therefore not value-neutral. However, libertarian paternalists argue that their methodology – Randomised Controlled Trials (RTCs) – validates their claim to value neutrality.  Behavioural economists argue that the evidence gathered from RTCs is a better, more reliable and valid form of knowledge than the knowledge of “experts”. But such knowledge is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political side of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge given meaning. Furthermore, the RTCs are used to add credibility to the theoretical knowledge of “experts”. But often, those presenting a case for evidence-based policies often ignore the multiplicity of evidence relevant to the policy in question. In this respect, RTCs may be used to filter out alternative accounts of the issue being addressed, and so justifying interventions that are inappropriate or may have unintended (or undeclared and ideologically determined, intended) consequences. 

RTCs are an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome. One significant concern is that RCTs  are being promoted as the ‘gold standard’ in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research, and the accounts of citizens’ experiences – crucial to a functioning democracy. The government has frequently dismissed citizens accounts of policy impacts as “anecdotal”, claiming that “no causal link” between policy and impact can be demonstrated. Given that some of these accounts have been first hand, and about serious harm caused by policy,  it’s easy to see how the use of  a”scientific methodology” so easily becomes a tool for stifling criticism, debate and a mechanism for political expediency. 

RTCs have been the standard of medical research, and are useful for establishing whether cause-effect relationships exist between treatments and outcomes and for assessing the cost effectiveness of a treatment. However, their use in influencing and quantifying an array of complex human behaviours marks a return of the determinism and reductionism that was central to behaviourist perspectives. 

We must also question the appropriateness of the use of a medical model to frame social problems. Poverty, inequality and the unequal distribution of power doesn’t happen because of some disease process: it is because of government policy and decision-making. No amount of blaming individual citizens’ decision-making and applying “behavioural medicine” to the victims of free neoliberal socioeconomics will remedy that. 

Behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to “internal” states -thoughts or feelings – and that psychological disorders are best treated “externally” by altering “faulty” behaviour patterns. Because nudge is used asymmetrically, and targets poor people disproportionately, it is founded on assumptions that reflect traditional prejudices and assumptions about the causes of poverty, and also serves to endorse and extend existing inequalities in wealth, resources and power. Nudge assummes that poor people’s decision-making is the cause of poverty, rather than institutionalised prejudices and the political decision-making that shapes our socioeconomic environment.

One of our fundamental freedoms as human beings is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – our capacity for rationality and critical thinking, for example, can be learned and improved upon. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government, and the group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” (employed at the “Nudge” Unit) claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our informed consent. “Compliance” is the defintely the governments’ buzzword. Compliance frameworks are embedded in our welfare system and most of our public services. 

Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty while still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. However, since no-one can escape their bounds of their own subjectivity to find some mind-independent vantage point, and since all humans operate within a framework of bounded rationality, the behavioural economists’ claim to value-neutrality, and technocratic appeal to the validity of a “scientific” methodology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The claim to an “objective” scientific methodology does nothing to compensate for the ideological perspectives of the researcher that invariably influence the choice of an area of study, or the nature of generated hypotheses that are tested in artificial environments – “laboratory” conditions. Isolated, tested, short-range hypotheses cannot tell us much about the vast array of complex processes involved in human decision-making, and take any meaningful account of the influence and depth of a cultural, political, social, economic and historical context. As such, they cannot provide a reliable basis for making inferences to real world circumstances.

The results depend on the interpretation and nature of the data used and the reason for the analysis in the first place. Simple causal explanations of behaviour embody reductionism and determinism – and therefore deny human autonomy. Bounded rationality is a theory that proposes we have limited choices, but behaviourist perspectives inform us that basically, we have none. 

Nudge doesn’t take into account that political decision-making also succumbs to the limits of bounded rationality, and that socioeconomic policies impact upon citizens, rather than citizens making choices – “right” or “wrong” ones – about our socioeconomic organisation.  

Medical RCTs are done within the confine a strict ethical framework, with informed consent being central to that framework. The government is conducting experiments on the population without their informed consent. There are no ethical safeguards in place to monitor and acknowledge any potential harm that arises as a consequence of nudging. This is precisely why there is a  need to incorporate qualitative insights into RTCs used to test pubic policy interventions. 

Nudge ignores the negative impact of the attitudes and behaviours of the wealthy and powerful on society

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“People who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks; they’ve got least to lose.” Lord Freud, 2012

The risk-taking and greedy behaviours of wealthy people caused a global financial crash, which has ultimately led to countries like the UK imposing austerity on the poorest citizens. Excess in risk taking by and excessive leverage of banks meant that the finance class ignored externalities and relied on bail-outs by the government following the crisis.

The incentive structure of banks encouraged strategies that increased aggregate risk in the economy, and regulators allowed banks to use their own models to calculate and report riskiness. Deregulation is at the core of the 2008 Financial Crisis. The attempt to decrease government involvement in the financial system backfired. Ultimately, deregulation put depositors, consumers, and banks at risk. Those paying the price for the decision-making behaviours of those in positions of power are the poorest citizens. Austerity has been used as a diversion from where the responsibility for the banking crisis lies, and has become a mechanism of administering disipline and ensuring the conformity of the poorest citizens.

Yet their remains a widespread lack of concern for the financial system’s risk to the economy. No lessons appear to have been learned, and no-one is concerned with “changing the behaviours” of the perpetrators of the global recession.

“If we must talk about “poor choices” then we have to address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices made by the Poor.” Hubert Huzzah

Austerity measures have caused an unacceptable level of harmhardship and absolute poverty – lacking the means to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter – that we haven’t witnessed as a society since before the establishment of the post-war welfare state. We have also witnessed the violation of the human rights of some socially marginalised groups. This point indicates to me that it isn’t poor people who need “behaviour change” programmes: it’s the rich and powerful who create adverse or “pathological” socioeconomic circumstances and events

“Nudge” bears the hallmark of oppression and is symptom of an authoritarian state. It permits those whose decisions have truly devastating impacts on others and our society to simply carry on doing as they choose, whilst punishing those who are blameless, powerless and don’t participate in decisions regarding how our society is organised. 

As such, nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s a technocratic fix to a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, it’s causing distress and harming many citizens.

Nudge addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the wider public. The behaviourist educational function, made patronisingly explicit by the Nudge Unit, is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, institutionalised attitudes and behaviours, in schools, in forms of “expertise”, and even through the state’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narrative.

Thaler acknowledges that regardless of the original intentions, nudge may be skewed by governments, organisations or individuals looking to capitalise on the cognitive biases of people. Whenever he is asked to sign a copy of his book , he writes “nudge for good” which is a plea, he says, to improve the lives of people and avoid “insidious behaviour.”

In the UK, choice architects work to simply maintain the status quo. Therefore nudge doesn’t and cannot offer us any scope for improving people’s lives.

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Grenfell is a stark monument to the systematic disempowerment of citizens because of the decisions made by the architects of neoliberal policies and the utter disregard and negligence of those in positions of power.

Residents of Grenfell Tower had previously raised serious concerns that a catastrophic event could happen. It did. An action group of Grenfell residents said their warnings fell on “deaf ears” after highlighting major safety concerns about the block. The neoliberalisation of the housing market entailed councils part-privatising public housing – putting them into housing associations or ALMOs (arms length management organisations). This management arrangement was distant and remote – a bureaucratic mechanism rather than a democratic community organisation. 

Austerity was (re)introduced in 2010. Public and social housing budgets were slashed and housing associations encouraged to become more commercial and borrow from banks instead of receiving public funding. At the same time, social security and funding for local government were dramatically cut back. In London alone, 10 fire stations, 27 fire engines and more than 600 firefighters have been lost to cuts since 2010. These undermined emergency responses and efforts to prevent fires by inspecting buildings and taking enforcement action under fire safety regulations.

Government hostility to regulation played a significant role in the unfolding of this terrible tragedy. Following a smaller fatal 2009 fire in South London, a series of recommendations including installing sprinkler systems and reviewing the “stay put” advice given to residents living in higher floors in the event of a fire. These recommendations were sat on, ignored, and delayed despite efforts from parliamentarians and campaigners, and even the magazine representing housing professionals. The requirement to carry out a Fire Risk Safety Assessment by the Fire Brigade was changed to make it the responsibility of landlords – Kensington and Chelsea Council opted to use the cheapest company available to them. 

These assessments are not transparent or public and are now the subject of huge public scrutiny along with the series of decisions that led to Grenfell Tower being “re-clad” in the cheap material that facilitated the rapid spread of the fire.

What is clear is that government decision-making, the ideology of deregulation, of privatising, of austerity, combined to kill people in their homes. Their safety and their lives were not valued by the government nor the system they put in place, nor were their voices heard until it was far too late. 

If we must talk about “poor choices” then we must address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices” made by the poorest and most disempowered citizens.arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power

Related

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 

I’m currently writing a longer and more in-depth critique of behavioural economics, which will be published very soon.

 


 

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The media need a nudge: the government using ‘behavioural science’ to manipulate the public isn’t a recent development, nudging has been happening since 2010

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Last year I wrote a critical article about the government’s Nudge Unit. The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioural economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that we are fundamentally “irrational” and that many of our choices are influenced negatively by “cognitive bias.” They go on to propose that policymakers can and ought to nudge citizens towards making choices that are supposedly in their best interests and in the best interests of society.

But who nudges the nudgers?

Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

And how can human interests be so narrowly defined and measured in terms of economic outcomes, within a highly competitive, “survival of the fittest” neoliberal framework? The Nudge Unit is concerned with behavioural economics, not human happiness and wellbeing.

The welfare reforms, especially the increased application of behavioural conditionality criteria and the extended use of benefit sanctions, are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – the cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution. But nudge was always going to be an attractive presentation at the top of a very slippery slope all the way down to open state coercion. Most people think that nudge is just about helping men to pee on the right spot on urinals, getting us to pay our taxes on time, or to save for our old age. It isn’t.

How can sanctioning ever be considered a rational political action –  that taking away lifeline income from people who are already struggling to meet their basic needs is somehow justifiable, or “in their best interests” or about making welfare “fair”?  The government claim that sanctions “incentivise” people to look for work. But there is an established body of empirical evidence which demonstrates clearly that denying people the means of meeting basic needs, such as money for food and fuel, undermines their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing, and serves to further “disincentivise” people who are already trapped at a basic level of struggling to simply survive.

The Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment for example, provided empirical evidence and a highly detailed account regarding the negative impacts of food deprivation on human motivation, behaviour, sociability, physical and psychological health. Abraham Maslow, a humanist psychologist who studied human potential, needs and motivation, said that if a person is starving, the desire to obtain food will trump all other goals and dominate the person’s thought processes. This idea of cognitive priority is also represented in his classic hierarchy of needs. 

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In a nutshell, this means that if people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will have either the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to job seek.

Libertarian paternalists claim that whilst it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of coercive, draconian Conservative welfare sanctions. (See Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions.)

Evidently the government have more than a few whopping cognitive biases of their own.

I have previously criticised nudge because of its fundamental incompatibility with traditional democratic principles, and human rights frameworks, amongst other things. Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, policies are no longer about representing and reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

I’ve also pointed out that nudge operates to manipulate at a much broader level, too. The intentional political construction of folk devils and purposeful culturally amplified references to a stereotype embodying fecklessness, idleness and irresponsibility, utilising moral panic and manufactured public outrage as an effective platform for punitive welfare reform legislation, is one example of the value-laden application of pseudoscientific “behavioural insights” theory. The new paternalists have drawn on our psychosocial inclinations towards conformity, which is evident in the increasing political use of manipulative normative messaging. (For example, see: The Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. used social normative messages to increase tax compliance in 2011.) 

The paternalist’s behavioural theories have been used to increasingly normalise a moral narrative based on a crude underpinning “deserving” and “undeserving” dichotomy, that justifies state interventions imposing conditions of extreme deprivation amongst some social groups – especially those previously considered legally protected. Public rational and moral boundaries have been and continue to be nudged and shifted, incrementally. Gordon Allport outlined a remarkably similar process in his classic political psychology text, The Nature of Prejudice, which describes the psychosocial processes involved in the construction of categorical others, and the subsequent escalating scale of prejudice and discrimination.

So we really do need to ask exactly in whose “best interests” the new paternalist “economologists” are acting. Nudge is being targeted specifically at the casualties of inequality, which is itself an inevitability of neoliberalism. The premise of nudge theory is that poor people make “bad choices” rather than their circumstances being recognised as an inexorable consequence of a broader context in which political decisions and the economic Darwinism that neoliberalism entails creates “winners and losers.”

I have seen very little criticism of nudge in the mainstream media until very recently. On Monday the Independent published an article about how the Chancellor exploited our cognitive biases to secure his cuts to welfare, drawing particularly on the loss aversion theory. To reiterate, in economics decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

From the Independent article:

“Researchers have also found that people do not treat possible forgone gains resulting from a decision in the same way as equivalent potential out-of-pocket losses from that same decision. The forgone gains are much less psychologically painful to contemplate than the losses. Indeed, the gains are sometimes ignored altogether.

There was an apparent attempt to harness this particular psychological bias in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. Of course the Chancellor was forced into a memorable U-turn on his wildly unpopular tax credit cuts. Millions of poor working families will now not see their benefits cut in cash terms next April. Yet the Chancellor still gets virtually all his previously targeted savings from the welfare bill by 2020.

How? Because the working age welfare system will still become much less generous in five years’ time. As research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation has shown, the typical low-income working family in 2020 will be hit just as hard as they were going to be before the Autumn Statement U-turn. The Chancellor seems to be calculating that the pain of future forgone gains will be less politically toxic than immediate cash losses.”

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It’s hardly a revelation that the Conservative government are manipulating public opinion, using scapegoating, outgrouping and the creation of folk devils in order desensitize the public to the plight of the poorest citizens and to justify dismantling the welfare state incrementally. As I’ve pointed out previously, this has been going on since 2010, hidden in plain view.

In the article, Ben Chu also goes on to say:

“Experiments by Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler also suggest that this stealth approach fits with people’s sense of fairness. They found that in a time of recession and high unemployment most people they surveyed thought a hypothetical company that cut pay in cash terms was acting unfairly, while one that merely raised it by less than inflation was behaving fairly.

There was another exploitation of our psychological biases in the Autumn Statement. The Chancellor announced an increase in stamp duty for people buying residential properties to let. That underscored the fact that the Chancellor remains wedded to the stamp duty tax, despite pressure from public finance experts to shift to a more progressive and efficient annual property tax (perhaps an overhauled council tax).

But Mr Osborne, like all his recent predecessors, realises that stamp duty, for all its deficiencies, tends to be less resented as a form of taxing property. Why? Because of “anchoring”. When people buy a house they are mentally prepared to part with a huge sum, usually far bigger than any other transaction they will make in their lives. The additional stamp duty payable to the Treasury on top of this massive sum, large though it is, seems less offensive. People resent it less than they would if the tax were collected annually in the form of a property tax – even if, for most, it would actually make little difference over the longer term. Sticking with stamp duty is the path of least resistance.”

There is another economologist “experiment” that seems to have slipped under the radar of the media – an experiment to nudge sick and disabled people into work, attempting to utilise GPs in a blatant overextension of the intrusive and coercive arm of the state. It is aimed at ensuring sick and disabled people don’t claim benefits. I don’t recall any mention of behaviourist social experiments on the public in the Conservative manifesto.

When I am ill, I visit a doctor. I expect professional and expert support. I wouldn’t consider consulting Iain Duncan Smith about my medical conditions. Or the government more generally. There are very good reasons for that. I’m sure that Iain Duncan Smith has Dunning–Kruger syndrome. He thinks he knows better than doctors and unreliably informs us that work can set you free, it can help prevent and cure illness.  Yet I’ve never heard of a single case of work curing blindness, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer or even so much as a migraine. I’ve also yet to hear of a person’s missing limbs miraculously growing back. The Conservative “medical intervention” entails a single prescription: a work coach from the job centre. State medicine – a single dose to be taken daily: Conservative ideology, traditional prejudice and some patronising and extremely coercive paternalism. The blue pill.

I don’t agree with the conclusions that Ben Chu draws in his article. Whilst he acknowledges that:

“The Government has a Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”) whose objective is to exploit the public’s psychological biases,” he goes on to say that it’s merely “to push progressive policies, such as getting us to save more for retirement and helping us make “better choices”, perhaps by counteracting the negative impact of loss aversion. But, as we’ve seen, the Chancellor is not above exploiting our biases in a cynical fashion too.” 

Progressive policies? The draconian welfare “reforms” aren’t remotely “progressive.” In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical (and nudge-driven) normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of such policies.

There is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and that person’s actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The asymmetrical, class-contingent application of paternalistic libertarian “insights” establishes a hierarchy of decision-making “competence” and autonomy, which unsurprisingly corresponds with the hierarchy of wealth distribution.

So nudge inevitably will deepen and perpetuate existing inequality and prejudice, adding a dimension of patronising psycho-moral suprematism to add further insult to politically inflicted injury. Nudge is a technocratic fad that is overhyped, theoretically trivial, unreliable; a smokescreen, a prop for neoliberalism and monstrously unfair, bad policy-making.

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural science” is merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour, as a mechanism of explanation, and in terms of its capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

At worst, the rise of this new form of psychopolitical behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

But for the record, when a government attempts to micromanage and manipulate the behaviour of citizens, we call that “totalitarianism” not “nudge.” 

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Related reading

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Mind the MINDSPACE: the nudge that knocked democracy down

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.

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There is an extremely anti-democratic design becoming increasingly evident in policies being formulated by the Coalition, which is aimed at protecting the interests of the very wealthy; at stifling debate, challenges and opposition; permitting political and corporate corruption whilst obscuring it; restricting access to justice for victims of government and corporate corruption and oppression; removing accountability and transparency. There is a detachment of policies from wider public needs and interests. Instead, policies are all about instructing us how to behave.

It’s only a matter of time before the new behavioural economics and so-called science of nudging decision-making is applied to influencing the population’s voting behaviour as well.

Free-will, determinism and bounded rationality in decision-making: implications for democracy

One of our fundamental freedoms, as human beings, is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – rationality, for example. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government have employed a group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” who claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our consent.

But democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Coalition policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty whilst still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests.

But who nudges the nudgers? Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

That would be the government, of course. Thaler, who studied the psychology of decision-making, drawing on the exploitation of “cognitive bias” and techniques of persuasion that have until now been used only by the advertising industry, claims that we are fundamentally irrational. But according to Professor Thaler, we would “all invest in the stock market if we were rational.”  That’s a rather unique and remarkably narrow definition.

I wonder if he bothered asking everyone about that. I imagine that if he gets his way, university entrance criteria will change forever. Mind you, so will ideas about human diversity. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on social conformity, directed from the Conservative Cabinet office.

Nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s become a technocratic fix – pseudo-psychology that doubles up as “common sense”, aimed at maintaining the socioeconomic order.

Another phrase the authors introduced was “choice architecture”, a concept implying that the State can be the architect that arranges personal choice in way that nudges consumers in the right direction. It seems that even policies have been commodified. Poor people get bargain basement “incentives” to work harder by having their income reduced, while millionaires get the deluxe model incentives, entailing massive tax cuts and exemptions, all handed out from public funds. 

The “right” direction is towards a small State, with nothing but behavioural “incentives” to justify forcing citizens who have needs to be “responsible” and “self-sufficient,” achieving this presumably by paying taxes and then pulling themselves up strictly by their own invisible bootstraps. It’s the government’s new nothing for something culture, specifically for those who fall on hard times.

The pseudo-psychological framework

Behavioural Economics is actually founded in part on crude operant conditioning: it marks the return of a psychopolitical theory that arose in the mid-20th century, which was linked to behaviourism Advocates of this perspective generalised that all human behaviour may be explained and described by a very simple reductive process: that of Stimulus–Response. There is no need, according to behaviourists, to inquire into human thoughts, feelings, beliefs or values, because we simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons or rats in a laboratory.

In the Coalition agreement, there is mention of “finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves. David Halpern, an apparently adaptable, very pro-business behavioural economist, also plays a role in David Cameron’s Big Society project. In 2010, the entire Cabinet were impressed with Nudge, and it quickly became required reading for ministers and civil servants. 

The Guardian casually reported that Nick Clegg said he believed the new Behavioural Insights Team could “change the way citizens think.” What is particularly shocking is that the comment elicited no shock whatsoever. (The very idea of a group of right-wing authoritarians that recognise human worth only in terms of money, covertly influencing my behaviour, and that of everyone else, quite frankly appalls me.)

Formally instituted by Cameron in September 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team, which is a part of the Cabinet Office, is made up of people such as David Halpern, who co-authored the Cabinet Office report: Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain, with an accompanying psychobabble of decontextualised words such as “incentives”, “habit’, “priming” and “ego.” It’s a lot of inane managementspeak. However, the ideas behind the corporate jargon are providing a framework of experimental and often controversial policy-making on an unsuspecting public.

The report addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the public. The behaviourist educational function made patronisingly explicit through the Nudge Unit is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, forms of “expertise”, and through the State’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narratives.

Tory ideology is extended under the misleading  label of libertarian paternalism, which is all about shaping our behaviour, by offering “choice architecture”, that reduces public choices to “Choice.” At the heart of every Coalition welfare policy is a behaviour modification attempt, promoted by the influential Nudge Unit and founded on the discredited, pseudoscientific behaviourism, which is basically just about making people do what you want them to do, using a system of punishments and reinforcements. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

At the same time, as well as shaping behaviour, the psychopolitical messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for welfare “reform”, austerity, the “efficient”small State (minarchism) and also legitimizes them. (I’ve written at length elsewhere about the fact that austerity isn’t an economic necessity, but rather, it’s a Tory ideological preference.)

The Conservatives are traditional, they are creatures of habit, rather than being responsive and rational. Coalition narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion, including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatizing the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens, and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

Nudge theory has made Tory ideology seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using inane, meaningless acronyms to spell out a pseudoscientific neuroliberalism and to peddle made-up nonsense founded on the whopping, extensive cognitive biases of paternalist libertarians. Most of the nudge unit is comprised of behavioural economists, who are basically peddling the kind of techniques of persuasion that were usually reserved for the dubious end of the advertising industry. This is not “social psychology”, nor is it in any way related to any legitimate social science discipline. However, the creep of behaviourism into nudge based “interventions” is cause for considerable concern.

This government’s policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date. Nudge is hardly in our “best interests,” then. 

The Coalition aren’t engaging with us democratically, they are simply nudging us into compliance with how they think the UK ought to be. We need to ask, in a democracy, where do behavioural economists, policymakers and Tories gain the moral authority to manipulate people’s behaviour? Governments ought to be about supporting people in realising their aspirations, not about changing those aspirations so that they correspond to the worldview of the “choice architects.”

Nudge application: irrationality and ideological justification

Here’s a recent example of choice architecture being “rearranged.” Iain Duncan Smith said recently that limiting child benefit to the first two children in a family is well worth considering and could save a significant amount of money. The idea is being examined by the Conservatives, despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street because of fears that it could alienate parents. Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said:

“I think it’s well worth looking at,” he said. “It’s something if we decide to do it we’ll announce out. But it does save significant money and also it helps behavioural change.”

Firstly, this is a clear indication of the Tories’ underpinning eugenicist designs – exercising control over the reproduction of the poor, albeit by stealth. It also reflects the underpinning belief that poverty somehow arises because of faulty individual choices, (as opposed to faulty political decision-making and ideologically driven socioeconomic policies), that those choices are non-rational, stereotypical, and that reducing cost to the State involves making people change their faulty, stereotypical behaviours.

Secondly, the very casual use of the phrase behavioural change is an indication of just how influential  the Behavioural Insights Team (Cameron’s pet project, the Nudge Unit) has become in Tory policy-making and justification narratives. The new “behavioural theories” are all-pervasive.

On the Institute for Government website, the section called MINDSPACE Behavioural Economics  mentions “behaviour change theory” and “influencing behaviour through public policy.” A lot. But surely, in democracies, public policies are supposed to reflect and serve identified public needs, rather than being about the public meeting specific policy outcomes and government needs.

And how many of us have consented to allow this government to experiment on us via policy with what is, after all, simply a set of pet theories? And that’s what nudge theory applications via policy amounts to.

Again, the Nudge Unit simply reflects a pseudoscientific platform for extension of the government’s ideological reach, reflecting and legitimizing Tory dogmas, such as minarchism (small state, reduced or no public services and support). It’s aim is to persuade the public, using an old and discredited theory – behaviourism – that austerity, cuts to welfare and a massive reduction and mass privatisation of our remaining public services are the only option we have.

From the Mindspace site: “New insights from science and behaviour change could lead to significantly improved outcomes, and at a lower cost, than the way many conventional policy tools are used.”

The welfare “reforms” were hailed by the Conservatives as a system of help and incentives – to “nudge” people into changing their behaviour so that they try harder to find work – but they are in fact eroding people’s motivation. In other words, the reforms have deincentivised and hindered people looking for employment, achieving the very opposite to the intent claimed by the  Conservative-led Coalition. 

But given that the “reforms” are extremely punitive – cutting people’s lifeline benefits at a time when the cost of living is rocketing, unemployment and underemployment is high, jobs are insecure, wages are at an all time low, and at the time of the reforms bill being drafted and passed through parliament (it was very opposed by many, including the House of Lords – but it was forced through into law only because Cameron invoked “financial privilege”), we were in a deep recession – it’s inconceivable that the Coalition didn’t realise that the “reforms” would push people into utter desperation.

How can anyone claim that forcing people to struggle to meet basic survival needs “incentivises” or helps people into finding almost non-existent work that actually pays sufficiently to meet the cost of living? It’s impossible for people to be motivated to do anything but survive when they can’t meet their most fundamental needs. (See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Sanctions are used – involving the complete removal of lifeline benefits for periods of up to 3 years – when jobseekers “don’t try hard enough” to find work. However, the existence of sanction targets in job centres  indicates clearly that sanctions are being used by the government simply to remove people’s benefits and reduce the numbers of people registered as unemployed. 

Gathered evidence shows that the sanctions are rarely connected to the actual behaviours of people who are looking for work. People are being punished for simply being poor, vulnerable and claiming benefits. The recent Just about Surviving report, for example, describes a culture of fear, especially among those with serious disability or illness, who were unable to work and so felt powerless to escape or offset the financial losses causes by welfare cuts. 

Disabled people are also sanctioned, despite being deemed unfit for work by Doctors and by Atos. The report says: The sheer scale and speed of the cuts to State support left interviewees with “almost no flexibility to live with any comfort”. It meant some of those interviewed were: “Barely surviving.”

Most people who were interviewed told researchers they both wanted to work and saw benefit in working. The report calls on ministers to provide more help in getting people into work, and criticises the “lack of compassion” in the implementation of the reforms.

It is probable that the Department for Work and Pensions will dismiss the findings of the report as “anecdotal,” drawing attention to the small size and geographical reach of the research and suggest that it is not a representative analysis. But the researchers quite rightly point out: “In the absence of an official cumulative impact assessment, this report makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the impacts of the Coalition’s welfare reforms”.

 

I believe there are very good reasons to employ qualitative methodology, not least, to counter the Tory preference for the quantitative, where human experience is excluded, lives are reduced in worth by referring to accounts of them as merely “anecdotal”, social groups are marginalised, dehumanised and re-defined as Others,  and the Tory statistical justificationisms – a dressed-up, dogmatic pseudopositivismend up earning them yet another toothless rebuke from Andrew Dilnot.

I’ve said elsewhere that the Tories certainly have a problem confronting human needs as well as observing and upholding concomitant human rights. It’s almost as if they assume there is an ideal, unidimensional, default-type citizen that has no needs at all. Conservatives seem to think that a person who is responsible is part of an ideally invisible, non-demanding, compliant public, who simply get on quietly with working hard for Tory corporate sponsors to make rich people profits, whilst accepting insultingly low pay and poor working conditions. If you can’t or won’t do that, then you will be nudged into compliance.

And back into the 19th century. This is not only oppression at a political level – for example, material inequality has grown because of Conservative-led policies that punish the poor and reward the wealthy – people are also being repressed existentially: emotionally, psychologically and cognitively, to ensure conformity to the prevailing elite’s idea of (Social Darwinist) norms and values.

That’s why the bankers and financial institutions that caused the global recession through behaving “irrationally” aren’t included in Cameron’s nudge social conditioning experiment. It’s largely aimed at the poor, curiously enough. Though apparently, the Conservatives believe that the wealthy are incentivised differently from the rest of us: they need rewards of even more money, tax breaks and large bonuses, rather than financial punishments to ensure they are “responsible citizens.”

The Conservatives and a largely complicit media, convey the message that poor people suffer from some sort of character flaw – a poverty of aspiration, a deviance from the decenthard-working norm. That’s untrue, of course: poor people simply suffer from material poverty which steals motivation and aspiration from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival.

However, the Conservatives have decided that in addition to bearing the burden of your poverty, you now have to work at improving your behaviour.

Mind the Mindspace:

A summary of the main influences outlined in the MINDSPACE acronym framework

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All of these basic ideas are being utilised to prop up Conservative ideology, to shape Conservative policies and to justify them; to deploy justification narratives through the mass media, in schools and throughout all of our social institutions.

For example, incentives being linked to the mental “shortcut” of strongly avoiding losses (a “cognitive bias” called loss aversion) shows us precisely where the Tories imported their justification narrative for the welfare cuts and benefit sanctions from. What the government calls incentivising people, by using systematic punishments, translates from Orwellian Doublespeak to “state coercion” in plain language.

“We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves” – norms, committments, affect, ego“behavioural insights”  are manipulations of a neoliberal, paternalist ideological grammar, contributing to Tory rhetoric, lexical semantics and media justification narratives that send both subliminal and less subtle, overt messages about how poor and disabled people ought to behave. And it establishs a “default setting” regarding how the public ought to behave towards poor and disabled people.

The night-watchman who looks the other way from those who need looking out for

This is political micro-management and control, and has nothing to do with alleviating poverty. Nor can this ever be defined as being our “best interests.” There’s an identifiable psychocratic approach embedded in Conservative policies aimed at the poorest. Whilst on the one hand, the Tories ascribe deleterious intrinsic motives to rational behaviours that simply express unmet needs, such as claiming benefit when out of work, and pathologise these by deploying a narrative with subtextual personality disorder labels, such as scrounger, skiver and the resurrected Nazi catch-all category for deemed miscreants: workshy,”  the Tories are not at all interested in your motivations, attitudes, thoughts, hopes and dreams. They are interested only in how your expectations and behaviour fits in with their intent to reduce the State to that of  night-watchman  proportions – one that is only watching out for the privileged and propertied class.

Poor people are not culpable, regarding their predicament. No-one would choose to be poor. They don’t formulate the policies that create rising inequality and poverty: the Tories do. Conservatives are very good at laying out the price of everything, they even go to the trouble of sending out a grossly inaccurate statement to try to persuade the public that their taxes are paying for a projected, shameful, disproportionately costly and wasteful welfare system supporting free riders – a “bad investment” for a mythological, discrete class of taxpayers that needs to be dismantled by a thousand more Tory cuts, but they never once reflect the value and worth of anyone who has been or is going to be destroyed in the wake of their dystopic, Social Darwinist, ideologically driven meddling and propaganda peddling.

And they also fail to mention that although Conservatives are claiming they don’t agree with state interventions, they do an awful lot of those anyway, just to ensure that virtually all of our public wealth is privatised, whilst the debt, risks and pain of this is carried by those people who are the very least able to bear the burden, and actually, the least expensive to society.

The Tory market place harbours no democracy, or sentiment for rights to temper our responsibilities, unless you are rich: everyone else has to content themselves with only responsibilities, the weight of which are inversely proportional to your wealth, of course.

The link between nudge and totalitarianism

As a psychology student, I remember wondering why few psychologists had commented on the political ramifications of B.F. Skinner and behaviourism. After all, he was clearly a totalitarian thinker, and behaviour modification techniques are the delight of authoritarians.

To recap, behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

Skinner and the behaviourists casually removed the person from people. There’s no-one in the “driving seat.” We are being remotely controlled.

Behaviourism was discredited and labelled “pseudoscience” many decades ago, (very memorably by Noam Chomsky, amongst others). Most psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t accept that myriad, complex human behaviours are determined by and reducible to nothing more than an empty stimulus/response relationship; our deeds and words merely a soulless, heartless and mindless cause and effect circuit.

How can behaviourists claim objectivity when they are active participants within the (intersubjective) social environment, sharing the same context that allegedly shapes everyone else’s behaviour? And how does behaviourism itself miraculously transcend the deterministic confines of stimulus-response? If all behaviours are determined, then so are psychological theories.

The Behavioural Insights Team are charlatans that are propping up the policies of an authoritarian government. Hannah Arendt wrote extensively about totalitarian regimes, in particular Nazism and Stalinism. She says that Hitler and Stalin sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the State and furthermore, they sought to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life. This domination tends to happen in stages – incrementally.

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s “Utopian” antidemocratic novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. And all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists.

The insidiousness of “libertarian paternalism” is not only due to a slippery slope from the implicit “non-coercive nudge” to explicitly coercive limits on individual autonomy and liberty.

There is also a problem with the very term, as an example of Orwellian language-use, “libertarian paternalism” renders difficult the ability to conceive of a principled distinction between policy that respects individual autonomy and policy that violates it. But there is a distinction, and the ability to defend our liberty depends on ensuring it is maintained.

Democracy involves governments that shape themselves in response to what people need and want, it’s not about people who reshape their lifestyles in response to what the government wants. Democracy is meant to involve the formulation of a government that reflects and meets public needs.

Under the nudge tyranny, that is turned totally on its head: instead the government is devising more and more ways to put pressure on us to change. We elect governments to represent us, not to manipulate us covertly.

Nudge is actually about bypassing rationality, reason, political accountability and transparency – democratic process, critical debate. The government is substituting those with manipulation, coercion, and an all-pervasive social operant conditioning experiment. The irony is that there is no scope offered with nudging for engaging with rational processes and stimulating critical thinking, in fact nudge bypasses rational and deliberative processes and therefore presents no opportunities whatsoever for people to learn and develop new cognitive skills.

 

The Nudge Unit has been part-privatised, protected from public scrutiny. It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It can sue for libel.

Another application of “behavioural insights”: How to demonise and demoralise jobseekers in one meaningless test. Psychometric tests always tell us more about the designers than about the people who fill them in. And at best, they can only ever indicate that a person is capable of completing a psychometric test. The whole approach of “working” on jobseekers’ “self-esteem” is complete nonsense. It assumes that unemployment is an individual failing that may be fixed at a personal level, rather than a problem of arithmetic where there are fewer jobs than the number of people who want them.

Related

The just world fallacy 

DEFINING FEATURES OF FASCISM AND AUTHORITARIANISM