Highlights from Sheffield Salon: Nanny, Nudger or Therapist?

First published in Canvas:  November 10  2013

On Thursday 7th of November, Sheffield Salon, as part of the 2013 Festival of Social Science, hosted “Nanny, Nudger or Therapist” in association with the Economic and Social Research Council at the University of Sheffield.

The event provided a fascinating insight into the growing application of “liberal paternalist” alternatives to the “nanny state” by the government as an attempt to get the public to make better lifestyle choices, and pay our bills on time. A combination of behavioural psychology, sociology and neuroscience, these “nudge” policies are an attempt to reframe policy away from old fashioned big-state control  (shove) toward a subtler framework of reward, inducement and therapeutic support designed by choice architects.

“Nudge theory” is the vogue theory of our times. The government paper Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy suggests that because ‘people are sometimes seemingly irrational and inconsistent in their choices’, governments should shift attention away from ‘facts and information’ and, instead, use ‘nudge’ techniques to ‘change behaviour without changing minds.’ Nudge is also gaining traction in the mental health community, race awareness programmes, and university student health awareness.

Printed are a short collection of highlights from the event, predicated around answering some of the following questions:

1. “Does nudge degrade the fundamental liberal concepts of citizenship and individual moral autonomy by means of subtle manipulation?”

2. “If an elite of experts and policy wonks decide we are too irrational, emotional, inconsistent and lazy to act in our own best interests, might this indicate that the cornerstone of democracy, that society is made up of individuals rational enough to make their own choices, is being eroded?”

Why has nudging and behavior change emerged at this moment?

Rhys Jones: Professor of Geography, University of Aberystwyth

I’m interesting in nudging because of the emphasis that’s placed within behavior change and nudging on changing the environment within which we make decisions, and doing so how we can make the appropriate decision s that are deemed to be in our own self interest.

There has been a growth of new academic understandings of what actually influences the decisions that make people make and how they reach those decisions. These insights have come from behavioral science, from behavioral psychology, and from neuroscience. The emergence of a new kind of science and a new understanding of the human subject has indicated that we might not be the rational being that had been the focus of a lot of economic understanding. Although we retain aspects of rationality, we are in fact predictably irrational, and lurking within each of us there is a Homer Simpson striving to get out – someone who is irrational, present minded, and doesn’t think rationally about the implications of current decisions.

There is a sense that traditional kinds of policies and interventions based on taxation, or  comprehensive information campaigns, haven’t been all that effective. We all eat too much, we all drink too much, we do a lot of things that we shouldn’t do even though we should know better. So there has been an attempt to use the insight that we are predictably irrational as a way of framing policy in a slightly different way. There is a notion that these nudge policies are more effective and cheaper, not based on massive interventions where you roll out new rules and regulations. Instead, they are designed to subtly shape and change the decision making environments that we confront in our day to day lives, and in doing so, in a cost effective manner, we can change the decisions people make for the better.

The one thing I want to stress is that this isn’t a creation of the Coalition government. It’s a way of framing public policy that appeals to all kinds of political parties. In 2004, a policy report entitled “Personal Responsibility and Changing Behavior”[1] was published by the Cabinet Office that laid the groundwork for nudge policies. So it is interesting that it has been used by political parties coming at the idea from different angles. As well as being framed as an ideological way of framing public policy at a national level, it is interesting that it’s been used at local level. A notable example in Wales is the change in the default setting for organ donation from opt in to opt out. Is this due to the fact that we are lazy, or don’t like filling in forms? Maybe. But we certainly don’t want to have to think of a future in which we are dead.

 How does the state want to nudge us and why?

Will Leggett: Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham

There is a strong argument to be made about the specific political and economic context within this has arisen. In particular, there is a strong argument to be made that nudge based interventions are really about patching up the dysfunctions and pathologies of contemporary society at a structural, global, an individual level. A more aggressive argument is based upon the notion that nudging is designed to construct new types of citizens for the further rolling out of particular forms of capitalist economic and social relations.

In terms of structural problems, it’s quite telling which areas strategic behavior interventions have been targeted. They’ve been focused on climate change, and how we recycle; on energy markets, and how consumers can have better value from enabling them to make optimum choices; the banking sector, and how consumers interact with financial services. All of these things can be argued to be dysfunctional in terms of their relationship to the economy and society. We know about human made climate change and its relationship to industrialism and entrenched corporate interests. We know a lot of the failings and corruption of energy markets, which are not something that people tend to imagine as acting as consumers within, but they are now being constructed as consumers.

Social theorists have been talking about the problems as pathologies of an unequal, and very disruptive capitalist economy for over 100 years, and there is nothing new about diagnosing those problems. But the way citizens are being positions and targeted in the face of those problems is changing. Some fully expect us to become heroic choosers of energy products, or that we will become emotionally tough enough to hand the various distorting and fragmentary effects that a very disruptive and ever changing economy might throw up for us. Yet the World Health Organisation have identified mental health being the greatest health challenge of the next twenty years, and a failure to address this will engender an economic and social crisis.

This agenda is bound up with in the contemporary movement by a culture of deep seated individualism. This is partly an ideological effect of a particular neo-liberal political agenda, but also part of a long term trend in modernity towards a more individualised culture. This throws up a tricky paradox. We increasingly demand more choice, and demand more personalised public services, but when the state responds by targeting policy on the individual level of choice architecture, we recoil from it, because that same individualist ethos has created a very strong libertarian and anti-statist culture. This is reflected in the main critical responses to nudge, which tend to have a strongly libertarian character.

I’m not a libertarian myself, though I think that the libertarian critique is very important in defending against state technologies. My doubts about the libertarian technique is the fact that it is always addressed against the state. Why aren’t libertarian critics also pointing against corporations and private practices that have been attempting to shape our preferences since the birth of consumer capitalism. In terms of the state being a nanny, a nudger or a therapist, there is something to commend each option. I don’t see much wrong with the nanny state, where a strong hand is appropriate to change corporate behavior, or even mandate individual behavior where we think that is transparent and socially beneficial.

What are the processes inherent in behavioral change?

Tom Webb: Researcher in Social Psychology, University of Sheffield

What I’d like to do is draw a distinction between two stages involved in making changes to behaviour; the motivational stage and the volitional stage. What are they?

1. Motivational processes are those that lead up to the person making the decision of how to act: You weigh up the pros and cons of an action. You take account of what those people around you are doing. And then you make a decision about what you want to do.

2. Volitional processes are those which represent the translation of intentions into actions. You decide to eat more healthily, and seek out opportunities to do so. You look for products in the supermarkets, and think about how you are going to integrate them into your diet.

How is this relevant to the present debate? My feeling is that it is more legitimate for the government to intervene at the volitional stage. Should the government try and change the way that we think? I’m not sure. Should they try and find ways to adapt the environment to make it easier for us to translate our good intentions into actions. Perhaps so. I’m not agreeing with the Mindscape Report[2] and saying that the government should be allowed to change behaviour without changing minds, which is often associated with nudging, but rather that individuals be allowed to make their own decisions, think about what they want to do, and that the government should make it easier to enact certain decisions once an individual has decided to do them.

One of the classic examples of nudge is the “fly in the urinal” which Amsterdam Schiphol Airport installed to assist men in urinating more accurately. I would argue that accurate urination is a volitional problem and not a motivational problem. Men do not, I believe,  intend to urinate inaccurately. They intend their urine to be captured by the urinal, but they need a little nudge in the right direction in order to achieve this. It’s a volitional problem, and not a motivational one. This is why I think that nudging can be employed to achieve the things that we want to achieve.

 How do governments use psychology to inform behavioural change?

Kathryn Ecclestone: Professor of Education, University of Sheffield

The terrain of behavioural change is very wide, and it’s current manifestation come from a whole swathe of initiatives started by the previous Labour Government, and nudge happens to be the most high profile example. Nudge is high profile because it combines neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics in compelling ways. But if we look across child and family welfare, and the whole history of assessing children with special needs to decide which type of schools they are sent to, behavioural psychology being applied in those areas is not new: it’s been a feature of social policy since the 1920s. This could be applied in subtle ways, and not necessarily as a straightforward requirement.

Neuroscience is interesting because it combines the idea that there are things that we can’t do anything about because they are genetic, with the promise that we can intervene if we do it early enough. This government, building on the work of the previous government, has put ideas about child-parent bonding and attachment right at the heart of proposals of health visitors to do diagnostic, pre-emptive assessments of mothers and babies to see whether bonding behaviour is going to be problematic, and offer interventions to parents who might be worried about attachments. The growing interest of think tanks such as the Young Foundation and Demos in epigenetics to measure the factors that create dysfunctional families and finds ways to take preventative actions. Those might be at the level of aspiration, but they are there.

Therapeutic interventions are mixed. Some believe that we can behave more rationally as long as we are persuaded to understand our own history and our own emotional legacies, and are then allowed to make adjustments. Since 1998, we’ve seen a huge increase in a whole range of therapeutic interventions in schools, universities, in programs for the unemployed, and a range of other services; informed by cognitive behavioural therapy, positive psychology, self help techniques and counselling. In schools and universities; anger management classes, workshops to build emotional literacy, self esteem and resilience, and support for transitions from one environment to another.  A wider example is that of the West Midlands Police, who have trailed psychological interventions to work with young Muslims who they see as vulnerable to radicalisation.

All of these approaches have something in common: that we are pray to subconscious emotions, and that they are shaped early on by different experiences, and that these experiences can leave lasting damages and difficulties. For me, one of the most worrying   ideas that underpins the therapeutic image of behavioural change is the belief that, to a greater or lesser extent that we are all psychologically and emotionally vulnerable. This can be seen in entire sets of policy documents across all areas, and it justifies the idea that we need therapeutic support, and that we can’t manage even quite mundane things in life without it.

 Is nudging necessarily good for us?

Rob Lyons: Associate Editor, Spiked Online

The implication behind the Health of the Nation Report, which was first released by the Conservative Government in 1992, was that the government had produced rational policy goals and that the irrational public needed to be fenced to these goals in one way or another. And nudge appears to be a softly softly approach of this same attitude. This raises a few questions:

1. Would we be better off as a result and who decides what better off means?

2. Do these interventions actually make people better off?

3. What is the proper relationship between government and governed?

It may seem straightforward to say that we should stop smoking, drinking and overeating, because they are bad for your health. We are clearly eating the wrong foods, because we are getting fatter and obesity is reaching crisis levels. With this in mind it is self evident that we should be persuaded at some level or another not to do these things. It seems like a no brainer. Yet this seems a very narrow view of what better off means. Here, longevity is presented as the aim of life, and this seems at odds with our process of living, in which we derive a lot of pleasure from bad habits. The microbiologist Rene Dubos noted in the 1960s: ‘In the words of a wise physician, it is part of the doctor’s function to make it possible for his patients to go on doing the pleasant things that are bad for them – smoking too much, eating and drinking too much – without killing themselves any sooner than is necessary.’

I think that this broadly applies to government as well. These are our choices and we should be free to do them, and when we want the help, we’ll ask for it. Every day we make choices about balancing the present with the future, and balancing pleasure with denial, yet after thousands of years of philosophical debate about this from Plato and Aristotle onwards, somehow its been decided that in fact experts and civil servants in Whitehall are in a position to answer these complex and subtle questions for us. This reflects a very diminished view of human beings, and reflects a certain outlook on society: that there exists an enlightened few,  and then the feckless masses. The public are predictably irrational, lack self control, and simply don’t know what is good for us, and the monomaniac moralists in health campaigns, the big wigs of various Royal Medical Colleges, and civil servants, are all seeing.

The irony is that evidence based behaviour manipulation is often wrong. A proper appreciation of science would lead us to conclude that we should be tentative in drawing conclusions about what is good or bad for us, and a bit of humility when we decide to act would not go amiss. For example, for years, we were told to eat a low fat diet and avoid saturated fat. But increasingly the evidence shows that fat isn’t harmful, and what happened was that fat was replaced by sugar in a lot of products, and as a result of that we got fatter. Drinking is bad for you we’re told, but there is evidence that moderate drinking is good for you.

What has happened is a reversal of the proper relationship between citizen and state. The state should be the servant of the people where required, otherwise it has no place interfering in our lives, as long as what we do does not harm others.  What has accelerated under Labour and the Coalition, is the belief that the state is there to control and intimately regulate our lives. And it manifests itself in curious places. School meals were once given as an emergency welfare provision for very hungry children. Then during the war they became a matter of convenience so they could allow women to work in factories to help with the war effort, and that carried on into subsequent decades. But now, school meals are essentially seem to exist to protect children from their stupid parents, who either don’t feed them, or feed them rubbish. The state believes that it must step in and educate children about food because parents are too stupid.

There appears to have been a shift away from nudge policy in some respects. The EU has just banned flavoured cigarettes, and selling cigarettes in packs of ten. Mexico has just introduced a solar tax, and it appears that people will lobby for one here. The Scottish parliament has voted in favour of minimum pricing for alcohol, and plain packaging for cigarettes. So it looks like the political class have toyed with this sexy way of being able to avoid hard discussions about regulation our lives, has lost a bit of faith in behavioural psychology. I don’t really care how they do it. What I care about is the underlying philosophy behind it; that we need to be control and our behaviour needs to be change. I don’t think that’s true, and I think it’s going to make us less free in the long run.

Written by Chris Olewicz
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