Boris Johnson was secretly ‘nudged’ into wearing a facemask during the pandemic, according to the head of the government’s Behavioural Insights Team.
Published September 2018
The behavioural and social sciences are the future of public health. Evidence from behavioural science suggests that simple and easy ways of helping people to change their behaviour are the most effective. Whether it’s encouraging smokers to quit, increasing uptake of the NHS Health Check, making healthier food choices easier, or reducing the number of inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions, this evidence can help in understanding and therefore influencing behaviour change that promotes health, prevents disease, and reduces health inequalities. We must reach and be meaningful to people in the lives that they are leading.
It is time for the public health system to advance the use of behavioural and social sciences, and for this purpose, PHE’s Behavioural Insights experts, working with many partners, have led the collaborative development of this comprehensive strategy – the first of its kind in the field.
The consequences of this unprecedented state-sanctioned campaign have been visible everywhere: from the old lady in the street, paralysed with fear of contamination from another human, darting into the road to avoid someone walking the other way, to the neighbour donning a face covering and plastic gloves to wheel the dustbin to the end of her drive. These kinds of incidents are the product of an intensive messaging campaign, designed by the government’s behavioural scientists, to ‘nudge’ us into compliance with the Covid-19 restrictions and the subsequent vaccine rollout.
A major contributor to the mass obedience of the British people is likely to have been the activities of government-employed psychologists working as part of the “Behavioural Insights Team” (BIT). The BIT was conceived in 2010 as “the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy”. In collaboration with governments and other stakeholders, the team aspire to use behavioural insights to “improve people’s lives and communities”. Several members of BIT, together with other psychologists, currently sit on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE, which offers advice to the government about how to maximise the impact of its Covid-19 communications.
A comprehensive account of the psychological approaches deployed by BIT is provided by an Institute of Government document titled MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, where it is claimed that these strategies can achieve “low cost, low pain ways of ‘nudging’ citizens … into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act”. Several interventions of this type have been woven into the Covid-19 messaging campaign, including fear (inflating perceived threat levels), shame (conflating compliance with virtue) and peer pressure (portraying non-compliers as a deviant minority) – or “affect”, “ego” and “norms”, to use the language of behavioural science.