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.
The Government’s “grossly unethical” uses of its “nudge unit” inflated fear among the public during the Covid pandemic, psychologists have said – prompting MPs to launch an investigation into scare adverts.
A group of psychologists have written to Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, warning that a team of civil servants dedicated to “nudging” public behaviour during the pandemic were unaccountable and unethical.
The letter’s 40 professional signatories – led by Dr Gary Sidley, a retired clinical psychologist – said they opposed the use of dramatic adverts, which included slogans such as: “If you go out you can spread it, people will die.”
The collaboration between a major UK broadcaster and the Nudge Unit to promote one of the most controversial policies today is deeply alarming. The report, The Power of TV: Nudging Viewers to Decarbonise their Lifestyles, jointly published by BIT and Sky, shows little regard for the obligation imposed on broadcasters by Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code to maintain “due impartiality” across all their output, particularly when it comes to news and current affairs. It also neglects the requirement that broadcasters expose viewers to a wide range of different views when it comes to “matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy”.
Freddie visits the Austrian capital Vienna on the day that the world’s first lockdown for the unvaccinated was introduced, looking for answers. How do ordinary people feel about a third of their population being put in partial house arrest? How does it feel for the people stuck at home? And how did a liberal democracy come to this in 2021?
A blueprint to change public behaviour to cut carbon emissions, which includes levies on high-carbon food and a reduction in frequent flying, was published alongside the government’s net zero strategy on Tuesday, before being withdrawn within a few hours.
“For instance, even with public criticism being high, many still perceived government approval as the yardstick for safe behaviour during COVID-19 ‘we’re allowed to do this now [so must be safe]…’. This reveals, for many, a deep set reverence for legitimate government authority, regardless of one’s personal political views.”
Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives, p.24
This research looks at UK and OECD government-led behaviour change initiatives over the last 70 years. It identifies 9 principles that can be applied to encourage the behaviour change needed to achieve Net Zero.
The research was carried out by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). It was commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
No evidence that masks reduce viral transmission in real-world settings
Wearing masks is likely to do harm
Masks increase compliance with the ongoing public health tyranny
Masks are dehumanising
Masks perpetuate the elevated levels of fear
The recently-launched Smile Free campaign – of which I’m a part – is campaigning for the removal of mask mandates in the UK, and believes that, in a democratic society, the evidential bar to justify mandating a behaviour should be set very high. The research in support of masks offering protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection falls a long way short of this threshold, and the negative consequences of wearing them are considerable. The decision whether to wear a face covering should be a personal one, not one imposed by Government diktat. All mask mandates must be lifted on June 21 and this most insidious of all the Covid-19 restrictions must never return.
The ‘Unite for Freedom’ anti-lockdown protest in London yesterday was as good-natured and peaceful as the previous anti-lockdown protests I have reported on for spiked. Seeing the sculpture and words was a gladdening moment on a day blessed by sunshine.
…The coverage from major news agencies and outlets told the story of ‘hundreds’ of ‘anti-vaxxers’. ‘Hundreds’ is the downplaying part. It worries me. I was there, and I know it is not true. Do I need to see the news unfold with my own eyes every time in order to fact-check the front pages?
I can’t estimate the numbers because the scale of the crowd was too vast, and moved steadily for many hours through the streets of London. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Presumably the Met Police could estimate if they wanted to. The Guardian at least reported ‘vast numbers of people’. The Press Association declared, ‘Hundreds join anti-vaccination protest in central London’. The comments put that misconception straight.
“When you create a state of confusion, people become ever more reliant on the messaging,” she says. “Instead of feeling confident about making decisions, they end up waiting for instructions from the Government.”
…This week’s chaotic and contradictory advice on travel is all part of the growing use of fear to control the public, she believes – a tactic which has been supercharged by the Covid pandemic.
…Less well known is the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which, according to Dodsworth, “attempts to covertly engineer the thoughts of people” by providing support to bodies seen by the public as “grassroots” organisations.
In one of the most extraordinary documents ever revealed to the British public, the behavioural scientists advising the government said that a substantial number of people did not feel threatened enough by Covid-19 to follow the rules. They advised the government to increase our sense of ‘personal threat’, to scare us into submission.
But why did the government deliberately frighten us, and how has this affected us as individuals and as a country? Who is involved in the decision-making that affects our lives? How are behavioural science and nudge theory being used to subliminally manipulate us? How does the media leverage fear? What are the real risks to our wellbeing?
PSYCHOLOGICAL weapons deployed by the government to ensure lockdown compliance must now be used to coax the public back to normality, experts say.
The covid messages – dubbed Project Fear by critics – included hard hitting ad campaigns and warnings that youngsters could ‘kill Granny’ if they didn’t stick to the rules. Daily death figures and media depictions of overflowing hospitals added to the state of panic, as did advice for people to stay safe by assuming they had the virus. The Indian variant news has also been presented in the most pessimistic manner, it was claimed.
Whether frightening the public was a deliberate – or honest – tactic has become the subject of intense debate, and dozens of psychologists have now accused ministers of using “covert psychological strategies” to manipulate the public’s behaviour.
They believe the Government, acting on the advice of behavioural experts, has emphasised the threat from Covid without putting the risks in sufficient context, leaving the country in “a state of heightened anxiety”.
They also claim that “inflated fear levels will be responsible for the ‘collateral’ deaths of many thousands of people with non-Covid illnesses” who are “too frightened to attend hospital”.
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.
For a commentary on this trial, please see the video embedded below.
This study tests different messages about vaccinating against COVID-19 once the vaccine becomes available. Participants are randomized to 1 of 12 arms, with one control arm and one baseline arm. We will compare the reported willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine at 3 and 6 months of it becoming available between the 10 intervention arms to the 2 control arms.
COVID-19 started registering with most of the British public around late February and early March. Many were concerned but not particularly afraid. Only weeks later people were terrified to leave their homes or go near other human beings. How did such a dramatic shift in public perception happen so quickly?
In early March 2020, The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) produced a document for the UK Government highlighting methods for rolling out new social distancing rules. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the public would comply with the upcoming measures so SAGE outlined a methodology based on known psychological behavioural modification techniques.
SAGE, SPI-B and applied psychology
SAGE is an advisory group to the UK government responsible for making sure decision makers have access to scientific advice. We are told that the advice provided by SAGE does not represent official government policy.
SAGE also relies on expert sub-groups for COVID-19 specific advice. These sub-groups include:
NERVTAG: New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group
SPI-M: Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling
SPI-B: Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours
The identity of individual committee members themselves were initially kept secret, purportedly due to national security. Some names were eventually released, largely due to efforts by UK businessman Simon Dolan and his legal challenge campaign. Nevertheless, two members remain anonymous.
Psychological techniques for behavioural change
The document itself, titled Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures, was drafted by SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group for SAGE.
SPI-B highlighted nine broad ways of achieving behavioural change in the public:
In the document, SPI-B focused on the methods most relevant to their stated goals and set out ten options that were evaluated on six criteria.
The six criteria, under the acronym APEASE, were:
Government persuasion through fear
A key part of SPI-B’s behavioural change strategy that seems to have been adopted was to ‘persuade through fear.’ The Persuasion section of the document states:
A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened.
Clearly, the psychologists felt that, as of late March, the public was still not afraid of COVID-19. It therefore suggested that the government increase the level of fear:
The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.
Appendix B of the document lists ten options that can be used to increase social distancing in the public. Option 2 advises:
Use media to increase sense of personal threat.
In hindsight, this explains the tone of government sponsored social media and physical billboard advertising campaigns that started appearing around April.
SPI-B recommendations to increase personal threat and use hard-hitting emotional messaging are on display with eerie imagery coupled with taglines such as:
“Anyone can get it. Anyone can spread it.“
“Don’t put your friends and family in danger.“
“Stay home for your family. Don’t put their lives in danger.“
“If you go out, you can spread it. People will die.“
The article compared hysterical BBC news headline from the first week of April 2020 with those from 2018, when mortality rates were peaking due to a bad flu season. It found no references to flu or excess mortality on the BBC home page during the 2018 peak. InProportion2 asked, “Do the headlines reflect the gravity of the situations in an equivalent way – or is additional fear being stirred up in 2020?“
Persuasion through shame and approval: Covidiots and heroes
SPI-B psychologists knew that fear on its own would not persuade everyone. Messaging needed to be tailored to take into account different ‘motivational levers.’
Some people will be more persuaded by appeals to play by the rules, some by duty to the community, and some to personal risk.
It therefore suggested using both social approval and disapproval, with compulsion (legislation) as a backup:
Option 6: Use and promote social approval for desired behaviours
Option 7: Consider enacting legislation to compel required behaviours
Option 8: Consider use of social disapproval for failure to comply
We can see the obvious approval-disapproval dialectic with the ‘Heroes and Covidiots’ narrative that soon began to surface in the news. The term ‘Covidiot’ appeared around March with The Economist’s 1843 Magazinedescribing covidiots in this way:
Even in a pandemic, many of us are prone to judge others and find them wanting: the term “covidiot” describes any and every person behaving stupidly or irresponsibly as the epidemic spreads. Sometime in early March the word was born, and, almost as fast as the virus spread, so did instances of covidiotic behaviour.
Although it’s not clear how the term came about, it was quickly adopted in UK mainstream and social media. At the same time, we began seeing praise for heroes who ‘did the right thing’ by complying with the government measures.
The METRO article below shows all three options in play:
Social approval: “These local heroes have been doing amazing things…”
Social disapproval:“Lake District closed…because covidiots won’t stay away…”
Compulsion: “Matt Hancock threatens to close beaches…”
An incentivised media
These psychological techniques would have been impossible to deploy on the public without a compliant media. How did the government convince the media to go along with the plan?
…the government is spending more than usual, judging by their bookings. The publishers also pointed out that the lack of activity from other advertisers in the current market means the government campaigns will have an outweighed share of voice compared with normal times.
During that period, the British public started seeing coverage across media outlets with the unified “In this together” messaging. O’Reilly pointed out that the campaign was worth £35 million over a three month period.
Last week, the government and newspaper industry launched a three-month advertising partnership dubbed “All in, all together.” The campaign — worth approximately £35 million ($44 million) for the full course, according to sources — kicked off on Apr. 17, with all the U.K.’s national and regional daily news brands running near-identical cover wraps and homepage takeovers, which carried the copy, “Stay at home for the NHS, your family, your neighbours, your nation the world and life itself.”
So, we ask again: how did the government convince the media to go along with the plan? The answer is simple and obvious: with lots of money.
Psychological techniques to change behaviour
We can see that the UK Government has a public document outlining psychological techniques to change the behaviour of the population. We see a unified mass-media campaign that falls in line with these techniques. We then see a dramatic shift in public perception and behaviour.
What else can we call this but ‘brainwashing’?
Despite the open nature of what has transpired, it seems to have gained little coverage in the media. This is of no surprise since it was clearly complicit in spreading fear in the public.
Campaign, the world’s leading business media brand for the marketing and advertising, reported that the UK government spent more than £184m on Covid communications in 2020.
It has emerged that German politicians, scientists and public health bureaucrats have also collaborated to induce panic to justify the first German lockdown. The source material is in German but a Twitter thread explaining the leaks in English has been archived. We will update here if an English source becomes available.
Researcher Ian Davis reports about the ties between the UK Government and Omnicom, the New York-based corporate communications company the behind the phrases “flatten the curve”, “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”, “rule of six” and “look into my eyes” campaigns. The UK Government has awarded Omnicom with £1.6 billion in media buy-in contracts since 2018.
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