Wiki-Glossary: (Re)Defining the Rational

This latest entry into our Wiki-Glossary is the product of the problematic encounters we regularly have with the notion of the rational. In behaviour change circles the notion of the rational is a consistent topic of debate and a key policy goal. Our sense, however, is that as a term it is at best shrouded in misunderstanding, and at worst co-opted to serve particular moral ends. Here is our humble attempt to redefine what we might mean by the rational. If you disagree with this vision let us know, the point of this Wiki-Glossary is to build shared understandings of key terms like this.

Rational adjective. Pertaining to the application of reason. In general parlance, the term rational is used to denote a normative (moral) position (compared to “morally dubious” irrational actions), and also to specify a more specific set of behavioural practices. In terms of behavioural practices, the rational has come to be associated with processes of measured deliberation and reflection on the likely outcomes of certain courses of actions. In more narrow economic terms, rational actions are associated with those in which personal utility and self-interest are prioritised. In moral terms, rational action is often deemed as good because it militates against emotional responses to situations (expressed in terms of fear, anger, pleasure and joy), and the associated forms of arbitrary, and the potentially damaging, actions that can ensue.
Putting these conventional, and quite specific, understandings of the rational to one side, it is perhaps best to think of rational actions as forms of behaviour for which we can give a reason (the “application of reason” is then understood not as a set of logical procedures, but as the ability to actually give a reason for action). Understood on these terms, rational decision-making is disconnected from its moral association with deliberative self-interest, and can be seen as any form of action that is connected to a conscious prompt. Conscious prompts can, of course be the product of reflection, calculation, and attempts to secure personal interests, but they can also be the result of emotional responses (including empathy, care for others, and a felt sense of the situation). Understanding the rational in this way has two primary advantages. First, it means that the rational need not be associated with a narrow, and potentially divisive, economic understanding of human motivation. Second, it enables us to recognize that humans have the capacity for great emotional intelligence, which is often produced at the interface of deliberation, gut reactions, and the negotiation of a variety of everyday situations.

Tax Retruns and Inner Peace


The UK Goverment’s HM Revenue and Customs are currently running a new marketing camapaign. The campaign has been designed to promote the timely completion of self-assessment tax returns and payments. What is interesting about the campaign is that in addition to emphazing the rational threat of the £100 fine that faces those who are late filing their tax, it also reflects upon the “inner peace” that is to be gained from the completion of the tax return process. According to HMRC, ‘The campaign has been developed to touch on the emotions that HMRC found people typically experience after they have filled in their tax return, often described as a real sense of relief or peace of mind – like a weight being lifted from their shoulders’.

This “inner peace campaign” is one of series of attempts that is being made by HMRC to use the insights of the new behavioural sciences to secure the collection of tax revenue. The UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team has previously worked with HMRC to trial the use of tax repayment letters that emphasize the social norm of tax arrears payment (see: What is, of course, novel about this campaign is its use of a more meditative message of the deeper forms of happinness that follow the self assessment tax process. The campign is smart to the extent that it seeks to address the tendency of people to procrastinate when facing a complex and potentially expensive tax return process, by offering the hope of a happier future when all the paperwork has been completed. It is to be hoped that the broader insights that meditative practice can offer with regard to the nature and regulation of human behaviour are also realized and utilized within government sponsored behavioural initiatives.



New research projects funded, and new blogs…

We are delighted that our ongoing research on behaviour change has been funded by the ESRC, with 2 new projects beginning this Autumn.

The first is a Transforming Social Science award held by Mark Whitehead at Aberystwyth University. The project, ‘Negotiating Neuroliberalism’ is an examination of the internationalisation of the ‘behaviour change agenda’ in public policy which potentially re-shapes neoliberal social policies according to insights in the neurosciences and advanced in psychological techniques of governing.

negotiating neuroliberalism blogThere is a new blog for this project at:

The second is an ESRC Seminar Series on Behaviour Change and Psychological Governance, which is 6 seminars and a postgraduate summer school in which participants will discuss how our cultural ideas about the brain, mind, behaviour and self are changing.

psych-governance blog screenshotMore information can be found at:

Bio-social Methods Workshop Commentary and Presentations

IAS imageBio-Social Methods for a Vitalist Social Science

Institute of Advanced Studies Workshop, University of Birmingham

16th July 2013

workshop commentary written by Dr Bryony Enright is available here (PDF).

Some interesting quotes on the concept of the bio-social can be found here (Powerpoint).

Presentations and audio recordings of presentations will be added as available below:

Helen Cobain @flikrNudging Into Subjectification (Powerpoint)

Dr John Cromby, Loughborough University (AUDIO)



hinchliffe porosity vitality contagionPorosity, Virality and the Study of Contagion (Prezi Presentation)

Professor Steve Hinchliffe, University of Exeter (AUDIO)


callard and fitzgerald experimentalExperimental Entanglements in Cognitive Neuroscience (LINK)

Dr Felicity Callard, Durham University and Dr Des Fitzgerald, Aarhus University


Fishin widow @flikr Nanny, Nudger or Therapist? Therapeutic Approaches to Behaviour Change in an age of ‘Vulnerability’

Professor Kathryn Ecclestone, University of Sheffield (AUDIO)


Using Mindfulness Training in Pro-environmental Behaviour Change (Powerpoint)

Rachel Lilley, Aberystwyth University (AUDIO)


peter stevenson @fllikrWhat is Impact? Producing Modest and Vulnerable Knowledge

Dr Megan Clinch, The Open University



Hammersley_drugs_Waleed Alzuhair flikrNudge Meets RCT: Evidence-based Manipulation for the Public Good? (POWERPOINT)

Professor Martyn Hammersley, The Open University (AUDIO)


speech bubble

Closing Remarks

Dr Jessica Pykett, University of Birmingham (AUDIO)


Workshop: Bio-Social Methods for a Vitalist Social Science

A workshop to be held at the University of Birmingham, to consider the potential for integrating critical and applied approaches contemporary ‘bio-social’ challenges.  16th July 2013 [9.00am-4:30pm]

If you are interested in attending, please contact Sarah Myring [].


9.00am Tea/coffee and register                                                                       
9.30am Welcome and Introduction

Dr Jessica Pykett, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

9.45am Nudging Into Subjectification

Dr John Cromby, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University

Psychological research methods are ubiquitous in relation to the behaviour change agenda, because large parts of the evidence that behaviour change strategies rely upon is generated using them. Such methods make various assumptions – for example about cognition, affect and meaning, the putative distinctions between them, their interlocking dynamics, and the ways in which they can therefore be made visible for research purposes. At the same time, some methods have considerable potential to act back upon those who encounter them: they can function as ‘technologies of the self’ capable of inculcating modes of subjectivity consonant with the neoliberal ideology that the behaviour change agenda reproduces. In this talk I will consider these issues with respect to the recently-publicised initiative to compel UK benefits claimants to undergo psychometric personality testing.

John Cromby is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University,  whose research interests relate to the character of experience; in particular, the way that experience is jointly constituted at the intersection of social influence and the body.

10.30am Porosity, Virality and the Study of Contagion – some notes on biosocial sciences

Professor Steve Hinchliffe, Geography, University of Exeter

In recent years, a correspondence has emerged from two quite separate fields – neurology and, for wont of a better term, more than human social sciences.  The correspondence is along these lines – we are beginning to understand how little of our thinking, reasoning, emotions or even our cells are ‘ours’.   From micro biomes to somnambulant subjectivities, ‘we’ are, it seems, porous selves.

This paper uses recent and soon to start work on contagion as a means to open up conceptual and methodological debates on bio-social science.  It starts in a chicken shed and ends in social media, but the questions are the same.  How do things spread, or better, how can we access the bio-social atmospheres that are the very conditions for contagion?

Steve Hinchliffe is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Exeter. He works on the geographies of nature, non-humans and environments.  His current work focuses on the geographies of contagion and disease, investigating scientific, agricultural and institutional approaches to securing life in the face of emerging infections, neglected endemics and food borne disease. The work uses multi-species ethnographies and spatial theory to explore the insecurities generated by conventional approaches to biosecurity.

11.15am TEA/COFFEE
11.45am Experimental Entanglements in Cognitive Neuroscience

Dr Felicity Callard, Social Science for Medical Humanities, Durham University and Dr Des Fitzgerald, Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University


In this presentation, we briefly outline some of the methodological, conceptual and empirical research that we have been pursuing since 2011 under the rubric of “Experimental entanglements in cognitive neuroscience”. The phrase “experimental entanglements” signals our desire to move beyond dialogical or interactive models of engagement between neuroscientists, social scientists and humanities researchers. Entanglement points, instead, to a muddier process in which practices of experimentation attend to how shared concepts and questions from these different fields emerge from complex and overlapping disciplinary histories, perspectives and modes of practice.

In our current historical moment, it is increasingly hard to talk about social, cultural, and political ‘lives,’ in isolation from the biological and neurological possibilities that inflect and texture those lives. But if there is growing interest in apprehending these exchanges, still no new paradigm, including the bio-psycho-social, has successfully conjured the entangled relations that constitute them. Simultaneously, the most sophisticated conceptual engagements with them have failed to achieve purchase outside rarefied theoretical spaces. We wager that a more committedly experimental exploration of this interdisciplinary space might reinvigorate the methods and epistemologies of both the ‘social’ and the ‘biological’ sciences. The articulation of this interdisciplinary domain depends, we argue, not on more convincing theoretical accounts, but in a much deeper entanglement of those accounts with emerging spaces of biological experiment and demonstration. Drawing on empirical examples, our presentation unfolds the implications of such a claim.

Dr Felicity Callard is Senior Lecturer in Social Science for Medical Humanities at Durham University. She has broad research interests in the history and present of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and cognitive neuroscience. Dr Des Fitzgerald is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Interacting Minds Centre, at Aarhus University. His research interests are in sociologies of neuroscience and the autism spectrum, and in the emergence of ‘interdisciplinary’ knowledges.

12.30pm LUNCH
1.30pm Nanny, Nudger or Therapist?: Therapeutic Approaches to Behaviour Change in an age of ‘Vulnerability’

Professor Kathryn Ecclestone, School of Education, University of Sheffield

The much-touted phrase ‘from nanny to nudge’ implies new forms of governance and images of human subjects targeted for intervention across a growing range of social policy areas. Yet the sophisticated alliances between emotional psychology, neuroscience, behavioural and social psychology emerging from these developments suggest that the state as ‘nanny’ or ‘nudger’ is only part of the story.  An overlooked dimension is the powerful intertwining of therapeutic ideas, assumptions and practices reflected in a 15-year rise of therapeutically-informed interventions throughout mainstream education, and the permeation of ‘therapeutic culture’ in everyday life, politics and popular culture.

In Britain, America, Australia and Finland, an ad hoc, eclectic range of interventions that aim to develop mindsets, attitudes and behaviours associated with ‘emotional well-being’, and a huge expansion of state-sponsored lay experts competing to offer effective therapeutic approaches are predicated on a consensus about a crisis of psycho-emotional vulnerability and mental health.  The legitimization of the state as ‘therapist’ raises questions about whether new forms of subjectivity and agency refracted through images of vulnerability are educationally and politically progressive.

Kathryn is Professor of Education at Sheffield University. Her research explores the political and cultural rise of ‘therapeutic culture’ in growing numbers of countries, reflected in the therapisation of policy and practice around interventions for ‘emotional well-being’ and ‘resilience’ across social policy, including education and family interventions.

Using Mindfulness Training in Pro-environmental Behaviour Change

Rachel Lilley, Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University

Mindfulness practice is increasingly being used in mental health contexts, schools and as an alternative approach to ‘top down’ behaviour change theories.  This paper reports on primary action-based research on mindfulness training (based on a Buddhist Meditation Technique) in the sphere of pro-environmental behaviour, particularly relating to Climate Change.  The rationale for using mindfulness in public policy has been variously couched in terms of neuroscientific evidence, the science of positive psychology, cognitive developmental theories, behavioural trials and ancient wisdom relating to the mind. In this research, two research methods were combined to consider the outcomes of a long term and a short term practice of mindfulness and the views of long term mindfulness practitioners and activists working in climate change.  By becoming conscious of their mental patterning, both long and shorter term mindfulness practitioners are able to consider different ‘out of habit’ choices to support their wellbeing and their desire to live according to their deepest values which generally include pro-environmental values. One strong emergent theme from the research was the potential of mindfulness to cultivate the intrinsic value of compassion. This was seen to support the development of wellbeing, a feeling of a greater sense of connectedness to others and to the wider world, and a consequent desire to act more pro-socially/pro-environmentally.   The research outcomes are currently being used to develop training programmes in the application of behaviour change and mindfulness in leadership and social change. Clients include the New Economics Foundation, WWF and Powys based social enterprise Cwm Harry. She is based in Mid-Wales.

Rachel Lilley (BA Hons, PGCE, BWY dip, MPhil) initially trained as a journalist and has spent the last 20 years working with NGOs in social change. She is a consultant, lecturer, facilitator, coach and project manager and more recently, researcher with Aberystwyth University. She also has 15 years experience as a yoga and meditation teacher. She also currently works for Ymlaen Ceredigion applying behaviour change to their work in sustainability in the community.

2.45pm Tea/coffee
3.15pm What is Impact? Producing Modest and Vulnerable KnowledgeDr Megan Clinch, The Open UniversityIn recent years there has been an emergence of array public health interventions that aim to act on the multiple behavioural, organisational, biomedical and social determinates, that are now thought to constitute health and disease. One aspect of this trend is the integration social scientific approaches, in particular qualitative research methods, into the design and evaluation of interventions. However, in spite of such interdisciplinary research, the evidentiary standards through which such interventions are assessed remain wedded to the logic of the Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT). In particular, the principle of observing and measuring the effects of a discrete ‘active ingredient’ in order to make definitive and unyielding claims. As a consequence, such endeavours tend to produce limited accounts of the very phenomena they are trying to capture.  In the conclusion to the paper, the results of this form of interdisciplinary research will be reflected on in terms of the type of impact that social scientific research concerned with health, disease and illness, is increasingly expected to demonstrate. Subsequently, it will be suggested that social scientists engaged in such work need to develop an alternative approach to impact, and in particular, a set of evidentiary standards that can communicate the value of producing knowledge that is both modest and vulnerable.

Megan has a background in Social Anthropology and completed my PhD at the LSE in 2010. Since then, she has worked at the Institute of Public Health at the University of Cambridge and undertaken a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellowship at The Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies at the University of Copenhagen. She is currently developing research which explores how the concept of liminality can enhance social scientific understandings of situations characterised by multiple forms of uncertainty and indeterminacy.

Nudge Meets RCT: Evidence-based Manipulation for the Public Good?

Professor Martyn Hammersley, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, The Open University

I will examine the document Test, Learn, Adapt, produced in 2012 by the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK Cabinet Office (often referred to as ‘The Nudge Unit’). This advocates the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for the selection and development of government policies, with an emphasis on those designed to operate via the ‘nudge principle’. My focus, for the most part, will be on the excessive claims this document makes for the capacity of RCTs to assess the quality of policies. But I will go on to consider some of the assumptions about the relationship between policies and human behaviour that the document makes; and the way in which these operate as a subtext, positioning both policymakers and the people who are the targets of their policies.

Martyn is Professor of Educational and Social Research at the Open University. His early research was in the sociology of education. Later work has been concerned with the methodological issues surrounding social and educational enquiry. These include objectivity, partisanship and bias; and the role of research in relation to policymaking and practice. 

4.30pm Close

Changing Behaviours book published

We have just published a book on this research which charts the emergence of the behaviour change agenda in UK based public policy making since the late 1990s.

Changing Behaviours

Changing Behaviours

On the Rise of the Psychological State

Rhys Jones, Jessica Pykett and Mark Whitehead

(Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham)

Copies available here.

‘This groundbreaking book provides a meticulously-researched history of the rise of a new state that aims to govern people by changing their behaviour through influencing (or at least claiming to influence) their psyche. With examples from finance, transport, health and environment, it also illustrates the struggles of citizens who fight against this new agenda of government. The book shows how deeply the psyche has become a different site of power and hence a different object of knowledge over the last two or three decades.’
– Engin Isin, the Open University, UK

Contents: Preface 1. Changing Behaviours and ‘New Models of Man’ 2. The Rise of the Psychological State in the UK 3. In the Heat of the Moment: Gambling and Saving Behaviours 4. Replanning the Street: Changing Behaviours by Spatial Design 5. Governing the Body: Addressing the Temptations of Food and Alcohol 6. Greening the Brain: The Pro-Environmental Behaviour Change Agenda Conclusion: Nudge, Think, Steer, Punch! Searching for the Real Third Way References Index

Further information
By tracing the influence of the behavioural sciences on Whitehall policy makers, the authors explore a new psychological orthodoxy in the practices of governing. Drawing on original empirical material, chapters examine the impact of behaviour change policies in the fields of health, personal finance and the environment. This topical and insightful book analyses how the nature of the human subject itself is re-imagined through behaviour change, and develops an analytical framework for evaluating the ethics, efficacy and potential empowerment of behaviour change.

This unique book will be of interest to advanced undergraduates, postgraduates and academics in a range of different disciplines. In particular, its inter-disciplinary focus on key themes in the social sciences – the state, citizenship, the meaning and scope of government – will make it essential reading for students of political science, sociology, anthropology, geography, policy studies and public administration. In addition, the book’s focus on the practical use of psychological and behavioural insights by politicians and policy makers should lead to considerable interest in psychology and behavioural economics.

Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of the Psychological State will be published by Edward Elgar in 2013

Photo: Trodel, Creative Commons 2.0

A significant but, for many people, imperceptible force has been quietly reshaping the operational logics of many states since the turn of millennium. This largely intellectual force has centred on nothing less than the nature of the human subject, the relationship between our conscious and sub-conscious selves, and the complex interface between the rational and irrational. This political trend has manifested itself in the increased significance of Behaviour Change policies. 

Our forthcoming book, Changing Behaviours, charts the emergence of Behaviour Change policies in the UK under New Labour and the Coalition Government. By tracing the influence of the behavioural sciences on Whitehall policy makers, it explores a new psychological orthodoxy in the practices of governing. Chapters examine the impact of Behaviour Change policies in the fields of health, personal finance and the environment.  The book analyses how the nature of the human subject itself is re-imagined through Behaviour Change, and develops an analytical framework for evaluating the ethics, efficacy and potential empowerment of Behaviour Change.

Changing Behaviours is based on a three year research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which examined the social, political and ethical significance of Behaviour Change policies in a range of spheres, including gambling and saving behaviours, urban design, school food, alcohol policies and household energy consumption. Through these case studies, we provide original evidence of the potential impact of the behaviour change agenda on different social groups and on wider society, and we discuss in detail how Behaviour Change policies are understood and contested by different individuals and groups.

Our aim in the book is to raise broader questions about the impact of behaviour change on the democratic process, governance and state-citizen relations. By providing a critical analysis of the place of ‘nudge’ policies in a broader political landscape we seek to show how nudge policies re-conceptualize human action, and we trace the intellectual roots of nudge in terms of its links with emerging academic fields of behavioural economics, user-centred (and ‘persuasive’ technological) design principals and, increasingly, neuroscience. We consider questions about the way in which such policies imagine the rationality and political agency of the human subject.  As Human Geographers, we are particularly concerned with unpacking the place of the loose political philosophy of ‘libertarian paternalism’, through which Behaviour Change policies have found political purchase. We therefore situate the Behaviour Change agenda within the history and geography of ‘neoliberalism’. Through its engagement with contemporary social policies and practice, the book also builds on understandings of the politics of ‘neuroliberalism’ – based on governing neurological or psychological subjects.

Finally, we propose a new analytical model through which to develop critical, challenging and supplementary perspectives on Behaviour Change. The book provides a model of ‘efficacy, ethics and empowerment’ to critically evaluate policies which are self-styled to change people’s behaviour. Efficacy calls scholars and practitioners of Behaviour Change to expand and extend effectiveness measures beyond questions of ‘what works’ in favour of wider-reaching questions of democratic legitimacy, long-term sustainability and a fuller understanding of the complex social drivers of ‘sensible’ behaviour. Ethics refers to a need to establish a set of checks and balances on the kinds of psychological, psychographic and geo-demographic power used in the fulfilment of Behaviour Change interventions. We ask, for instance, whether the behavioural agenda itself creates an irrational and risky underclass, echoing previous examples of victim-blaming in public policy. Our third analytical tranche, empowerment, serves to shed light on the potential for Behaviour Change policies to enable citizens to develop the capacity to act in the future, with a key emphasis on the community contexts and social infrastructures required to enable more- than-rational forms of decision-making. In this sense, we question whether the Behaviour Change agenda should be considered incompatible with wider cuts in the funding of civil society organizations, welfare and state institutions.

Throughout the book, a core concern for us in the context of the contemporary challenges facing higher education research in general has been to show the value of a strongly social theoretic approach, countering prevailing trends towards a (re-)turn to behaviouralism with the UK social sciences.