Behaviour change agendas and the ‘re-scientisation’ of decision-making

Governments have always been interested in shaping people’s behaviour, but under New Labour, we have seen the proliferation of government documentation, think tank reports and cross-departmental seminars on the topic of governing through behaviour change. Soft paternalism can be seen as a key component of this broader governmental agenda.

The academic roots of soft paternalism can be traced to the influence of US-based behavioural economists, neuroscientists and psychologists developing theoretical insights on, and new empirical observations of decision-making.  Ideas from these disciplines have become part of the received lexicon in policy-making circles, and are used in the design of more effective policy instrumentation.

Policy strategists have been particularly interested in how these disciplines have re-thought both culture and nature. First, in exploring the socio-psychological dynamics and ecological, behavioural resources required to achieve cultural change, and secondly, through a radical break with the decision-making models of ‘rational economic man’, being replaced by a human nature which is described as ‘predictably irrational’ (Ariely, 2008).

With the advent of a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, we shall be monitoring developments in the behaviour change agenda with interest.  What will be the key differences between a soft paternalist justification of New Labour’s ‘Active Government’ and its use in realising what Cameron has termed ‘Big Society’?

What practical, political and ethical issues are raised in the interpretation and use of the behavioural sciences by parties across the political spectrum and what are the risks and opportunities posed by the gradual replacement of homo economicus with homo psychologicus?



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