House of Lords Inquiry: The Ethics of Behaviour Change

What can a geographer tell the House of Lords? This is what I was asking myself on the train to London a couple of weeks ago, when I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in a seminar with the Select Committee on Science and Technology Sub-Committee for their inquiry into behaviour change. The other 12 or so participants included philosophers, bioethicists, a health psychologist, Lords and Baronesses, and the sub-committee staff. Astonishingly, I was the only human geographer. The aim of the seminar was to discuss the ethics of behaviour change. Some of the questions we were asked to consider were:

–          Is the prevention of harm to others the only purpose for which the Government can intervene against an individual’s will? Can the Government ever intervene against the will of the individual to protect that individual himself [sic]?

–          What should count as ‘harm to others’? e.g. harms to society, to the world climate, to future generations?

–          To what extent is it the responsibility of the Government to reduce inequalities as a means of changing behaviour, and by what means are they permitted to do this?

–          What makes a policy intervention coercive and how is this related to the restriction of choice?

What is human behaviour?

Some lengthy and fascinating debates ensued as to whether we can really consider people to be autonomous agents, able to make rational decisions according to their will. One model of human behaviour was put forward, which outlined two kinds of will: the reflective system (of stated preferences) and the impulsive system (of automatic, subconscious responses). Reference was made to the ‘fundamental attribution error’ by which people end up thinking that they are entirely rational – always attributing their will to the reflexive mind. And we discussed the differences between stated preferences and so called ‘real preferences’. We were also reminded of powerful ‘priming’ effects of preference-formation, through advertising or even government-led social marketing. Because of the cognitive overload associated with the complexity of daily life, for instance, even a government advert warning of the harms of drinking will only ‘prime’ people to think of just having a drink. All of this seemed to suggest that humans are fundamentally flawed, presumably justifying behaviour change interventions which intervene against the will of the individual in order to protect themselves from what they really (should?) want.

Norm-formation and the construction of the will

And this is where I started to worry once more about the dominance of behavioural science understandings of the human within this whole agenda for behaviour change, nudging and libertarian paternalism. For isn’t this whole approach aimed at preventing ‘stupid people’ from doing ‘stupid things’? In other words, behaviour change is for the weak-willed, but not for ‘us’? It struck me that whilst behavioural science research is enjoying a renaissance, unrivalled popularity and political kudos, critical social science research is suffering something of a funding crisis at a time when it could never be more necessary.  So for example, whilst the behavioural sciences promise to provide (effective, timely and cost-efficient) solutions to these human flaws, don’t we need strong social scientific, arts and humanities research to help us to understand how we arrive at these particular, partial, and contextual conceptions of the human? Are there not more than two-dimensions to the human will; the production and reproduction of the will itself?  And the problematisation of those (often specific groups to be targeted) deemed to be without will? Rather than obsess about how we can use social norms and networks to change behaviours (as in the example of college students being told that most other college students don’t drink as much as them), should we not be trying to interrogate instead the complex, culturally, geographically and historically-specific processes of norm-formation itself?

Critical geographies of human behaviour

As it turns out then, geographers do have something to say to Lords about behaviour. Primarily that theories, models and explanations of human behaviour, however ‘scientific’ they purport to be, always come with political, ethical, social, cultural and economic baggage. And geographers are famous for trying to tackle all these things at once within a discipline which proclaims to ‘write the world’.  Three limits to behavioural science are worth pointing out:

–          It may be that the reflexive/intuitive model of human behaviour only applies in specific times, spaces or situations, and that even cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists and behavioural economists have no privileged insight into the relationship between (ir)rational decision-making and time-space contexts (see José Bermudez, 2009).

–          Behavioural science cannot tell us what people ‘really’ want, or what we should collectively or individually do or desire.  Nor can it help us to answer the question of whether Governments are responsible for reducing inequalities as one means of changing behaviour. This is political question which surely does require some form of rationalising debate, i.e. the justification of reducing, eliminating or promoting inequality with reasons and with reference to the actual effects of your position on different people’s lives. Of course as a geographer, it is difficult to see how one can defend inequality and absolve Government of responsibility for it, since multiple indices of inequality can be clearly mapped, spatial injustices indentified, and since people have no control (reflexive or impulsive) over where they are born. An appreciation of the situated nature of human behaviour also opens up new questions about how the person itself is socially/geographically constituted, and points to the potential problem of government interventions which seek to shape particular kinds of persons who must then somehow hold that government to account.

–          Nor do scientific models of human behaviour give us any indication to the ethical or political criteria by which any targeted behaviour change interventions can be judged or justified. Part of our discussion covered the thorny issue of coercion, and it was put to the seminar group that many promoters of nudge seek to defend its libertarian credentials by ensuring the criteria of an absence of coercion. But in a stimulating discussion of the relationship and distinctions between coercion, coercive backing, choice and (equal, substantive, unlimited, maximal and non-domination) freedom, we were urged to consider criteria other than simplistic notions of coercion for evaluating the ethics of behaviour change.  It was pointed out that Governments (and others) are in the business of coercing (left, right and centre).  I would agree, and certainly would see the role of Government as an arbiter of competing wills, preferences, choices and ‘freedoms’. So what other criteria should we be considering in the ethical-proofing of these so-called nudges? Degree of consent, opportunities for deliberation, accountability of nudger, degree of possible responsibility (given the contextual limits on choice) – these would be good places to start. But for me, the most important criteria is whether the initiative (and indeed whole behaviour change agenda) gives people the opportunity to further develop their competency to act in the future. I.e. is the nudge educational? No one seems to be too bothered about this question as yet, but it is surely at the heart of governmental interventions in the sphere of human behaviour.

I was pleasantly surprised both to be invited to this seminar, and by the fact that the Sub-Committee saw the ethics of behaviour change as important enough to warrant a seminar. But I remain sceptical as to whether such a seminar will have equal weighting with the evidence sessions hearing from behaviour change practitioners and experts.  It is important to bear in mind that nudge is a means, not an end.  Despite all its scientific credentials and apparently new insights into how we behave, it does not get us any closer to the question of how we should live. And one question thus remains, is there a consultant philosopher in the Nudge Unit?

ref: José Luis Bermùdez (2009) Decision Theory and Rationality. Oxford University Press, Oxford.


3 responses to “House of Lords Inquiry: The Ethics of Behaviour Change

  1. Pingback: Ethics and behaviour change | Pop Theory

  2. Pingback: House of Lords Committee on Behaviour Change (updated) | Consumer Culture in an Age of Anxiety (CONANX)

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention House of Lords Inquiry: The Ethics of Behaviour Change | Soft Paternalism blog --

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