Author Archives: Mark J Whitehead

Behavioural Science Meets Data Science

Changing Behaviours - An ESRC Project

There has been much recent scrutiny of the real-time, real world experiments that Facebook’s has been conducting with its users. Randomised controlled studies conducted by Facebook have identified measurable changes in the “emotional content” of users’ posts according to the amount of negative and positive messages they were strategically exposed to (for more on Facebook’s emotional contagion study click here and here). Meantime, Facebook’s “Voter Megaphone” campaign, which promotes voting by revealing the names and faces of friends who have already cast votes (and was portrted to have increased voter turnout by some 340,000 in the 2010  elections) has generated further controversy. While the promotion of voting appears to be a good use of social media, the fact that the Voter Megaphone project was also part of a study, and was thus only applied to certain users, raised ethical questions about the real world political impacts of this behavioural…

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The Experimental Citizen

Changing Behaviours - An ESRC Project

The Psychological State and the Experimental Subject

In a previous post we considered the ways in which the psychological sciences are reshaping how policy makers understand human subjectivity. The classical view of the human ‘[…] as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic centre of awareness, emotion, judgment and action, organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other wholes […]’ (Clifford Geertz), is being replaced by a much less autonomous vision of human subjectivity. In this new, psychologically-imbued vision of the human subject agency is not only associated with conscious deliberation and action, but also unconscious drivers and contextual prompts. Human subjectivity becomes less Homo Economicus and more Homer Simpson. Putting these broader debates to one side, it is also becoming clear that the rise of the Psychological State is constructing another form of subjectivity: the experimental subject. In this…

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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.



Sticks, stones and lexical nudges

Government campaign, 1943 artist: weimer pursellWe have known for sometime that words have the power to radically change our patterns of behaviour and to potentially cause hurt to our personal lives and circumstances. The rise of commercial advertising during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries illustrated how the strategic deployment of catchphrases and media messaging could radically alter people’s patterns of consumption and brand preferences. The twentieth first century is, however, bearing witness to new forms of governmental intervention within the lexical worlds of advertising and promotion. The state is, of course, no stranger to the use of persuasive words in its own attempts to encourage changes in citizenly behaviour. Numerous public marketing campaigns have used powerful taglines to bring moral weight to governmental desires. Famously, for example, the British government’s fuel efficiency campaign during the Second World War was under-girded by the assertion that to ‘ride [one’s car] alone was to ride with Hitler.’ However, what we are seeing now is not the crude replication of such obvious ideological discourses by states, but an active recognition of the more subtle of enduring powers that reside in syntax. This is a form of lexical power that appears to reside much more in the adjective than the sentence as a whole.

photo by joan thewlis@flikrThe governmental deployment of Lexical nudges operates in two primary ways. First, governments have recently become much more proactive in regulating the adjectives that make unhealthy or financially damaging practices appear to be relatively healthy or benign. In the US, for example, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act proposes inter alia to give the Food and Drug Administration power to control the marketing of tobacco products. In a nod to the persuasive potential of the adjective, it is thought that the FDA will use its new powers to prevent the rather misleading use of “lite” and “mild” qualifiers in naming of cigarette products (Economist, 2009 Vol. 39 no.8636:55).

A second approach to the lexical government of behaviour is suggested within the UK’s Institute of Public Policy Research’s recent report, Warm Words (2006). The IPPR commissioned the Warm Words report in order to provide a comprehensive analysis of the ‘linguistic landscapes’ that are shaping and informing British understandings of, and behaviours towards, climate change abatement. Produced by Gill Ereaut (qualitative research practitioner) and Nat Segnit (novelist and journalist), Warm Words identifies a complex and confusing set of linguistic repertoires used to describe the climate change threat by British newspapers, government departments, businesses and media outlets. Focusing on linguistic codes, routines of language, and tonality, Ereaut and Segnit identify three dominant linguistic representations of climate change in Britain: 1) Alarmism (characterized by ‘quasi-religious language tropes’ and adjectives such as “awful”, “terrible”, and “immense”); 2) Mockery and British Comic Nihilism (identified by the use of ‘blithe’ and ‘whimsical’ language); and 3) Pragmatic Optimism (focusing on the everyday language of ‘small changes’, ‘ease’, ‘convenience’, and ‘effortlessness’) (IPPR, 2006: 7-8). Outlining the confusing and ineffective nature of each language trope in promoting changing public behaviour’s towards climate change, Ereaut and Segnit claim that Britain requires a more shrewd and subtle approach to the linguistic framing of climate change (ibid: 8-9). According to Ereaut and Segnit, the words used to promote the government of climate change in Britain need to tap into a distinctively British linguistic tradition that invokes the ordinary hero of Dunkirk and Live Aid.

In the context of the broader debates that surround the normative potential of libertarian paternalism, it appears that the second approach to lexical nudging carries with it the greatest potential dangers. To control adjectives that are misleading, and potentially promote destructive behaviours, appears to constitute an important part of good government: namely not to deny the opportunity to pursue personal choices, but at the same time ensuring that these choices are not made under false pretences. It is the more comprehensive promotion of effective government-speak suggested in the Warm Words report that is more worrying. Its suggestion that the syntax of climate change government should be grammatically sealed within a psychological appealing narrative appears, in part at least, to be about the lexical closing-off of response options. Ereaut and Segnit admit as much when they assert that the presentation of facts about climate change should disappear from government rhetoric (their presence merely suggesting that the state has something to prove). The most important lesson of Orwell’s 1984 is that the control of language options is directly linked to the ability to determine how to think and choose in different ways. Language, in all of diversity, provides a varied matrix of freedom. Surely the role of the state should be to protect us from a varicious exploitation of lexical forms that lead to personal harm and not to circumscribe the freedom that we can all find in independent expression: win the argument, don’t close it off.


Hidden food and the nanny state in the kitchen

My mother tells a story of her childhood dislike of sprouts and my grandmother’s feeble attempts to disguise them as cabbage through a hastily conducted mashing-up process. Any parent can attest to the various culinary tricks, techniques and fables that routinely have to be deployed in order to encourage/force their children to eat more healthily: I, for example, am still waiting for my improved eye-sight and curly hair as just reward for my assiduous consumption of carrots and crusts!

pizza by wendalicious@flikrBut what was once an exercise in shrewd parental food repackaging is now becoming an arena of corporate action and state policy. On the 12th of May this year (2009) the British Food Standards Agency (FSA), in partnership with a range of popular high street restaurant chains, launched a new scheme for promoting healthy eating among Britain’s young consumers. The FSA’s ‘health through stealth’ approach to eating involves putting less salt in dishes, using lower-fat cheeses in pizza, and inserting ‘hidden vegetables’ in a range of menu options for children (FSA, 2009). Involving 400 companies and in excess of 2,000 restaurants (including Pizza Express, Pizza Hut, Frankie and Benny’s and Bella Italia outlets), the British government sees this new initiative as a significant act in public health improvement.

While the FSA’s ‘health through stealth’ approach to childhood nutrition reflects a broader series of attempts to restructure the ‘choice architectures’ that frame the consumption patterns of young people (including re-thinking school canteen provisions, the re-positioning of alco-pops in bars, and the movement of cigarette packs below the shop counter) there also appears to be something else going on here. Changing the hidden content of food appears to be less about making it easier for young people to choose to eat healthily, and more about making them do so without them realizing it. The choice here is all with the parents, in as much as they can decide to dine at Pizza Hut rather than McDonald’s, or Frankie and Benny’s as opposed to TGI Friday.

As a thoroughly paternalist policy then certain issues arise out of the hidden food agenda. While celebrated by government as a corporate commitment to public health, there is a danger that such policies could be self-defeating. So for example, despite improving the content of the food they offer is eating at Frankie and Benny’s really a healthy option? To what extent is a pizza really a healthy choice? My point is that this scheme could also be interpreted as a stealthy marketing ploy by partner companies to recast their image in the wake of the revolution in organic, slow and nutritious food? (Note for example that this scheme has coincided with the renaming of Pizza Hut as the much more nutritionally appealing Pasta Hut – whatever next, TGI’s becomes Thank God It’s Humus?)

Furthermore this policy initiative could also be counterproductive to the extent that rather than trying to educate children about the benefits of a healthy and balanced diet, it aspires to enable them to eat more healthy food in a completely unconscious way. This is hardly the “recipe” for developing a more culinary aware citizenry (and possibly contradicts the FSA’s own commitment to develop nutritional competencies among young people). While ‘health through stealth’ may not have people rushing for barricades in order to defend the gastronomic liberties of young people, it may thus prove to be an ineffective policy on its owns terms: my mother was never fooled by those sprouts you see, and she has never let us forget how she saw through the attempted dupe!