Tag Archives: behaviour

From Neuroknitting to Neurocapitalism

My attention was recently drawn to the Knit a Neuron project at Bristol University established by Anne Cooke and Helen Featherstone.  The project, aimed at public engagement with science, invited participants to craft a brain cell in the rich artistic medium of wool. This turns out to be a larger movement which goes far beyond philosophical wooliness to rethinking the relationship between art and science. (Have a look also at the Art-Science research project being conducted by Aberystwyth colleagues Deborah Dixon, Libby Straughan and Harriet Hawkins.) And just last weekend, there was a ‘cosmic craft’ event at the Science Museum where people collectively experimented with knitting the solar system and geometric shapes.

What has this got to do with soft paternalism, behaviour change, and this here geography-inspired blog, I hear you ask.  Interestingly, a group of geographers (Doreen Jakob, Hayden Lorimer, Kendra Strauss and Nicola Thomas) has recently instigated a novel discussion on the Geographies of Craft and Crafting, which is to be a conference session at the 2011 Association of American Geographers Annual Conference. This exciting session will examine, amongst other things, the re-emergence of craft as a cultural and economic movement; craft, labour and social reproduction; and ‘craftivism’ and the politics of craft and crafting.

Yes, but what has that got to do with soft paternalism and changing cultures of governing? The advent of neural knitting may be just another incarnation of the ‘new neuros’ currently sweeping political, economic, cultural and social explanation.  It will not have escaped your attention that the neurosciences have acquired something of an elite status in contemporary thought – both academic and popular. Neuroscientific expertise is mobilised in all manner of ways, from neuroeducation, neuromarketing to neuroeconomics. And public policymakers are increasingly looking to neuroscientific insights in developing more supple and sophisticated forms of governing which go with the grain of human cognition, as noted in the Cabinet Office/Institute for Government’s 2010 publication, MINDSPACE.  Even human geographers are in on it, with ‘geographers of affect’ readily adopting neural explanations of (pre-)cognition, embodied and emotional rationalities, and economic geographers adopting evolutionary, neurobiological and behavioural revelations in their accounts of – for instance – the global financial crisis, or the location of firms.

My question is whether all these new neuros add up to something called neurocapitalism – one in which the economic orthodoxies of capitalism are re-imagined through the biological certainties of the brain sciences (arguably economic and biological theories have always been closely intertwined). If so, should we be worried about it? Could neurocapitalism produce new neuro-citizens?  Do behaviouralist cultures of governing reinforce economic inequalities by segmenting irrational and rational publics? Are fears (or so-called ‘neurophobias’) of strategies of intervention, manipulation and management of the emotions and decision making justified? If the debate about human consciousness is over (as some prominent neuroscientists would have us believe), then why do we keep on acting as if we are active subjects able to make history, change futures and refuse to submit?

Is neuroknitting a slippery slope…?



A dollar won is twice as sweet as a dollar earned

So said Paul Newman as pool player Fast Eddie Felson in the 1980s movie ‘The Color of Money’. Fast Eddie was referring to playing a game of skill but the truism in there about the sensation of winning, of beating the odds, sums up the allure of gambling.

Gambling, or ‘gaming’ as it has been rebranded, is the ultimate exemplar of an entire industry predicated on the assumptions of behavioural economics.

Gambling is inherently irrational. You choose to gamble to win. Yet the thrill comes with knowing there’s a real chance of losing, that you pit yourself either against other people or ‘lady luck’. Indeed that thrill is at the heart of gambling and the reason many of us do it again and again even when we are losing believing it is just a ‘streak of bad luck’ and ‘bound to change’ at some point (the gamblers fallacy). The pattern of neurological stimulation that gambling engenders can be habit forming, even addictive. There are the rituals and build up to the gambling event, the tension rising as, suddenly, … ‘they’re off!’ … the ball spinning round and round before imperceptibly it begins to roll slower and slower until … the last card is drawn … the die is cast… the share price is fixed … the last scratch on the card made … and the outcome rests in the hands of fate. Will the climax be a flush of elation or the flop of failure? That release when the games outcome is finally known can be intoxicating!

Indeed an entire multibillion dollar gambling industry exists that is based on these most irrational of decisions – you hand over your money to someone else on the promise that if something extremely improbable was to happen, like the roulette ball landing in the number you have chosen and not one of the other 36 it could have done, then you would get more cash back. In terms of ‘nudging’ gambling provides a brilliant example of an industrial choice architecture that encourages people to do something completely irrational and against their own best interests, to seek out risk against the odds in a system designed to ensure the house does not loose. And because gambling has long been considered a potential social vice leading to excessive risk taking, government has also long sought to regulate it (for example in bacchanalian Rome and paternalist Victorian Britain).

These debates have often been bound up with conceptions of competence and class, that some categories of people (for Victorian patricians this was the ‘working classes’) are more prone to giving in to their vices and need protecting from themselves. More recently government has sought to even turn vice into virtue by legitimising some forms of gambling and positively encouraging its conversion to ‘gaming’ (a form of mass entertainment) through directing the profits of gambling to providing social goods through taxation of gambling profits and more recently the National Lottery.

Now behavioural economics suggests ways of interpreting and even explaining people’s gambling behaviours. It points to the way people proportionately discount distant rewards in the future more than those that are nearer (termed hyberbolic discounting). In other words, in making choices we will tend to choose imminent smaller rewards and immediate gratification over greater deferred ones. This ‘shortsighted brain’, as Natasha Schull and Caitlin Zaloom (2011) describes future discounting, sits at the heart of the problems of liberal governance – how do we tackle climate change or personal investment in pensions when we choose behaviours that reward us now, when our supposedly rational brain reaches irrational conclusions? Because in addition to future discounting we also overestimate the probability of winning or have an over confident belief in our skill than is actually the case. If we can impose an illusion of control on our gambling, for example by releasing the dice ourselves or timing the press of the button ‘just right’, we can manufacture a fiction that somehow we are playing the slot machine rather than the machine playing us. We tend to emphasise our victories and small successes and loose sight of the losses. Similarly we believe that some numbers are ‘lucky’, that in playing a game of chance a pattern is present behind the randomness. So we stick to ‘our’ lottery numbers and bet repeatedly on those numbers for fear that if we change them our investment in them will have been wasted.

Significantly the gambling industry knows all this. It is designing ever more sophisticated apparatus to help people spend their money or time; be it in banks of multi-line slot machines, Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, increasing online and mobile means of making ever more diverse types of bet, the development of ‘player tracking systems’ that monitor players’ preferences, play style, wins and losses, spending across gaming platforms and gaming locations, allowing gambling corporations to better target resources to extracting that cash, appealing to massively differentiated gaming markets (social bingo, solitary poker) – and all embedded in immersive real and virtual environments that stimulate and satiate the punter in equal measure. In exchange the punter is entertained. They may experience the thrill of the win, however small it may be, however much rationally they know that the house always wins in the end. Seemingly we are content to pay out £5.7 billion per year* for this neurological stimulation.

So in a real sense the gambling industry has been a laboratory of behavioural economics for decades, indeed millennia. More recently the way in which it operates has leapt into the 21st century the sites of gambling given a makeover, the machines and software mentioned above found in betting shops, bingo halls and increasingly in the living room.  At the same time the logic of behavioural economics is also informing the way policies are developed to limit or ameliorate the potential harm of ‘gambling gone bad’ to individuals and society. In the UK this has mainly been through the practice of self-exclusion, where punters voluntarily exclude themselves from gambling places (real and online) for a fixed period of time to try and get their habit under control. But the gaming industry and regulators have also seen the potential for technology, particularly in the online world, to increase the nudgeability of people to police themselves. For example online industry best practice includes mechanisms for age verification, ‘reality checks’ and the use of ‘defaults’ such as time and deposit limits to ensure gambling remains gaming, reminders that require players to acknowledge how long they have been playing and confirm they wish to continue, and an ability to self-exclude.

Screen Capture 07-11-11

The internet and the rise of ‘social gaming’ has meant not only is ‘real gambling’ now more available in more places, (the development of mobile apps to enable sports betting and mobile casino gaming on the move makes it available in all places at all times), but increasingly people can play risk free ‘simulated gambling’ games at any age. Simulated gambling has long been a means of promoting products; from collecting cards and bottle tops to win prizes in the 20th century to texting a code from a drinks can or getting a Monopoly scratch card on your burger box. While it is tempting to look at online gambling as the most obvious growth market and means for normalising gambling as an everyday social activity if we look around us we see it has become much more pervasive than that. In today’s consumer culture such marketing and social network based gambling really is everywhere, a supplementary tool for increasing sales and promoting brand loyalty, a background habit to our virtual lives. Indeed ‘social gaming’ on websites like Facebook has increasingly tapped into the demand for simulated gambling with games such as Zynga Poker, online ‘slots’ machines, and scratchcards all prominently promoted. These are games you can play for free in a limited manner or use your credit card to purchase additional ‘credits’, where you are not playing to win money but to win more credits or to progress in the game. Quite how that embedding of ‘gambling as gaming’ into the social lives of us all is changing our relationship to gambling and the space-times of our own decision making is surely a question we would do well to begin asking.

* the Gross Gambling Yield of the gambling industry as calculated by the Gambling Commission’s Industry Statistics 2009/10.

Marc Welsh

DIY Streets and Community-Based Nudges

Every now and again you have one of those life affirming days when you realize what life could be like if we lived under slightly different circumstances. I had just one of those days recently when I visited the residents of Beech Croft Road in North Oxford. I was on Beech Croft Road to witness the commencement of a new DIY street project. Initiated by local residents, and inspired and funded through Sustrans’ DIY Streets programme, the Beech Croft Road scheme has two broad goals: 1) to slow down traffic travelling along the road; 2) and to make the road a space that is shared between cars and the local community, and not simply given over to traffic movement functions.

On arrival, as a somewhat awkward stranger of the street, local residents immediately drew me into discussion about what was going on. It was assumed that I was a passing local, but when it emerged that I had travelled from Aberystwyth to see what was happening people seemed please that word of their project had spread so far. The road had been closed for the day to allow for two main activities.

First was the street transformation. The residents were trialling the introduction of a series of street objects that were designed to act as psychological prompts to change driver behaviour. The first of these was a psychological speed bump that was to be painted on the road. Based on an attractive geometric pattern that mirrored the Victorian paving that had been used on several properties of the street, the psychological speed bump took some careful planning by the residents, as they worked all day, and through the heat, to see it to completion. Other objects that were to be introduced included street planters and bike racks, that would be collectively used to break-up the linearity of the road and again slow traffic.

The second main activity of the day was the street party. This brought more residents to the street, partly to cast an eye over the new objects that had appeared on their road, but also to engage in a lively game of egg-flinging, a community barbeque, and to partake of the rapidly constructed cocktail bar.

The DIY Street initiative has been inspired by a series of community movements, planning philosophies and environmental concerns. These movements range from the community-based street reclamations instigated by City Repair in Portland, Oregon, to the “shared space” planning practices of the Dutch engineer Hans Monderman. What they have in common, however, is the realization that for too long our streets and roads have been designed with the dominant aim of facilitating efficient transportation and linear mobility. This process has had the twin effects of fragmenting communities whose only shared public space is a road; and of making roads less safe – as traffic speeds have increased along easy to navigate mono-functional highways.

DIY Streets encourages communities to take back some degree of ownership over their streets. It is not about banning cars, but about making drivers aware that roads have more than one function. Consequently, by introducing psychological speed bumps, street arches, and various local accoutrement, DIY practitioners attempt to de-homogenise roads: to provide them with a sense of territorial distinctiveness which speaks quietly in ear of the driver, saying, “people live on this street, people like me, with children and dogs and social lives, maybe I should slow down and display the same sort of respect for this place as I would show if I was visiting someone’s home.”

As I left Beech Croft Road, passing the signs that read “Road Closed” and “Play Street,” I was struck by an interesting revelation. I had only seen Beech Croft Road as a community space that was closed to traffic. I had assumed that perhaps this was just the type of place were everyone hung out and talked to each other; invited you into their gardens for a cup of tea; pooled their toys so that visiting children could play in the street. But perhaps such forms of community behaviour are just much easier to achieve when our streets slow down and become spaces of shared endeavour.


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?


More lexical nudges, and a clever waste bin

Why would you not recycle?  Fair to say that recycling has become a social norm – we are all expected to take personal responsibility for the future of the planet, and increasingly more of us do.  There are structures and services in place to make this easier – the black boxes provided for our recyclable detritus, can banks, bottle banks, clothes banks. And there are technologies which can help us to re-use our waste, for instance, paper log-makers which can turn waste paper into fuel.   In DEFRA’s (2008) A Framework for Pro-environmental Behaviours, these kind of provisions are summarised in the ‘4 E’s model’: Engage, Exemplify, Encourage, Enable.

But there are even more subtle, lexical nudges going on in the pursuit of pro-environmental behaviour change. This is a waste bin on our university campus. I don’t often go round taking photos of bins, but this one caught my attention.  It ostensibly gives you 3 choices: recycle your food and drink cans, recycle your bottles, or throw your rubbish away.  But the subtle undertone of this linguistically-savvy waste bin (the bin is also bilingual, reading ‘Your World, Your University/ Eich Byd, Eich Prifysgol in Welsh), is that the 3rd option is not marked something like ‘other waste’ but draws attention to where your wasteful, wasted waste will end up: in landfill. Now why would you not recycle in a context in which your choices have been edited in this way?


Social marketing and segmenting publics

The Department of Health’s White Paper, Choosing Health: making healthy choices easier (HMSO, 2004) sets out an agenda for enabling people to make ‘healthy’ decisions – presented as an appropriate route through the extremes of paternalism on the one hand and an unfettered market on the other. Choosing Health can therefore be understood as part of a wider move towards a self-consciously soft form of paternalism in UK public health policy. Public information, encouragement and shaping “the commercial and cultural environment we live in so that it is easier to choose a healthy lifestyle” are some of the means by which the UK Government defines its role in prompting behavioural changes regarding health.

from Department of Health (2008) Healthy Foundations. A segmentation model

This is not simply the promotion of ‘informed choice’, but involves explicit attempts to reconfigure the environment in which people make health-related decisions – whether conscious, habitual or emotionally-driven. The realisation of soft paternalism in health behaviours is enabled by the tools and techniques of segmentation and social marketing, which are used in “creating a demand for health choices”. The relatively new disciplinary area of social marketing (see for example, the Institute for Social Marketing, Stirling) draws on recent psychological and behavioural insights about the socio-cultural nature of the decision-maker, their tendency towards following social norms, their systematic biases, and their fallibility in the face of complex, long-term decision-making. Segmenting involves dividing the public into categories such as ‘discovery teens’, ‘younger settlers’, ‘older jugglers’ or ‘active retirement’. In addition to tailoring messages in this way, social marketing aims to use the ‘4Ps’, known as the marketing mix: product, price, place, promotion in order to achieve a ‘social good’ such as a changing damaging behaviours, breaking bad habits and changing attitudes.

This approach requires new infrastructures of governing. Research centres such as the National Social Marketing Centre (NSMC) deploy the very same tactics themselves in order to ‘socially market’ social marketing (French, 2008; Ambitions for Health, 2009). Corporate sponsorship is mobilised in order to extend the distribution channels for health promotion – for instance, within the ‘5 a day’ or ‘Change4Life’ campaigns. And Social Marketing advisors are now embedded in government departments such as DEFRA and the Department for Health, developing segmented approaches to government policy.

social marketing in UK health policy

Social Marketing is just one of the ways in which libertarian paternalist policies aim to shape decision-making environments. Its growth and potential impact requires sustained interrogation: what are the political implications of differentiating publics using segmentation models – does this create new forms of public value or constrain public solidarity and accountability in public services? Does social marketing constitute new governable subjects, seeking a more consumerist relation to the state and public services? Does this kind of psychological profiling reduce human character to the realm of socio-demographic modelling, limiting the range of alternative identities which can then be taken up? What about the irony that the rampant consumerism created through commercial marketing is now being utilised to counteract some of the problems that it produced? Or as author of VirtualPolitik, Elizabeth Losh, puts it, how can the government be both media-maker and regulator? And perhaps most critically, in transposing corporate methodologies into state practice and policy making itself, do we enjoy a more personalised debate about the delineation of public goods, or is this question sidelined by a concern instead for the differentiation of the public good for segmented publics?


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.