Tag Archives: citizenship

The Making of Nudge Theory

How did the word ‘nudge’ get to be its own theory? Is it not simply a suggestion, a physical gesture, something which comes before a wink?

Of course these questions have been posed by numerous commentators since the publication of Nudge in 2008, and all the jokes have been made. But the important question remains: would there indeed have been a Behavioural Insights Team (aka Nudge Unit), a new health behaviours research centre at Cambridge University, a House of Lords Inquiry into Behaviour Change, if the publishers of Nudge had not made the wise commercial suggestion that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein not entitle their best seller ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ as apparently originally conceived.  Would anyone have taken any notice if it had been called something mundane like ‘An introduction to Behavioural Economics’ (with apologies to author Nick Wilkinson for what may well be an excellent book)?

Surely the media love-in with Nudge theory would not have materialised in this case – the ideas being simply ‘too academic’ for our sensitive eyes and ears.

Maybe I am just too obsessed with the elevation of Nudge to truth status, scientific discipline and social panacea, because since 2008 I have been working on a research project examining its politics and ethics. But it does seem hard to turn on the radio these days without somebody (often Evan Davies) heralding yet more novel insights that Nudge offers on the decidedly old problem of understanding  human behaviour.  We must listen to academics extolling the virtues of this novel approach to policy making – which both costs less and promotes human happiness! Not only can it encourage organ donation and more speedy tax-paying, but it can also help people give up smoking, become less obese, save the environment and famously, help men to pee more accurately.

But can Nudge theory really be this versatile and this marvellous?

What is most concerning is that I don’t hear any researchers offering alternative viewpoints on the political value of the Nudge theory. Rather, they seem busy trying to get onto the advisory boards of various Behaviour Change research networks, centres and institutes – perhaps in order to fulfil their duties to serve policy-makers in their research and to secure research ‘impact’ – now a pre-requisite of almost any research funding in an increasingly competitive funding environment.

I am all in favour of communicating research findings beyond a narrow circle of my academic friends, and ensuring that publically-funded research is worthwhile; contributing to the social good. But Nudge theory cannot claim this without interrogation. Nudge theory cannot help us to collectively decide on what that social good is. And its model of human behaviour is entirely reductive, denying any place for political agency, contestation or deliberation.  For that, we need to champion diverse approaches from the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Bunsen Beaker Plug and PlaySo whilst the House of Lords Inquiry recommended the appointment of a Chief Social Scientist, this has since been narrowed in the Government’s response published this week by that very Nudge Unit, who recommend the appointment focus on “Social Scientists within departments on behavioural science”. But behavioural science simply is not the sum total of social science, and the methods, assumptions and theoretical frameworks which make behavioural science count as plausible evidence for policy making are not shared by social scientists as a whole. Behavioural approaches still cannot tell us enough as a society about either the cumulative, long term effect of nudges on populations, specific social groups and the democratic polity, nor about the missteps we are making in terms of narrowing human agency to a set of automated, foolish and irrational psychological responses to various stimuli.

These blind spots were brought home to me when my own efforts to disseminate research to a non-academic audience – a magazine on science topics for Parliamentarians – was met with a disturbingly simplistic disdain for my ‘soft science’, academic jargon and a failure to specify a ‘sample size’. Instead, my unsubstantiated claims were best suited to the ‘mere’ journalism of a Sunday newspaper rather than a prestigious academic tome.

Leaving aside the fact that this soft (read ‘social’) science research was all previously published in international peer-reviewed journals, the incident confirmed the uphill struggle that social scientists beyond the behaviouralist frame have to bear in order to secure the ear of policy makers looking for sample sizes, tested models and cool hard facts that stand in for a wider understanding of the nature of the human condition, and issues of ethics and power in political decision-making.

No wonder then that researchers even from the discipline of political science are now turning to bio-medical methods such as Randomized Control Trials to ‘prove’ their theories, rather than asking the political questions that one might expect of researchers of politics. Who is left to interrogate a Nudge theory which itself explicitly aims to change the very behaviours, attitudes and ‘mindspaces’ of citizens?

So is Nudge theory a mere fabrication of a media-driven enthusiasm for catchy mnemonics, a genuine popular respect for behavioural economics, or is it in fact a political project (the oh-so jargony, “Libertarian Paternalism”) which allows its protagonists to justify all manner of cost-cutting and yet ‘welfare-enhancing’ initiatives? And where is the evidence that reducing the size of government whilst increasing its psychological infrastructures actually improves welfare, and for whom?

No , Nudge theory is not, as the authors claim, a set of policy tools to accomplish the ‘real third way’. It is a forth way: a political project which uses the methods of neoliberal thinking to counter those very excesses engendered by neoliberal culture, and in doing so reframes the flawed citizen as architect of her own self-defeat.

Jessica

 

A body politic – the right to make live and let die

Most political geographers would get the allusion of the title. The first part is to the 17th century world of sovereignty, rights and social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes. For Hobbes peace would be secured when “a multitude of men, united as one person by a common power” choose to covenant their individual power to the ‘body politic’ by relinquishing some of their rights to a sovereign (the right to make war or take life for example) [see Hobbes 1640, Chp XIX, para 8].

The second part references Michel Foucault’s biopower where the claim to legitimacy by ‘the state’ is based on the guarding and fostering of productive life (see Foucault “Society Must Be Defended, Lectures 1975-76”, page 241) and the commensurate extension of state control over the biological. Foucault argued that in modernity man’s existence as biological (in contrast to legal or political) beings becomes the target of state strategies (biopower). He distinguished two forms of biopower: anatomo-politics and biopolitics – the former targeting the individual subject, the human body, the latter targeting man as a collectivity, the population as a body politic.

Donor Card

Concern with life and death of the individual and population comes to the fore in the questions around organ donation, revealing tensions between the body-politic and the politics of the body .

Defaults, organs and the state

Sadly it is statistically likely that three people in the UK died today awaiting a suitable donor.

As Rhys, Jessica and Mark noted in their article “Geographies of Soft Paternalism”, published earlier this year, “organ donation has become an intensive site for soft paternalist policy experimentation […] One classic tool of soft paternalism [that] has been controversially proposed as an ultimate solution to organ donation shortfalls: the re-setting of the organ donation default.” [draft for Geog Compass viewed here]

In the UK this default is based on the notion that the body is gifted, that is it is voluntarily made available for use after death through an act of conscious choice. So we have an opt-in system where people choose to enter their names on an Organ Donor Register. Doing so is simple, via phone, online or at various sites that we all visit such as the doctors surgery. Yet despite the ease and our consistent collective affirmation that organ donation is a good thing and we would like to be an organ donor in reality only about a quarter of us have done it. This coupled with increasing surgical advances, problems of organ compatibility, and the increase in demand (as life style related conditions like diabetes, liver and heart disease continue to rise) has seen year on year repeated headlines about soaring waiting list times.

Switching to a system based on ‘presumed consent’, (where the citizen is entered onto the register and has to opt-out of it) has been debated in the UK for years. It is common in much of Europe and seems to result in higher donor rates but local and cultural factors may be equally significant.

In nudge terminology this is changing the default option, a powerful tool for changing behaviour because the default position is what happens when you have a choice but choose to do nothing. The rationale for the presumed consent default is that numerous surveys show wide public support and a willingness to be entered on the register of organ donors but that that support is not reflected in the number who actually make the effort to place themselves on it. Why this is the case is varied, with the failure to follow through on stated preferences ranging from irrationality and insecurity – that doctors will not work as hard to save a patient, or an aversion to thinking about ones own death – to simple inertia – people are not motivated enough to enact their preferences by seeking out a means of entering their name on the donor register

But messing with the body, or more precisely the corpse, is a provocative act that turns the body into a site of contestation between state and citizen. In particular some argue that subtle changes in the default position like this reflects the over-reaching of the state and people’s loss of control over their own bodies following death. Indeed in the absence of actual consent the autonomy of the individual, the patient, is undermined. As such changing the default for organ donation raises fundamental questions about legitimate state action and personal freedom.

One of these was pointedly raised by the Archbishop of Wales in his Presidential Address to the Governing Body of the Church in Wales last month when he argued:

Archbishop Barry Morgan

There is, in presumed consent, a subtle or perhaps not so subtle change of emphasis in the relationship between the individual and the State.  That is, that unless we have opted out, our organs belong to the State and the State has the right to do with them as it wills.”

His comments, which echo those of a number of other faith leaders, came following the announcement by Health Minister Lesley Griffiths last month that Wales would introduce what they call a “soft opt-out” system (a White Paper outlining the proposals is imminent). This presumes consent unless the deceased has stated a contrary view or the family object.

This stands in contrast to the Coalition Government policy which has opted for Richard Thaler’s archetypal nudge of using ‘prompted choice’ to encourage organ donation. When you register online for a new drivers licence, you are required to complete a question about organ donation. The freedom of choice remains absolute (you can answer : yes, no or “not yet”) except in so far as the citizen is required to express a choice about organ donation in order to continue with their online driving licence application

In other parts of the world experiments with incentivisation schemes are being tested. For example, Israel and Singapore are experimenting with a ‘priority allocation’ system where those already on the organ donors register are given priority on the waiting list should they need a transplant. In similar vein the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recently suggested the state might pay the funeral expenses of the deceased who donate their organs (and rejected changing the default to an opt-out scheme).  Spain, which has the highest rate of organ donation in the world (nearly 3 times that of the UK), also has a soft opt-out system. But a key factor in its effectiveness seems to be an emphasis on “procurement” with specially trained hospital staff who will always approach relatives of the deceased to ask about donation.

The body-politic is a complex beast. Changing the default is not necessarily a panacea in itself, indeed it is far to simplistic to look at a nudge policy (like opt-in/out) in isolation and anticipate or attribute a population wide outcome to its implementation.

And this debate about the use of behavioural insights to influence what we do with our decaying empty vessels also reveals something about the governmental rationality of this ‘nudging’ by the state. It has consequences that extend beyond the seemingly party politically neutral target of the intervention. In this case the choice of ‘nudge’ may shift in un-noticed but fundamental ways the relationship between the state and citizen.

For the body-politic the covenanting of rights after death to the ‘head’ of that body – the government – may prove an exercise in biopower, of making live and letting die that provokes some serious soul searching by both state and citizen.

Whilst personally on balance I find pragmatically I agree with an opt-out system for Wales I can’t help but be a little wary of what it means for the body politic. Does an opt-out system extend the reach of the state too far into our private lives and deaths? Does it force on us the relinquishing of further rights to the state? Does it, in Foucault’s terms, reconstitute the citizens body as a subject of the state?

Marc

House of Lords Inquiry on Behaviour Change reports that nudging is not enough

Today the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee published its extensive report on behaviour change, which was reported in headline news in between yet more revelations about News International and the phone hacking scandal.


The main points reported were:

–          That whilst nudging is a useful tool for changing behaviours, particularly in the health sector, it is not a substitute for government regulation – it needs to be used within a framework of more traditional legislative and financial tools;

–          That the Coalition Government have been rather too keen to promote nudging as a soft, cheap alternative to more regulatory and infrastructural provisions;

–          That there is not enough evidence on how behaviour change can be effective at the scale of governing whole population – it is not adequate to aggregate research findings from individuals without proper evidence of the real impacts on the population;

–          That there is a need to appoint an independent Chief Social Scientist to advise government on the social effects of behaviour change initiatives, to promote behaviour change across government and to provide an evidence base of successful interventions.

The report goes much further in considering how appropriate the pilot projects of the Behavioural Insight Team might be, specifically how Government should be working with businesses and voluntary organisations, provides guidance on evaluating behaviour change interventions, and discusses the ethics of such programmes according to (a) their intrusiveness, and (b) their transparency.

This is a much welcome corrective to the apparently unbridled popularity of the behavioural sciences amongst contemporary public policy-makers.  The report goes some way to questioning not only the definition of a ‘nudge’, but also the certainty of the ‘sciences of human behaviour’ (p9), and subjects the methods and evidence of behavioural scientists to critical scrutiny.

But the main question immediately raised for me is ‘what is a Social Scientist?’ What is this person going to do and will they be expected to provide definitive answers to Government’s still narrow questions around behaviour change. Will they be charged with generating their own questions?  Given that there is little agreement within the Social Sciences around even what counts as true evidence and appropriate methodologies, let alone the practical and ethical bases for evaluating policy, how will the Chief Social Scientist adequately represent Social Science?  With the notable exception of Professor Elizabeth Shove, it seemed that most of the academic witnesses giving evidence to this Inquiry were behavioural scientists, social psychologists, public health psychologists and medical scientists – already coming to the table with very particular epistemological and methodological assumptions about human behaviour not shared by Social Scientists across the board.  So who will the Chief Social Scientist be and will they be able to ask difficult questions of value, interests and political struggle within a technocratic search for effective policy levers? I like Bent Flyvberg’s take on this – see Making Social Science Matter (2001).

Jessica

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…?

Jessica

The maternal state: the gendered politics of soft paternalism

stilletto by eatmorechips@flikrIs the state becoming too much like your nanny? Does it act like your dad or more like your uncle? Does it tell you what to do, protect you from harm, or nurture you just like a mother? Which familial figure should the state aspire to be in relation to the cultivation of citizens and the appropriate extent of government regulation?

The justifications for libertarian paternalism are sometimes based on insights from highly gendered accounts of human behaviour derived from behavioural economics, popular psychology and neuroscience. The Cabinet Office discussion paper, Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policy (2004) seeks political justification for this new form of governing from a rather narrow range of psychological and neuroscientific theories.  Insights from feminist psychology, political theory, and philosophy are notably absent.

In a recent publication from the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (RSA), for example, an excerpt from Jonah Lehrer’s New York Times bestseller, The Decisive Moment (2009) is accompanied by a garish full-page illustration of a stiletto, embedded with metaphors of conspicuous consumption, vice and unclean living – make-up, perfume, cigarettes, mobile phones, cocktails, credit cards and baby bottles [!?].  In describing the division between reason and feeling ‘proven’ by the new neurosciences and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technologies, Lehrer deploys a sexualised discourse of temptation, impulsiveness, indulgence and enticement to account for the way in which the ‘emotional brain’ fools the rational mind into increasingly damaging levels of debt.

Whilst feminists have somewhat rejected the need for a ‘theory of the state’ as a blunt and abstract instrument, unpacking the concept of the state and its practices of governing from a feminist perspective is an important task. Questioning the claims of the ‘new neurosciences’ and the appeal to popular psychology and business innovation literature is an equally pressing concern, where state policies are being designed around novel messages from this work.  As feminist sociologist of science, Hilary Rose has pointed out, understanding the social context of consciousness has been a critical oversight of the neurobiological approach.  Others have challenged common interpretations of neuroscientists such as Damasio and LeDoux where the importance of pre-cognitive and automated modes of thinking is inflated, particularly where such authors are used to derive political projects in cultural theory and human geography (Papoulias and Callard, 2010).

Jessica

Inventing commodities and policies

Nigel Thrift (2006) has written recently about the way in which capitalism increasingly uses the whole intellect as a means of innovating new commodities. What he means by this is that – in a desperate search for profits – capitalism is increasingly trying to ‘outsource’ the process of commodity innovation by using the (tacit) knowledges and experiences of consumers. For instance, Thrift discusses how capitalists actively seek to create ‘consumer communities’ with a view to forming groups of people with both a loyalty to a particular commodity and an ability to contribute in substantive ways to the ongoing and continual process of re-inventing that commodity. innovative chairs by alex osterwalder@flikr

Is it possible to think about the way in which the state – potentially through its emphasis on libertarian paternalism – is also increasingly seeking to make use of this kind of creative outsourcing of innovation and inventions? To what extent are state policies or strategies commodities that must be sold to citizens? To what degree do citizens contribute to the process of fine-tuning state policies and strategies through their own (tacit) knowledges?

Thought-experiment…
Capitalism is in crisis because of a long-term profit squeeze…
The state is in crisis because of a squeeze on democracy and citizenship
Capitalism seeks ways of making profits by intermeshing commodities with consumers…
The state seeks legitimacy by intermeshing policies with citizens
Affectively binding consumers through their own passions and enthusiasms sells more goods…
Affectively binding citizens through their passions and enthusiasms sells more policies
Commodity projects are extended over time through incremental innovations derived from consumers…
Policy projects are extended through incremental innovations derived from citizens
Commodities are placed into new worlds created by capitalists/consumers…
Policies are placed into new worlds created by the state/citizens
There is a new market in which dialogue takes place between capitalists and consumers…
There is a new agora in which policies are co-produced by the state and its citizens
Capitalism seeks to increase profits through a spatial extension of intelligence, particularly with regard to IT…
The state seeks to increase legitimacy and rule through a spatial extension of intelligence

Two separate but interlinked issues seem to arise here. First, the possibility of thinking about policies as commodities that can be ‘sold’ to citizens or that can fine-tuned to take heed of the disparate needs of citizen. Echoing Walter Benjamin (1977[1938] quoted in Thrift 2006: 284), can we suggest that ‘if the soul of the commodity [read policy]…existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer [read citizen] in whose hand and house it wants to nestle’ (Benjamin 1977[1938] quoted in Thrift 2006: 284)?

Second, we need to think about the extent to which citizens are part of this process whereby policies are developed, adapted and fine-tuned. Are citizens part of this agora within which new kinds of state policies are developed, whether explicitly or unwittingly? Which citizens actively contribute in a positive manner to the development of these policies, e.g. through contributing to blogs, participatory planning events or focus groups? Which citizens are merely an unfortunate backdrop against which policies are framed?

Rhys

The burger woman and acts of citizenship

We’ve all become aware in recent years of Jamie Oliver’s crusade against unhealthy school meals and, indeed, his success in ensuring that Turkey Twizzlers – the staple diet of school canteens from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth and from Penzance to Penrith – have been consigned to the (recycling) bin. Another feature of Jamie Oliver’s campaign, of course, was the pictures of mothers of school-children selling items of (presumably) junk food to children through school fences or over the school gate. As a middle-class, educated and reasonably healthy academic, I was of course appalled by these guerilla tactics. Surely these mothers were guilty of the insidious crime of undermining their own children’s health or, even worse, the health of other children? burger by vanessa pike-russell @flikr

And yet, the work of Professor of Citizenship, Engin Isin (Open University) encourages us to think different about these parental practices. Isin argues that ideas of citizenship throughout history have been articulated through reference to those on the margins. It is these individuals and groups that can act as a kind of threat to us but it is these individuals and groups, too that are the source of our own security. We become assured of our own political identity by contrasting ourselves with these more marginalised people. I, as a well-behaved citizen of good character and reasonable diet, derive my own sense of worth and smugness from mothers such as these and their Turkey-Twizzler-eating offspring.

Isin goes further by suggesting that there are enduring ‘acts of citizenship’ that can emerge from these marginalised and disenfranchised groups, which can help to transform dominant ideas about citizenship. Is the act of passing or selling a burger over a fence to a child an act of citizenship? Will this act lead to different conceptions of what it is to be a British citizen? How do acts such as these lead us to question the extent to which the state can determine the diets of its citizens?

Rhys