Tag Archives: libertarian paternalism

PPPOPP theories: the Power of Popular Psychology over Public Policy

It is intriguing to note how influential ideas translate into actually existing public policies which have very real impacts both on specific individuals and the wider population. And so, not satisfied with having designed a highly scientific diagrammatic model (see this earlier post), a useful mnemonic or acronym is also indispensable. Hence PPPOPP. Eventually, these insights will all come together in my forthcoming best-selling title: How to Change Other People’s Behaviour, essential reading for all those who wish to preserve their own intransigence.

Understanding Behaviour Change involves not only tracing its roots, in terms of the academic theories, disciplines and evidence marshalled in its development as a distinct set of policy solutions.  We also need to examine how and why particular sets of ideas get adopted and others not. In addition, looking at Behaviour Change in its wider context, it is possible to identify broader trends in the governance of the human subject which are worthy of more detailed analysis. As a start, then, it is worth considering how Behaviour Change fits in conceptually and methodologically with the movement for positive psychology, wellbeing and happiness, and to remember some more acronyms…

Libertarian Paternalism is of course a term which sounds far too jargonistic for some. But NUDGE, that is very easy to say. Cheating slightly, NUDGE summarises a suite of recommendations derived from the field of behavioural economics, standing for:


Understanding Mappings           


Give Feedback                

Expect Error 

Structure complex choices

Meanwhile MINDSPACE, a framework and toolkit developed by the Institute for Government and Cabinet Office derives its themes from a wider spectrum of the behavioural sciences of decision-making, standing for:










And PERMA denotes a set of ideas from positive psychology gaining increasing attention amongst policy strategists, politicians, and an emergent ‘happiness industry’. This one forwards an argument for the power of a mind trained in optimism to overcome adverse circumstances, from the work of Martin Seligman (author of Flourish, 2011), and stands for:

Positive emotion   





Leaving aside the issue of how all these kinds of knowledges reconfigure the human subject as an object of governance, just for now, let us consider instead some other psychological insights on ‘fluency’ which may have implications for the popularity of popular psychology in public policy. With thanks to Psychologist, Will Matthews for pointing me towards this area (have a look at his interesting work on the psychophysics of price). Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer’s 2006 research has shown how stock market prices are correlated with the pronouncability of their names. Hence, easy to pronounce stocks consistently out-performed those with ‘disfluent’ names.  If it is not too much of a leap then, we might speculate that academic evidence presented as an easy to say acronym  will have much more impact on time-pressed professionals than, say, a paper entitled ‘Reflections on the rescientisation of decision making in British Public Policy’, or RRDMBPP (and that’s only half a title).  Well of course there’s a lot more to it than that, but it is worth bearing in mind when you find yourself marketing, branding and ‘impacting’ your next research project.


A ‘3E’ model of soft-paternalism

It seems that no ‘policy relevant’ research is complete without its own easy to remember, easy to say, easy to spell mnemonic or catchy abbreviation for you to take away and apply to all manner of related and not-so-related scenarios (more on the status of mnemonics in public policy later), so here is ours:

Another triangle

The UK Sustainable development strategy (2005, see also DEFRA 2007) developed the well-known ‘4Es’ framework (enabling, engaging, encouraging and exemplifying), only to be trumped by the Cabinet Office/Institute for Government’s ‘6Es’ model (adding explore and evaluate). But we have come up with our own ‘3Es’ to throw into the mix of important things beginning with E: efficacy, ethics and empowerment. Here I provide a quick summary as a taster for the analytical model we are developing in our forthcoming book, Changing Behaviours. On the Rise of the Psychological State, to be published in 2013 by Edward Elgar.


No we haven’t gone all instrumentalist on you. Our concern with efficacy is not to ask ‘does behaviour change work’, since there are plenty of people asking such a question. Rather, throughout our research we have sought to interrogate the grounds for evaluation as presented in behaviour change policies. First, this raises a concern with the monetisation of behaviour change outcomes in terms of VFM (value for money) or ROI (return on investment). Whilst these are clearly important where spending of public funds is concerned, we urge those evaluating behaviour change policies to consider alternative outcomes in terms of the quality of public deliberation engendered by such interventions.  Secondly, we want to draw attention to the need for long-term and large-scale measures of success, which may in fact defy measurement within the terms or resources of a single intervention. We are concerned to show how behaviour change evaluations may be based on a narrow conception of the times and spaces of decision-making, unable and unwilling to account for the socio-technical, cultural and environmental drivers of meaningful and sustainable social change.


Of course we are banging on about ethics like there’s no tomorrow, since this is notably absent from the other E models, and because it is the element most likely to evade measurement and audit.   Three main issues are worth considering, though there are no doubt many more. First, what is the political legitimacy of those designing behaviour change? Where novel governmental tactics exist to explicitly target the collective subconscious, where is the infrastructure to monitor and check this form of ‘psychocratic power’? Secondly, in the settling of new defaults, norms and social goods, how are notions of evidence, expertise and status advanced? I.e. who gets to say what is a desired behavioural outcome in any given situation? Related to this is a third concern, that in targeting behavioural interventions at those behaviours, segmented groups and individuals deemed less rational, does the behavioural agenda itself create and irrational an risky underclass, echoing previous examples of victim-blaming in public policy? This circularity issue is well known to students of political theory, and it remains crucial to ask whether and how behaviour change produces vulnerable subjects.


Finally, we argue that it is essential to evaluate behaviour change policies in terms of their potential for empowering citizens to develop the capacity to act in the future. We have identified that one of the unintended consequences of the sum total of behaviour change interventions is that the homo economicus presumed in prior economic accounts of decision-making is being replaced by a more psychologically inspired vision of the citizen fool. Following on from this is a perceived requirement for policy makers to create foolproof geographies based on naïve conceptions of time and space. And finally that such a decision-making environment removes opportunities for social learning. In its place, we argue for public policy interventions which value more-than-rational forms of decision-making, sensitive to inexpert knowledges, a wider spectrum of what counts of evidence and a more ambitious attitude to the possibility of social change.


Can behavioural science help us to resist temptation? Governing by nudges

Behaviour Change tactics are often aimed at encouraging citizens to resist various temptations associated with over-consumption (e.g. of unhealthy food, cigarettes, carbon, credit). In our research we have argued that much more attention needs to be paid to the unintended consequences of nudge tactics as they re-configure the politics and ethics of government intervention, the ‘time-spaces’ of decision making and our conceptions of the human subject itself.

It is widely recognised that governments have always been in the business of changing behaviour. But the more recent growth in enthusiasm for nudge tactics based on a loose political philosophy of ‘soft’ or ‘libertarian’ paternalism raises new questions about policy tools and levers intended to both improve welfare and increase freedom of choice.  Furthermore, given the new found dominance of psychological and behavioural science knowledges, the Behaviour Change agenda demands that we interrogate what counts as research evidence in the justification of new policy techniques.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry on Behaviour Change reported in 2011 that not enough was known about how governments can change or influence behaviour at a population level; most of the available research is conducted exclusively on individuals, and it is simply inadequate to aggregate these findings up to social groups, communities and whole nations.  Our research project, ‘The time-spaces of soft paternalism’, conducted by Human Geographers at Aberystwyth University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust for 3 years, has examined precisely the question of the underlying principles and collective effects of the Behaviour Change agenda in the UK. Far from a neutral set of benign policy techniques which can be deployed by parties of any political persuasion, our research has found a concerted movement towards the deployment of sophisticated psychological powers in order to govern individual and societal ‘temptations’. These research insights can be usefully split into three headings:

The politics and ethics of government intervention

There are several different nudge techniques which fall along a spectrum of political and ethical acceptability. These range from psychographic and geodemographic profiling in social marketing campaigns, design initiatives focussing on spatial arrangements (e.g. the layout of school canteens), to administrative techniques that attempt to encourage optimal behaviours (e.g. presumed and differed consent in organ donation schemes; favourable default positions on company pension options).  Clearly some are aimed at compensating for our all too human behavioural flaws and apparently self-defeating behaviours, whilst others are intended to cultivate a more reflective approach to reasoned and reasonable decision making.  Hence, these distinct typologies of nudge require not only strategies for enabling, engaging, exemplifying and encouraging more ‘sensible’ behaviours, but they also necessitate ‘ethical proofing’.  This requires policy makers and indeed politicians to build ethical considerations into Behaviour Change initiatives from the outset.  Though not a comprehensive list, a starting point would be to judge each nudge from the perspective of:

(a)    its openness or degree of consent secured – how far are individuals and society aware of any attempts to change their behaviours, through subtle environmental or administrative cues?

(b)   its democratic credentials – how far are citizens involved in actively shaping the contexts in which they make decisions (for instance, global energy markets). Are opportunities given for public deliberation on the very nature of the social goods to be promoted through nudges? How can the nudger be held accountable in a democratic forum (whether the nudger is government or otherwise)?

(c)    its effects on personal responsibility – is it indeed fair to assert that actors living in unequal contexts should be held personally responsible for the behaviour in question? Is it fair to ask people on vastly different incomes to save, even proportionately, for their pensions?

 The ‘time-spaces’ of decision making

Secondly, Behaviour Change policies and initiatives have drawn on academic disciplines which remain far from uncontested.  It has been argued, for instance, that the behavioural economic and psychological science approaches are based on narrow assumptions about the very ‘time-spaces’ of decision making. To clarify, on the one hand, such disciplines re-imagine decision-making as a highly immediate, responsive and impulsive activity hampered by cognitive flaws which limit our abilities to make long-term decisions. And on the other hand, they are primarily concerned with decision-making which takes place at a highly localised scale – one of Thaler and Sunstein’s (2008) famous examples being to encourage healthy eating by placing fruit at eye-level. In promoting an account of decision-making as both immediate and proximate, attention is drawn away from the wider contexts which frame decisions.  There is little attention paid, therefore, to the way in which decisions can be limited by socio-economic contexts, unequal access to the resources and knowledges required to make decisions, and the much longer running historical contexts in which decisions are ascribed as ‘sensible’. Nudges can therefore be guilty of de-historicising the role that culture, society, economic circumstance and the state have played in shaping behavioural norms and constructing those temptations to be resisted.  Hence, notions of willingness, harm, choice, welfare, health, environmental awareness, wealth and happiness are divorced from the very political processes of norm-formation which make certain behaviours acceptable and others transgressive. Again, these insights urge us to question what kind of research counts as evidence to be used in designing Behaviour Change policies, and raises the need to widen the scope of research expertise beyond the behavioural sciences.  There is also a need to be wary of any account of decision making which appears to equate freedom, and associated democratic rights, with acts of choice, since choice is no guarantor of substantive freedom.


Conceptions of the human subject

Following from these principles of decision making are novel claims about the human condition as characterised by a sense of irrationality, flaws and inherent biases in thinking processes.  But we must also consider the cumulative effect of Behaviour Change policy initiatives as they become more commonplace in contemporary UK policy making.  In deconstructing ‘homo economicus’ on which classical decision theories were arguably based, and replacing this conception with those derived from psychological knowledges, nudges risk creating an ‘irrational underclass’ of people judged to be too weak willed to behave appropriately.  Nudges tend to demote the emotional or inexpert drivers of decision making as problems to be overcome. In targeting particular segmented social groups, they can have the affect of stigmatising certain people as less than rational and seemingly uneducable. In creating decision-making environments intended to be ‘fool-proof’, nudges may indeed contribute to the cultivation of fools. Citizens may develop a more acute sense of vulnerability which reduces their abilities to hold governments and other nudgers to account. In addition, by focussing on individual behaviours, nudges reframe social problems as issues of psychological pathology. This limits the ethical and political scope for strong governmental action in the spheres of social and spatial inequalities – and encourages ‘bite sized’ discrete policy remedies for structural problems.  Finally, in their focus on rationalising the irrational aspects of decision making and compensating for the emotional drivers of behaviour, Behaviour Change policies can have unequally gendered effects, subordinating the female citizen to a masculinist rational frame. This makes assumptions about both the determinants of decision making and the selective acceptability of social goods or norms to be cultivated through nudges. It is these social goods and norms which, in a democracy, should never be beyond question.

Taking a much broader view of the population-wide political and ethical consequences of policies based on behavioural insights provides us with a difficult set of questions which require sustained political debate.  The sometime confusion of nudges as an end rather than a means closes down this debate. Critical social science research can therefore illuminate the need for Parliamentarians to maintain a healthy scepticism of the scientific claims which underpin behaviour change. For whilst nudging gives government a toolkit for producing ‘sensible’ citizens, nudges do not get us any closer to the question of how we should live nor which temptations should be governed.


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).


Libertarian but not Paternal: Reflections on the UK’s New Public Health Service

For some time now we have had a strong sense that soft paternalism is less a distinct set of political practices and more a collection of tools for behaviour change that can be taken in very different political directions. Thus, while David Cameron and George Osborne’s pre-election statements clearly indicated that if elected they would deploy nudge-style techniques in their administration, it was far from certain exactly what type of politics this would lead to. As more and more statements and policy directives start to emerge from the Coalition Government it is becoming easier to discern what soft paternalism may come to embody in British politics over the next five years.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is Andrew Lansley, the Coalition’s Secretary of State for Public Health, who has been most active is revealing the key characteristics of the new government’s version of soft paternalism. In a recent speech to the UK Faculty of Public Health Conference on the 7th July 2010, Mr Lansley set out his vision of behaviour change policy in the field of public health. This speech confirmed two things. First that government clearly intends to deploy soft paternalist tactics within its health sector reforms. Second, that it has a very specific neo-conservative take on what soft paternalism means.

It is clear that Andrew Lansley, and like minded coalitionists, feel that the particular brand of soft paternalism practised by the previous Labour government (whether it be in the form of school meal reforms or the Change4Life programme) was simply too paternalistic. Ironically reflecting on the inability of his government to pass the “Elimination of Obesity Act 2010,” Lansley outlined a paradigm shift in health policy that would invoke the power of local communities to generate and sustain the structures cultural change that health reform really needs.

While there are many sensible suggestions made within Lansley speech, one cannot help but feel that it represents another, thinly veiled, assault on the welfare state.  The role of the state within health care provision is problematised by Lansley on at least three front: 1) in the wake of public sector spending cuts we can no longer afford a heavy-handed state bureaucracy meddling in public health issues; 2) that the “nanny state” is actually not very adept at changing personal health conduct; and 3) that sometimes state intervention can make the public health situation worse (the example used here is the way in which social marketing campaigns against drinking, smoking and obesity can actually normalize these problems not stigmatize them).

Taking these points in isolation, I have to admit that there are some important issues raised here. However, when they are placed alongside Lansley’s alternative behaviour change solutions to public health reform, anyone with a belief in “progressive” brands of soft paternalist (as I have) may start to feel a little queasy. In the wake of a failing state, we are presented with less public funding for healthy living campaigns (like Change4Life), the threat of disbanding the Food Standard Agency (Ramesh, The Guardian, 12 July 2010), and an increasing role for the food and drinks industry in public health support. Perhaps the most worrying insights into what the New Public Health Service may look like, however, came in related statements made by Lansley (reported in the Telegraph, but not documented in the official manuscript of his speech). We thus hear that:

“it is perfectly possible to eat a Mars Bar, or a bag of crisps or have a carbonated drink if you do it in moderation understanding your diet and lifestyle […] Then you can begin to take responsibility for it and the companies who are selling you these things can be part of that responsibility too” (Smith, Daily Telegraph, 8th July 2010).

Such sentiments open-up a worrying space between the corporation and the citizen, which has historically been filled by the state (see here George Monbiot’s reflections on the current round of state deregulation in the UK).

While it is always likely to be popular to talk about healthy eating in relation to choice and personal moderation, one of the reasons that soft paternalism first emerging within British health policy was because the food and drink industry had generated structures of food provision (whether it be vending machines in schools, or cleaver marketing ploys) that actually made it very difficult to eat healthily and responsibly in the first place. If the fiscally restrained state is incrementally removed from the public health sector my fear is that healthy choice options will decrease and the long-term cost of ill health will increase. It appears that British soft paternalism may be soft, but not all that paternalistic!


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?


Clocky and soft paternalist time

Meet Clocky. Clocky is a new type of alarm clock that has been specifically designed to ensure that you can no longer just ignore your morning wake-up call. As with all alarm clocks, you set Clocky before you go to bed: the difference is that come morning time you cannot simply turn Clocky off, roll over, and return to your repose.  This is because Clocky uses it wheels to throw itself off your bedside table, run away and hide. You thus have to reluctantly get out of bed and search for Clocky before it can be  turned off. It is hoped that by the time you have gone through this process of early morning exercise you are much less likely to return to bed and oversleep your alarm!

Clocky is part of a growing array of technologies and techniques that are now being used throughout the world to nudge people into making better and more productive decisions. As with deciding on a responsible time to get up in the morning the night before, we often find that when  people have time to reflect upon what is the best course of action they make fairly sensible decisions. Problems are said to occur, however, when time is tight, emotions are running high, or we are really enjoying a lie-in.