Tag Archives: models

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.