Tag Archives: nudge

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.


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.


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.



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?


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).


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

House of Lords Select Committee on behaviour change

Some 15 years after the publication of Missionary Government, in which Demos outlined a visionary programme for re-imagining the role of government in changing cultures and behaviours, the House of Lords has launched a Science and Technology Sub-Committee on behaviour change, led by Baroness Neuberger.

The Sub-Committee are this week hearing evidence from prominent civil servants including David Halpern, who has formerly worked for Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit, the Institute for Government and is now said to be part of Cameron’s ‘nudge unit‘, Karen Hancock and David Bartholemew from the Department of Education, and Rachel McCloy from the Government Economic and Social Research team.

Evidence will relate to current research developments in behaviour change, evaluation of government interventions and the ethical and social concerns raised by novel and innovative approaches to changing behaviour.

After two years’ of research into the politics and ethics of behaviour change interventions in public policy, we have provided evidence to the Sub-Commitee relating to how behaviour change policies problematise the threshold between the UK state and its citizens.  We reported specifically on the contribution of critical social science research to understanding and interrogating the ethical and practical basis for behaviour change interventions.

Our evidence raises concerns about the wide-spread adoption of psychological, neuroscientific and behavioural-economic explanations of human behaviour within the civil service. We point towards the limited conception of personhood contained within such disciplines, and draw attention to ongoing debates and contestation around key behavioural concepts and processes, arguably brushed over in the enthusiastic adoption of behaviour change. We raise questions about which disciplines and forms of evidence are valued above others and why.

The use of behaviour change initiatives necessitates analytical research which interrogates the unintended and wider consequences of government interventions aimed at shaping the behaviours, attitudes and identities of citizens, and requires institutions which assist citizens in holding government to account. We highlight concerns about whether these governmental and non-governmental institutions can be adeqately supported in the contexts of a smaller and weaker public sector.

Serious consideration should be given to the kinds of behavioural norms promoted in such interventions. As such, we recommend that behaviour change interventions need to be audited in ethical, political and social terms: what types of behaviour, identities and attitudes are being promoted, and in what ways can these be said to be beyond political contestation? What kind of behaviours and identities are demonised or marginalised and what are the potential side-effects of so doing? What types of behaviours/identities are absent from the intervention and why? Who gets to decide which behaviours are to be encouraged and which prohibited, and how are these decisions arrived at?

We will be watching closely as the evidence is debated.  Further written evidence has already been submitted by the DEA, which argues for more empowering styles of intervention –  opposing the ‘nudge’ appraoch to that of deliberate and deliberative educational strategies. Submissions have also been prepared by the Wellcome Trust, the British Academy, and the Sustainable Devlopment Commission.