Tag Archives: social marketing

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.

Jessica

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!

Mark

Social marketing and segmenting publics

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

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

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

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

social marketing in UK health policy

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

Jessica