Why debating the ethics of applying behavioural science is a red herring

Why the debate on Nudge is a red herring (tapped out on my phone during the #LSEnudge debate):

1. We’ve previously designed services thinking everyone is an in-control homo economicus. There’s loads of recent evidence on what we’re like. Why not use it?

2. “They can’t solve everything” is not a reason to not use ‘nudges’. If policy-makers commission ‘nudges’ & don’t deal with the food industry, that’s a problem with policy making, not with decision science.

3. If you want a policy/political narrative for it, work up the idea that we can do politics better if we better understand what we’re like as a species.

4. Behaviour is context-dependent, whether you/others are trying to influence it of not. So it shouldn’t be controversial to try to influence it.

5. There are ethical issues. Why not codify them? For example, behavioural practitioners and their commissioners should only use social norm messages that are true (so you don’t say 95% pay their tax on time if it’s really 80%).

Will we do politics better if we understand behaviour?

If you’ve heard one of my talks recently, on public services using insights from behavioural sciences, you might have heard me say that I reckon this perspective can make some policy decisions easier to understand than conventional narratives, and that this understanding is becoming more mainstream. But, y’know, I used to work for a think tank, so I’m used to asserting things that I’m not entirely sure are true.

So it’s always useful when something happens that makes me think I might have a good point. And here’s what happened today.

I heard a speech by the Prime Minister today on immigration. I don’t make a habit of this; it was on in the background while I made a cuppa. The full transcript doesn’t seem to be available yet, so you’ll have to take my word that, early in the speech, before talking about measures on benefits and housing, he asserted that immigration to the UK had become too large, because we are a “soft touch”.

What the PM is doing is framing his following comments in a way that is likely to make me favour the measures he went on to announce. He does this by framing immigrants as freeloaders. Group co-operation having been so important to our success as a species and, hence, being such a strong driver of our instincts and emotions, this is significant. As a UK native, I’m being encouraged to identify the group being discussed (who are in fact, of course, a set of individuals) as a threat to our (and, therefore, my) resources. Loss aversion kicks in (I value things I might lose much more than I value things that aren’t mine yet but could be), and I’m primed to support measures against this group.

You might think I’m accusing the PM of dog whistling. But I think the behavioural analysis is less loaded politically because it clearly acknowledges our human nature and relies on this, rather than relying on your existing political view. If you understand some key insights from behavioural sciences, you could accept this analysis (and maybe think we could do this stuff better), whatever your politics. In the UK of the near future, I like to think, people would ask whether triggering loss aversion and perceptions of freeloaders is a useful way to frame a discussion about immigrants.

Even if my analysis is true, I can’t say for sure that it’s deliberate, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? If we can grow this understanding of our human instincts in an honest and open way, we’ll all be in a better position to make and discuss policy, and do politics better.

Interview with Warren Hatter on local government and low carbon policies

It’s not often I get asked to do an interview. So I was happy to oblige with some answers when asked recently. This is what I said about local government, carbon and climate (and a little on behavioural sciences), prompted by questions from Manchester Climate Monthly.

manchester climate monthly

Warren Hatter is a London-based consultant and commentator with a special interest – and many years experience – in local government and carbon policy. MCFly co-editor Marc Hudson asks him a few questions…

Is local government where it needs to be on climate change, compared to the hopes that were around when the Nottingham Declaration was created?
You’d be surprised if I said that local government now was brilliantly addressing climate change, and I won’t let you down on that. You’re right about the Nottingham Declaration (in 2000) though. There was a lot of optimism, wasn’t there? I recall that those were more optimistic times generally around local government, which is a factor; I bet professionals in many fields would say that local government is a less hopeful place now than then. A new government had come to power with promises of devolving responsibility to local government (this might sound familiar!)…

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