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January 5, 2011 7:46 PM   Subscribe

We can all cite instances in which we know that we should act differently in our own self interest or in the wider interest, but for one reason or another do not. We need to think about ways of supplementing the more traditional tools of government, with policy that helps to encourage behaviour change of this kind. The Behavioural Insights Team has been established to do just that.

Put another way: Shame, vanity, laziness and the desire to fit in are all to be used as tools of Government policy by ministers acting on the advice of a new psychology unit in Whitehall.
posted by grounded (51 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
'The Behavioural Insights Team has been established to do just that. Its aim is to help the UK Government develop and apply lessons from behavioural economics and behavioural science to public policy making'

Uncle is conspiring to make you smarter.
posted by clavdivs at 7:53 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


America doesn't need something like this, because we still have religion.
posted by subversiveasset at 8:11 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Or, you could go the route my mom did when I was a teenager. Tell you that no one ever does anything not in their self interest. Ever. Donate money? Volunteer? Hold a door open? It's just so you can feel better about yourself. Feel the guilt wash over your body...you are a horrible, horrible person and you can't. escape. it.
posted by fyrebelley at 8:30 PM on January 5, 2011


America needs something likes this, in part because we still have religion.
posted by pmb at 8:30 PM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Donate money? Volunteer? Hold a door open? It's just so you can feel better about yourself.

Well, holding a door open for someone is obviously done for social approval. Volunteering and donating money often are as well. I don't think any of that is controversial, is it? What's controversial is to say that the only reason you do these things is for your self-interest, and I don't see how it's even possible to have convincing evidence of that. It's a facile and nonfalsifiable position to take.

Feel the guilt wash over your body...you are a horrible, horrible person

Unexamined assumption: that acting in your self-interest is horrible.
posted by John Cohen at 8:41 PM on January 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


This has nothing to do with changing the way you think, and everything with changing the way you behave. For example, we can tell you that smoking is bad, and you know smoking is bad, and we want you to quit, and you want to quit, but what's going to make you actually quit? What carefully crafted incentive structure, what teetering tower of punishments and rewards, is going to make you give up tobacco? Or stop hitting your kids? Or drop your waist size below 95cm? It's certainly not the hamfisted 'let's tax it' or 'let's give you a lump sum payment to do something else' or 'what we need is another ad on the telly' approach we've used to date - at least, not for the most wicked policy problems.

And importantly, how can we be sure that same structure isn't riddled with hidden incentives that actually make you keep on doing whatever it is we don't want you to do, or do something else bad instead, or do something worse? The public policy battlefield is littered with friendly fire casualties, people we ended up hurting when we were trying to help them, or worse, innocent bystanders who were hit by shifting externalities.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:48 PM on January 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


And I hope the new unit will look inside as well - there are few things as f*cked up as the current incentive structures in the UK-modeled public services.

"Join up! Be flexible! Focus on the citizen! Innovate!"
"Why?"
"Erm...so we can punish you for going against institutional forces hardened by the centuries!"
"Righty-o, then."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:52 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hold a door open?

Just keeps things movin'.
posted by ovvl at 8:53 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


> Feel the guilt wash over your body...you are a horrible, horrible person

Mom wut? Us horrible, horrible persons are not much troubled by guilt. Hardly at all, really.
posted by jfuller at 9:01 PM on January 5, 2011


If it's worth doing the invisible hand of the market will handle it, or so I'm told.
posted by Daddy-O at 9:03 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


In short, it supports Government departments in designing policy that better reflects how people really behave, not how they are assumed to behave.

I want to believe, I really do. Because if this were true, it would mean the end of Wars on Everything.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:11 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ostiarius measures.
posted by clavdivs at 9:12 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Too many unemployed user centered designers running around London I take it?
posted by infini at 9:39 PM on January 5, 2011


Or, you could go the route my mom did when I was a teenager. Tell you that no one ever does anything not in their self interest. Ever. Donate money? Volunteer? Hold a door open? It's just so you can feel better about yourself. Feel the guilt wash over your body...you are a horrible, horrible person and you can't. escape. it.
posted by fyrebelley at 8:30 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


My mum just gave up. Walked into my room one day and said "Fuck this for a lark. I fucken give up, alright? You just go do what you have to do!"

I went "Whoooooh!" Then got totally faceless for a few months, had as much unsafe sex as I possible could, stole her car, and wandered around the house without my pants on.

And after a while, it got kind of boring.

Really quickly, actually. Because I guess she raised me right. And somewhere in my demented teenage heart, I knew that the things I actually valued were community, constructive action towards common goals, and lending a shoulder to lean on to those who need it most.

Then, as now, I sometimes feel good about that stuff, I sometimes get a bit grumpy about going out of my way to do what I know is right. But I don't think I ever do it solely to feel better about myself.

Which is all a bit of an aside. If a right wing government wants to modify my behavior, I'm off to sharpen my axe.
posted by Ahab at 10:10 PM on January 5, 2011


'Creating a band of active citizens who contribute to public life is central to the Big Society.'

e-gads. This sounds like cleggs idea that Cameron re-wrote.
posted by clavdivs at 10:10 PM on January 5, 2011


MINDSPACE.

Messenger
We are heavily influenced by who
communicates information
Incentives
Our responses to incentives are shaped
by predictable mental shortcuts such as
strongly avoiding losses
Norms
We are strongly influenced by what
others do
Defaults
We
‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options
Salience
Our attention is drawn to what is novel
and seems relevant to us
Priming
Our acts are often influenced by sub-
conscious cues
Affect
Our emotional associations can
powerfully shape our actions
Commitment
We seek to be consistent with our public
promises, and reciprocate acts
Ego
We act in ways that make us feel better
about ourselves

Behavioural science in an easy format:
posted by clavdivs at 10:16 PM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


America needs something likes this, in part because we still have religion.

It was Cass Sunstein's book Nudge which influenced David Cameron in this direction, and Mr. Sunstein works in the White House now.
posted by atrazine at 10:43 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is the best news I've heard in ages. We need to intelligently address these dynamics to survive, what's happening now is suicidal.
posted by emmet at 10:49 PM on January 5, 2011


I wonder if we can have them turn their attention to the ongoing Conservative obsession with imposing regressive taxation?

If they could solve that problem, they'd be absolutely worth their money.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:49 PM on January 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


"Social care: we have established a partnership to develop a reciprocal time credit scheme to help catalyse peer-to-peer provision of social care."

That's as far as I got in the pdf. I wonder what the "time credit" part means.

We have to learn to be good to each other, we have to learn to care about each other. Hey, at least that's better than those faith-based initiatives we have in the US, like the homeless shelters that won't give anyone a bologna sandwich, let alone a bed, unless they accept that group's particular brand of Jesufuscation.
posted by mareli at 11:20 PM on January 5, 2011


Behavioural Science in the hands of government! What will they think of next! I bet this time they've finally found the answer to all their troubles: How to make sure no one votes the Wrong Way, for their own good. And anything else the Perfect Leadership deems desirable.

Oh, I know, there are indeed all kinds of things (like smoking!) it is really a good thing to get people to stop doing. There are some real ugly problems to deal with, what with binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. Might as well bring SCIENCE! into the picture, and do it right.

But, you know, it's such a little thing, really. What's wrong if we apply the same principles a bit on less obvious issues? Like all those women refusing to have children! Sort them out right and proper, and they'll be married and pregnant in no time. It's for the good of the country! No one would blame the government for getting at that problem. Besides, maybe we can do this one on the sly.

And you know, I bet if we did that part right, we could include the poofs, and get them to, at least, keep it all quiet, and show only a proper married family-man on the surface. Next thing you know, we'll have everything back in shipshape and Bristol fashion, just like in the good old days, when Britannia ruled.
posted by Goofyy at 11:41 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


{high fives goofyy}
posted by clavdivs at 11:52 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh good grief. How long until the bond markets get distracted and we can afford to have a civil service again?
posted by cromagnon at 12:00 AM on January 6, 2011


I find this kind of stuff creepy and paternalistic. And stupid.

Things like this can obviously work in consensual arrangement, like farm-ville. Where you can just quit. or we see things like that stupid VW ad where they paint piano keys on stairs to make people climb them instead of taking the escalator. But part of that is novelty as well. Once the novelty wears off, will people still care? I doubt it.

Trying to induce guilt or shame just seems like a good way to piss people off. In fact, I would actually argue that it would piss people off a lot more then something major like a tax hike. Like DC has a 5¢ tax on plastic bags to get people to use refillable ones. And it drives people nuts. Before that, they gave people a 5¢ discount and no one cared. For some reason people are far more motivated by taking something then not giving them something, despite the fact that the net amount is actually the same.

Just because "Nudging" someone to do what you want works, it doesn't mean the person you're nudging isn't going to notice and be annoyed.

Also, I think Cass Sunstein is a bit of a jackass. He actually had a paper out suggesting the government should hire people to monitor online message boards and breakup conspiracy theories by "speaking the truth and making rational arguments" as if that ever convinced anyone on the internet. And ignores the problem of what happens when the government itself is promoting conspiracy theories (i.e. saddam/al queda) or actually conspiring itself (as shown in wikileaks docs)
posted by delmoi at 12:33 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


The article is dated Monday, 3 January 2011 but I think it was originally from 1984. For sure the Behavioral Insights Team is. My mom is a chartered member.
posted by vapidave at 1:19 AM on January 6, 2011


Put Adam Curtis in charge otherwise, you know, "lower than vermin".
posted by fullerine at 2:15 AM on January 6, 2011


Can they just nudge people into having higher incomes? The wealthy seem to do quite well on a lot of relevant indicators.

....Oh, I see. Oh well.
posted by robself at 2:41 AM on January 6, 2011


Diet and weight: we will be establishing a partnership with LazyTown, the popular children’s TV show

I knew those bastard Icelanders had to be behind this.
posted by Segundus at 2:54 AM on January 6, 2011


It's like they've read Discipline and Punish and got the message from it completely backwards.
posted by knapah at 3:11 AM on January 6, 2011


This is what conservatives are talking about when they refer to the 'nanny state', where the government believes it knows how you should live your life better than you do.

They do it too; their handbook is often the Bible, and they'd love, love, love to get laws passed to force people to behave like the Bible says they should. In a way, they're more honest about it, because they'll tell you exactly what they demand, and then happily toss you in jail (or, in Muslim countries, just kill you) if you disagree.

This is the sneaky and deceptive way of doing the same thing; instead of passing laws and imposing punishment, they'll try to manipulate you into doing what they tell you.

Both are authoritarianism. In neither case do they have any inherent right to tell you how to organize and live your life, as long as you're not hurting anyone. The fact that they've been elected, or have read their Bible and feel oh-so-holy, grants no expertise or moral authority to dictate private behavior to others.

It's always clear, to both the left and the right, when the OTHER side is crossing into authoritarianism, but it's unusual for them to recognize when 'their team' is doing it.

The clearest example I can think of is the American Presidency. Both of the last two administrations have reacted in almost exactly the same way in most important matters, but each side is absolutely convinced that the OTHER side is the devil. Bush put on a fake Texas drawl and cowboy hat, where Obama looks professorial and speaks with deliberation and an excellent vocabulary, but they actually DO more or less the same stuff. Each side is infuriated when the opposing leader wants to take away rights or fight a war, but will happily bend over and lube up when THEIR President gets the broomstick out.

It's all authoritarianism, and it's corrosive to society as a whole. And until we recognize and reject it, even from 'our' side, it will only get worse.
posted by Malor at 3:49 AM on January 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


Government blames business for financial collapse. In response to fixing financial collapse, government adopts tools of business. Thus, once again, the tools are amoral and the problem is the people using the tools. "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Overall, I am very impressed with the speed at which the Cameron government is adapting to the situation and tackling the problem. Many of their strategies are very high-risk (immigration, for one) however as an American in the US under the Bush regime, these toolsets create a great amount of change in a very short time.

Perhaps one of the best examples here is smoking. Smoking is a ridiculous activity (I say that as a smoker) whereby the profits are made by the tobacco companies and the costs are absorbed by the society.

Smokers require greater heath-care expenditure across their lives and often reduce business productivity (thus lower taxes). In London this morning, the pack purchased was £7.40 for twenty cigarettes. And I am a fan of that because if I continue smoking, I will be a greater cost to the society.

In Italy and Germany, the cost of cigarettes is £3.50, less than half the cost. I've always felt in the UK that I am being nudged to reduce consumption. When I arrived, a ten pack here was price equivalent to twenty in the States. Thus I was nudged from 20 to 10.

If they nudge me to 5, I would be quite pleased actually. As their goal is to nudge me off altogether, I say well-played sir.

There are some situations where nudging is bad:
• Illegal war
• Support of torture
• Corrosive financial products

But if the goal is to hold doors open, increase social activity, and decrease things like smoking, these moves are brilliant.
posted by nickrussell at 4:04 AM on January 6, 2011


Paternalistic as it may be, it's no more coercive than any typical government initiative. It might even work for the cited examples in things like public health and charitable giving. But, given the ideology of those in charge at the moment, it looks suspiciously like the thin end of an unpleasant wedge. Every success in the use of social norms to change behaviour will be trumpeted as a blow against regulation and direct government action. It will only hasten the shrinking of the public sector, particularly in health and social work.
Further, it will fuel a drive to apply the same principles to things like financial and environmental regulation and taxation. It will be suggested that we don't need to burden all of those valuable wealth-generating businesses and individuals with tiresome regulations. No! If we gently nudge them in the right direction, we will achieve the same goals at a much reduced cost. After all, it worked in the case of the organ donor list, didn't it?
No more demands from the great unwashed upon the wealth of the nation. The wealthy and privileged will decide who are the deserving poor, and the deserving ill, and shelter them under the wings of their patronage, the natural order of things restored.
This, of course, ignores the fact that the social norms and incentives for the rich are not the same as for everyone else (see, for example, yesterday's post on the topic). There's also the well documented sociopathy of a typical company in the absence - and sometimes even the presence - of legal requirements to the contrary. But all of that will be swept beneath the carpet when the time comes. Roll on, the skeleton state.
posted by Jakey at 4:07 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why should the government care about our health? Because the government pays for our health. The government is being a good steward of the taxes we pay it. But the government is caught in a paradox. Healthy people cost more. Lifetime healthcare costs for healthy non-smokers are about $100,000 more than for obese smokers. The longer you live, the more government money you spend on healthcare. If you'd like to do the commonweal a favor, you might want to die young. Until government can resolve this paradox, it will continue to lurch back and forth between nanny state and ninny state.
posted by Faze at 4:18 AM on January 6, 2011


If you have amoral accountants doing the national health care budget, at some point they will institute incentive payments to your survivors for a doctor assisted suicide and forgoing expensive medical maintanence. Nobody is suggesting that, so clearly they have some remnant of honor and so the votors may nudge them towards doing the right thing.

Well it sounds simple any way.
posted by bukvich at 5:02 AM on January 6, 2011


Governing always includes calculation of, and measures designed to address, "behavioral" factors in the population. Right? So why am I creeped out by the idea of an arm of government overtly adopting a methodology informed by relevant disciplines? Maybe because it feels like the influence it exerts would be difficult to detect. If it is difficult to detect, it is difficult to critique, control, vote against, or otherwise resist. Governments and their sub-parts do not always seem to operate with the promised benevolence and efficiency. (Indeed, they sometimes "should act differently in [their] own self interest or in the wider interest, but for one reason or another do not.") A government undermines it's legitimacy by undermining its citizen's opportunities to change policies that they find, cruel, unfair, oppressive, or overly intrusive. I think the misgivings expressed here (by commenters in the UK or elsewhere) tend to show that.
posted by Lorem Ipsum Wilder at 5:23 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Healthy people cost more. Lifetime healthcare costs for healthy non-smokers are about $100,000 more than for obese smokers.

really? Do you have a link or something, cause I would like to read more about that. It sounds improbable.
posted by dubold at 5:31 AM on January 6, 2011


my new years resolution is to gain weight and resume smoking. i'll show those pricks!
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 5:52 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why should the government care about our health? Because the government pays for our health.

No, you give that to yourselves; it doesn't come from the government, it comes from YOU. And it's a gift. It doesn't give you an ownership interest in people's bodies.
posted by Malor at 6:19 AM on January 6, 2011


Do you have a link or something, cause I would like to read more about that. It sounds improbable.

Doesn't sound improbable to me at all. Obese smokers tend to die earlier than healthy non-smokers; and a huge percentage of our health care budget goes to keeping people alive for an extra few months at the ends of their lives.
posted by steambadger at 7:10 AM on January 6, 2011


Unexamined assumption: that acting in your self-interest is horrible.

That's just the lyrics. The melody is "My mother has contempt for me!"
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:11 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]



Why should the government care about our health? Because the government pays for our health.

No, you give that to yourselves; it doesn't come from the government, it comes from YOU. And it's a gift. It doesn't give you an ownership interest in people's bodies.
posted by Malor at 6:19 AM on January 6 [+] [!]


Not to quibble, but in the U.K., the government literally pays for people's health.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 7:13 AM on January 6, 2011


Not to quibble, but in the U.K., the government literally pays for people's health.

..and where does the government get its money from? Taxpayers.
posted by knapah at 8:08 AM on January 6, 2011



Doesn't sound improbable to me at all. Obese smokers tend to die earlier than healthy non-smokers; and a huge percentage of our health care budget goes to keeping people alive for an extra few months at the ends of their lives.


steambadger, that math works if you consider lifetime costs - but what about considering the cost of healthcare to, say, age 40? What if you factor in disability costs?

The argument that unhealthy behaviour is somehow more cost-effective relies on conveniently ignoring lots of factors. It's like saying that buying disposable consumer goods is "good for the economy".
posted by dubold at 8:19 AM on January 6, 2011


Here's the link about smokers actually costing society less than healthy people over their lifetimes.

It's also worth observing that, at least in the U.S., plenty of state governments are hooked on tobacco taxes, and depend on that stream of revenue for their operations. Cigarettes could be just be outlawed, right? But that would deprive governments of quite a bit of their funding.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:20 AM on January 6, 2011


Not to quibble, but in the U.K., the government literally pays for people's health.

..and where does the government get its money from? Taxpayers.
posted by knapah at 8:08 AM on January 6 [+] [!]



... And?
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 8:22 AM on January 6, 2011


Here's an article from a UK perspective on the cost-of-smokers point.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:29 AM on January 6, 2011


... And?

And...that means that the NHS is not a gift awarded by some benificent overlord, but in fact a mutual healthcare scheme paid for by the participants and overseen by the elected representatives of those participants. You need only look at what happens when any politician in the UK says something which could be interpreted as a threat to the NHS to see the ownership and protectiveness felt by the public towards it (recent policies of privatisation by stealth notwithstanding).
posted by Jakey at 9:00 AM on January 6, 2011


And...that means that the NHS is not a gift awarded by some benificent overlord, but in fact a mutual healthcare scheme paid for by the participants and overseen by the elected representatives of those participants. You need only look at what happens when any politician in the UK says something which could be interpreted as a threat to the NHS to see the ownership and protectiveness felt by the public towards it (recent policies of privatisation by stealth notwithstanding).
posted by Jakey at 9:00 AM on January 6 [+] [!]



Yes, I agree, but I don't see the connection between this and my comment or Malor's comment; or the original comment: "the government pays for healthcare and that's why they're concerned about healthcare"...
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 12:30 PM on January 6, 2011


And...that means that the NHS is not a gift awarded by some benificent overlord, but in fact a mutual healthcare scheme paid for by the participants and overseen by the elected representatives of those participants.

Yes, I'm sure that if the government turned around tomorrow and said 'You know what? NHS contributions - voluntary. Do, don't, we don't mind. Here, have a tax cut', everybody would still make the payments necessary to support this 'mutual' healthcare scheme and maintain their status as 'participants', with no coercion from their 'elected representatives' required.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:17 PM on January 6, 2011


I'm not one for underestimating the ignorance of the voting public, but the NHS is one area where people know that you get what you pay for. During good times, voters consistently poll in favour of tax increases to support it. During bad times, they consistently resist cuts to the NHS budget e.g.

2010: Scots are prepared to see some spending reductions but do not want NHS budgets cut
2009 Ninety-six per cent of the public say the NHS will be an important factor in deciding how they vote at the next general election. More say the NHS will be important than say the same about the economy (important for 93%),
2007: Health 'should be top priority' The poll, carried out by YouGov for the RCN and published as nurses gather in Harrogate for their annual conference, also suggested there was an appetite for a specific tax for the NHS. Some 46% said they would be happy for this to be introduced
2002: 62% in favour of tax increases to fund NHS and public services (Q4)
2000: More than three-quarters said that "thinking about the people you know", they thought most people would prefer extra NHS funding to tax cuts, and two in three also thought that more money to the NHS was more likely to win the next election for Labour than a tax cut.
posted by Jakey at 3:06 AM on January 7, 2011




fugitivefromchaingang: thanks.


My point is addressed in the first link:

In a paper published online Monday in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, Dutch researchers found that from age 20 to 56, obese people racked up the most expensive health costs. But because both the smokers and the obese people died sooner than the healthy group, it cost less to treat them in the long run. (emphasis mine)

and the second link says:

The Dutch experts admitted that the effects of obesity and smoking stretched further than the health system.

"We have focused solely on healthcare costs, ignoring broader cost categories and the consequences of these risk factors to society," they said.

"It is likely, however, that these impacts will be substantial.

"For instance, reduced death rates in those of working age may improve productivity. In the case of smoking and obesity, these indirect costs could well be higher than the direct medical costs.


So there's other factors to consider here.
posted by dubold at 3:48 AM on January 7, 2011


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