X Close

The Government’s Covid comms failure The obsession with behavioural science is a classic case of over-promising and under-delivering

What's the point of the Government's emotive new advertising campaign? Credit: May James/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

What's the point of the Government's emotive new advertising campaign? Credit: May James/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images


February 5, 2021   6 mins

“Look her in the eyes and tell her you never break the rules.” You’ll doubtless have seen or heard manifestations of the UK Government’s most recent advertising campaign. Close-up images of Covid patients wearing oxygen masks and a pleading gaze are begging you to stick to the guidance and stay at home. Clearly, our leaders are betting that this emotional appeal will change people’s behaviour for the better. It’s not the first time they’ve dabbled in behavioural science. Or have tried to, anyway.

Behavioural science — a catch-all term for a strand of psychology, with micro-economics, sociology and other disciplines mixed in — has been unusually prominent during the pandemic, and particularly so in the UK. For a while at the start of 2020, it was touted as the answer to all our prayers. “Nudges” to change people’s behaviours were suddenly the order of the day. “Behavioural science can”, we were assured, “save lives”; without it, “our attempts to defeat the virus will fail”. On the BMJ’s blog, UCL psychologist Susan Michie and her colleagues wrote a post entitled: “Behavioural science must be at the heart of the public health response to Covid-19”. Boris Johnson himself was directly advised by “behavioural psychologists”, and specifically referenced them at a press conference.

At the end of March, just after lockdown began, I wrote for UnHerd about the bad predictions and faulty logic of psychologists (and other people writing about risk). I argued that low-quality evidence was being relied on to support arguments that downplayed the danger of the disease. But the story of our Government’s engagement with behavioural science during this pandemic extends far beyond that. Now that a whole year has passed since the UK recorded its first Covid cases, it’s a good time to look back at what the much-lauded discipline contributed to our Covid response.

Behavioural science had great press for a few weeks, but it all fell apart pretty fast. As case numbers and deaths in the UK increased throughout March, many began to wonder why we weren’t following the example of other countries and locking down. The blame, according to some, lay at the feet of the behavioural scientists. Apparently, they’d advised the Government that the population would suffer “behavioural fatigue” — that after just a few weeks of strict lockdown measures, we’d get bored and frustrated, and start bending the rules in an attempt to get back to normal life.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries, Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, and others all made this argument explicitly in the media. It would be counter-productive to go too hard too soon, they said. Such a huge change to people’s lives wouldn’t be sustainable, and people might make a collective break for freedom just as the virus was most prevalent.

But behavioural scientists, whose discipline was supposedly the basis of the Government’s policy, were outraged by this narrative. Michie, a member of the Government’s SAGE subcommittee on behavioural science, SPI-B, told the Guardian that the concept of “fatigue” had never been used in any of their reports (which was true). Indeed, she said, “[fatigue] is just not a concept that exists in behavioural science”. Warwick behavioural scientist Nick Chater agreed, writing that behavioural fatigue “has no basis in science”. Another member of SPI-B, Robert West, made much the same argument. An Open Letter from UK psychologists and behavioural scientists urged the Government to reveal the evidence base for the fatigue concept (I was among nearly 700 signatories).

As it turns out, there was evidence in the scientific literature for the idea of “behavioural fatigue” all along. The neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell, as far back as late March, reviewed a selection of papers (all published pre-2020) that discussed the fatigue idea in the context of people’s rule-compliance in past disease outbreaks, though they didn’t necessarily use the specific word “fatigue”. As Bell noted, some found evidence for it, some against — and the studies certainly weren’t all top-quality. But the idea spread by behavioural scientists before the first lockdown — that “behavioural fatigue” was a concept entirely divorced from the scientific literature — was flat wrong.

So far, so embarrassing: the psychologists either weren’t aware of the relevant evidence, or wanted to shift the blame for the delayed lockdown away from behavioural science (even though they’d never advocated for it). Whitty, Harries and Vallance, for their part, never pointed to any of the science they were relying on to make their claims. Confusion reigned. The lockdown was delayed on the basis of some unknown evidence. Behavioural science seemed to have failed its first and biggest test of the pandemic.

Suggested reading
The Government's Covid comms failure

By Dan Hitchens

To make things worse, the “fatigue” debate was essentially irrelevant to what the Government should have been doing in the face of the virus. Regardless of whether people’s compliance with the rules would decay over time, it would still have made sense to lock down earlier, because the virus spreads exponentially. Stopping it from taking hold early in an outbreak (a policy that worked in countries like New Zealand and Taiwan) means that the population — even if they start to break more rules as time goes on — will be at far less risk of the disease. To put it another way: despite the hype, the behavioural science should have been very much secondary, something to worry about only if a government fails to properly contain the spread of infection.

You’ll have noticed, of course, that our government did fail to properly contain the spread of infection. We didn’t lock down early enough — twice — and we’ve now had over 100,000 coronavirus deaths. So perhaps there’s more of a role for behavioural science now. But have we learned anything in the past year about how to mould human behaviour to keep people from Covid?

My behavioural scientist colleagues won’t like me for saying this, but the answer is: not really. A number of recent studies have explored how to improve interventions such as hand-washing, face-touching, mask-wearing, and vaccine-getting. (Let’s leave aside the awkward fact that the first two probably aren’t all that relevant to stopping the spread – the behavioural scientists weren’t to know that at the time.) These interventions are a smorgasbord of tricks to get people thinking differently about the virus: asking them to plan for the future; targeting their emotions; telling them how social distancing can save the economy; focusing them on reasoning rather than gut feelings; and so on — all things that might be adapted into government messaging, if they work.

But do they? Some of them, such as asking a person to write down the name of a loved-one they want to protect, have shown no effects whatsoever. Others, like focusing on moral messages, or those delivered by a respected figure, are supported by patchy evidence that shows generally small effects. Some have shown effects only in particular circumstances: one study tried a range of different interventions and found that some worked, but only for people who had just recently begun social distancing. For those who had been social distancing for longer, the interventions backfired — the participants reported going outside more and distancing less after they’d taken part in the intervention. Oops.

Even for the studies that appear more promising, one has to remember what’s actually being measured: in most cases, it’s people’s self-reported intentions to do things like wash their hands or wear masks. It’s what they tick on a questionnaire during the experiment — not necessarily what they’ll do in the real world. Of course, intentions and actions will be related to one another, but not perfectly. Researchers should be a lot more careful than the authors of the questionnaire study that appeared in September, whose very title claimed that “Empathy Promotes Physical Distancing and Wearing of Masks”. The only data they gathered concerned self-assessed motivations — not behaviours. “Intentional science” sounds somewhat less impressive than “behavioural science”, but it would, alas, be much more accurate.

Yet more evidence is appearing all the time: perhaps the behavioural scientists will crack a solid, reliable intervention soon. But the discipline’s contribution to the pandemic feels like a classic case of over-promising and under-delivering. The confident claims at the start of the pandemic — that behavioural science would play a crucial role in the Government’s toolkit to keep us all safe — simply fell flat when the actual data were examined. Had the hype been dialled back a little, behavioural science’s messy evidence base would look more like a discipline doing its best to find out what works (which is a genuinely difficult task), rather than a big disappointment.

Even if our ability to alter human behaviour using clever psychological techniques is weaker than we’d like, it is still useful for understanding human behaviour in the pandemic. To take just one example: knowing what people believe, and how those beliefs change over time, is important for governments and health systems to target their policies.

UCL’s Covid-19 Social Study is packed with interesting data on this topic. One of the overall findings is that people’s compliance with the rules (again, self-reported, so caveat emptor) has waxed and waned along with Covid cases: the recent second wave was accompanied by more people saying they follow all the rules. The main driver of people’s behaviour seems to be how many infections there are in the country (which ultimately depends on government policies like lockdown and border control); “soft” behavioural science interventions like nudges are only going to be useful at the margin.

Suggested reading
From Covid to crime: how media hype distorts risk

By Tom Chivers

To those new UK Government adverts, they seem to be an attempt to use a mixture of empathy, shame and fear to promote compliance. Although there’s plenty of evidence to show that the latter of these has worked in previous contexts, it’s hard to apply any previous research to our unprecedented situation. It certainly feels to me that more attention paid to actual Covid patients, rather than just graphs of case numbers, would jolt people out of complacency — but that’s the hunch of a behavioural scientist, rather than evidence from behavioural science.

And there’s nothing wrong in theory with a behavioural scientist giving you their opinion — if they’re clear that’s what it is. The superficially convincing sheen of “science” is too easily applied to what are often just thoughts and judgements by well-meaning, well-informed experts (or mostly well-informed: the “fatigue” debacle illustrates how even the experts can fail to be on top of their brief). Setting the behavioural scientists up as some kind of oracular group of truth-tellers who’ve figured out the intricacies of the human mind is setting them up for failure — and trivialising the very real contributions they can make.

So can I look you in the eyes and tell you that the new adverts will work? Not really. But what do I know? I’m just a behavioural scientist.


Stuart Ritchie is a psychologist and a Lecturer in the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London

StuartJRitchie

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

162 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
3 years ago

I think most people would take sensible measures and sensible advice to do what they could to help. Avoid closed spaces, crowds, breathing, sneezing or coughing on people, change the air in the room etc. The more convincing it was, the more people would follow it.
Especially if it came from someone you thought was honest, and not trying to manipulate you.
The problem with what appears to be described as ‘behavioural science’ is that it is a transparent attempt at emotional manipulation that is all too often so toe-curlingly clumsy that adherence to it is not so much irritating or difficult as just plain embarrassing.
The main ‘message’ is that we can’t trust you hoi-polloi with the facts, so here are some trite emotional stimuli we’ve paid a consultant for that we hope will work in place of your reason, and the trust we properly should be placing in it.
And this behavioural ‘science’ doesn’t work? Well, goodness me.

Barry Coombes
Barry Coombes
3 years ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

Especially if it came from someone you thought was honest, and not trying to manipulate you.

And therein lies the problem. We have an Establishment of manipulative liars. They’ve lied, covered up, propagandised about so many things over so many years, I’m honestly astonished anyone believes them about anything.

John Keepin
John Keepin
3 years ago
Reply to  Barry Coombes

Absolutely right. Remember when it all started, the usual suspects were c**k a hoop at the results of an Election, and so they carried on. Some might welcome the idea of something nasty (allegedly) crawling out of the woodwork to justify various policies etc. That’s not real ‘science’, but raw politics and not exactly democracy, but there it is.

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  Barry Coombes

No one I trust and respect any longer believes anything they are saying.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
3 years ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

I wish you’d been in charge of the government communications:
‘Avoid closed spaces, crowds, breathing, sneezing or coughing on people’ covers most of it.

As oppossed to the ‘hands, face, space’ which gets things around the wrong way in priority at best. I wonder what % of the population think that wearing a mask makes them personally safe from Covid, I’d guess about half.

joe_falconer
joe_falconer
3 years ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

Yep, the key understanding that they should take away is that a small but significant proportion of the population will not accept rules that have no clear evidence base or just make no sense.

And, the govt response to simply increase the fearmongering just re-inforces that minority into discounting and questioning everything the government is saying. It also turns those with entirely valid questions into societal pariahs – all perceived as the outcome of government messaging. Thus they made an enemy of an influential minority.

This of course is all made worse by the encouraged virtue signalling of those who have not felt any significant pain from the lockdown and cannot get their heads round the harm that is being done and the possibility that things may have been handled differently.

The answer to all this is to educate and inform along with honest transparancy about the tradeoffs – many in the country still believe that its “just obvious” that lockdowns are the only valid response. The government knows that this is a much more nuanced argument but promulgates the idea that anyone with differing views are “granny killers”.

Unless you are running a country like China, these behavioural “scientists” should not be involved at all.

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  joe_falconer

The truth is we are getting more like China every day!

Russ Littler
Russ Littler
3 years ago
Reply to  David Probert

When they can hand-cuff you, and drag you off to jail for not wearing a face nappy, you know your country is in a very bad place. FULL STOP.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago
Reply to  joe_falconer

I agree. I’d much rather ministers were just honest and not trying to manipulate us with clever psychological tricks. The bottom line is truth. What are the facts? Where do we stand? It’s communist governments that manipulate their people with lies. In an open society we shouldn’t need to be manipulated by so called behavioural scientists. The old fashioned quality of truth and honesty has become a casualty of our media run society but it is what democracy is built on. The phrase you cannot trust a politician has become a byword in our society but it shouldn’t be that way if they were just plain honest and trustworthy.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

It’s also deeply lopsided. What about those who have suffered from lockdown to try and protect others: the economically and financially vulnerable who lost their jobs, the children self-harming and feeling suicidal, the people suffering domestic abuse, those who took their life because of despair, the people who weren’t treated for cancer because Covid was prioritised etc.

Cassian Young
Cassian Young
3 years ago

Macro scale behavioural science interventions should be banned by law. They distort the democratic environment, creating a dangerous feedback loop.

Psychologists implant false ideas in the population in order to achieve some behavioural goal e.g. young people now rate their chances of death as 600 times higher than is in fact the case.

Politicians then source their policies from focus groups. These policies are then implemented using yet more behavioural science.

We risk a situation in which people refuse to leave lockdown permanently, because of the completely false perception of risk inculcated by what are effectively PsyOps against our own population.

Democracy is premised upon the idea that our citizens are rational. Behavioural science is premised upon the reverse.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

“Macro scale behavioural science interventions should be banned by law”

-especially and including such ludicrous ‘science’ as ‘unconscious bias’ theories and testing -which are the appalling forebears of thought crime…

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

The use of exactly the same techniques by Totalitarian states should cause considerable alarm – but apparently no-one has noticed.

Induce Fear – suspend democracy -take control! Set groups against each – other divide and rule – get people to police themselves – no need for paramilitaries

Offer hope as a reward for compliance – take it away – impose more control – offer more hope and ‘perks’- take it away etc. Talk endlessly of ‘experts, experts, experts” to challenge contrary views . Choose a “National Treasure” the NHS to front the whole agenda – blame the population’s behaviour for its problems.
Turn “rights” into “privileges”. Pander to basic selfish individual survival instincts – impose isolation to prevent groups forming . Target dissenters as a ‘threat’ – impose identity controls – it all works every time!

Totalitarianism in action ! What else is it?

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
3 years ago
Reply to  David Probert

Sadly, I think you’ve nailed it there.
The arbiters of content on social media suppress online discussion of alternatives, you can’t meet up to discuss things in person. They’ve got dissenters in a bit of bind really.
Oh and forget about organising a demonstration. If you’re not there to bend the knee or trash the past, then you’re all clearly a danger to society, and need to be met with force and fines.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago
Reply to  Cassian Young

I agree. The bottom line is that it is just using deception to get the response they want.

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago

The author’s scientific authority is somewhat undermined by his dogmatic assertions on the efficacy of lockdowns, despite a lack of evidence to support them.

Anne W
Anne W
3 years ago
Reply to  Derek M

Thank you !

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  Derek M

Mind-set of the controlling ” type” perhaps?

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
3 years ago
Reply to  Derek M

Maybe that behavioural science stuff does work on some people

Martin Price
Martin Price
3 years ago

Fancy words to dress up good old propaganda and turn it into an acceptable academic course. Here’s a bit of behavioural science for you, treat people like idiots and over time they will not trust you.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

More ‘experts’ with no more knowledge or common sense that a lavatory brush. How the govt can run its threatening ads when there are still 22,000 people flying into the country is beyond me. But then everything that govts have done for the last 30 years or so has been beyond me.

Stephen Murray
Stephen Murray
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Wise words, Sir, and so true.

Martin Price
Martin Price
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Thanks Fraser for my first chuckle of the day!

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

At least a lavatory brush is useful so don’t compare them with “experts”.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago

The ministers or media who are calling them experts collude with them even inadvertently.

johndeery
johndeery
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Except that you are wrong. 30 scientific studies now published by universities such as Harvard identify that there is no empirical data that show that lockdowns affected the spread of coronavirus. Analysis of the data across 160 countries and also analysis of the 50 US states show this. Can I direct you to the excellent Oxford University site that models the the strictness of measures imposed by governments against deaths per million over time. Reading scientific papers may assist you in understanding.

Robin P
Robin P
3 years ago
Reply to  johndeery

Fraser isn’t wrong on that point. He isn’t making that point himself, but rather pointing out the incoherence in the regime’s own policies.
By the way, the evidence does not merely show a lack of evidence of effectiveness of lockdowns. It shows proof that the lockdowns have had no benefit. And you don’t need xx studies to show it. Just check out pages 18-22 at www pseudoexpertise com/clarke-covid.pdf Cheers. Will put live link in next comment here.

Robin P
Robin P
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin P

Just check out pages 18-22 at http://www.pseudoexpertise.com/cla... Cheers.

Robin P
Robin P
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

But then everything that govts have done for the last 30 years or so has been beyond me.

Dear Fraser, you sometime dimwit. It’s all about money. Once you see it all in light of that principle, everything in politics makes perfect sense.

Joe Reed
Joe Reed
3 years ago

I’ll wager that none these ridiculously lurid images have changed one person’s mind. They’ll only register positively with people already on board with the message, but even many of them will recoil from flagrant emotional manipulation and moral blackmail.

Evidently, it has been assumed that the theories of communications consultants, ‘nudge’ gurus and the kind of people who write airport books containing lots of flow diagrams, can be reapplied from PR and marketing to politics and hard science, then ramped up from nudges to shaming and threats in a context of national emergency. Implied is an understanding of society as a giant information network with people as primitive input-output machines responding to cues: a naive understanding of social psychology that shows people like Michie to have the insight of a mollusc.

I would argue there is such a thing as ‘behavioural fatigue’ – in the sense that people behaviourally fatigue of behavioural science, which is exactly why these campaigns, designed to keep people in a heightened state of arousal for a prolonged period, are doomed to fail. No such state can be sustained continuously. Place someone in an environment infested with venomous snakes and they’d eventually adapt, accept and establish a stable rhythm of life on terms beyond the purview of the behavioural scientist. This is why there are so many more people out and about now than there were during the first lockdown: people cannot stay frightened forever, and are motivated by many other compulsions than fear and reward.

Behaviour is no less a quantitative science than economics, and attempting to understand it as one will lead to comparable errors of judgment. Behavioural science has become a fantasy of the information society – that the messy, complex, contradictory business of human nature in all its social, cultural and political dimensions can be overcome, or managed by data-crunching technicians. It can’t and never will be.

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Reed

” Behavioural science has become a fantasy of the information society” Great phrase!

Essentially there is a dehumanising agenda behind this obsession with analysing and controlling the behaviour of others. Inevitably it diverts from the behaviour, motivation and ‘psychology’ of the behavioural scientists themselves, close psychological scrutiny of whom might just reveal fascinating perhaps even disturbing ‘personality traits’.

We should always be wary of those who set themselves apart from common humanity to pass judgement on or prescribe rules for “others” .

Film suggestion ” The LIves of Others” ( “Das Leben der Anderen” 2007) DDR in acton!

Baron Jackfield
Baron Jackfield
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Reed

As I see it, the main problem with these social “sciences” is that they have a near-total lack of empiricism.

To address the main point… Anyone with a set of eyes in their head will have seen the difference in the approaches taken by the general public to the first and to the (so far) last lockdowns. Last March the country seemed to be in the grip of a zombie apocalypse – roads virtually deserted, town centres utterly dead, a few “brave” souls out walking. The present one? – the roads seem as busy as pre-covid times, town centres rammed, as are the shops that have been “permitted” to open, and we’re knee-deep in ramblers and dog-walkers. It looks like “behavioural fatigue” has morphed into “behavioural utter indifference”.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago

I find the behavioural scientists’ mad preoccupation with controlling and ‘altering human behaviour’ disturbing and distasteful. They really do seem to want to think people can be cogs in a giant societal machine. They yearn for this to be the reality and in fact think there’s nothing much wrong with it. They read Brave New World and think to themselves, ‘what a jolly good idea -when do we get started’. They are one of the unfortunate groups of impoverished souls who on discovering that people really don’t like feeling manipulated and controlled, think perversely to themselves, ‘oh right.. that’s a problem… so how do we do it without them knowing about it then?’. I worry about the mental health and the deficient thinking of so many of these scientists, and the potential damage that people who think like this can inflict on our society in their omniscience, narcissism, omnipotence, desire to manipulate and control etc… But I think these are the very reasons government loves them so much because they sell these omnipotent dreams to government ministers.

Joe Reed
Joe Reed
3 years ago

This stuff has a history, originating with the rise of Cold War-era technocracy and cybernetics post WWII, thence dovetailing with Austrian School economic theories of a stable market system, and finally getting mixed up with Silicon Valley cyber-utopianism from the 90s on. The bottom line is that people are computers and can be controlled and managed as such.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Reed

Yes. I think there is also a pretty good Adam Curtis doc on it too re: the cold war stuff. But the later Silicon Valley cyber-utopianism is an interesting development -I haven’t done enough thinking on this but the rise of autistic states of mind seems to link in to it also… and people so often use the computer model to describe the mind (rebooting etc…) it’s all so mad!

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Reed

Concise and exactly where we are.

eleanorhazleton
eleanorhazleton
3 years ago

Remember Edward Bernard (Freud’s nephew in America) & the BBC programme “The Century of the Self”)?

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago

Yes – they always see themselves as above the victim- in charge of the experiments and torments they want to impose on others – “authoritarian personalities”, God complex and serial killers come to mind.

Not perhaps the ideal psychological type to put in charge of the country.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago

A psychologist once asked me what I was looking for. I replied that I am looking for the truth. To which he replied. “There isn’t any truth. Everyone makes their own truth.” I realise today how lost he was in trying to help others.

Dorothy Webb
Dorothy Webb
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

Sounds like Pontius Pilate.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

God, how awful. That might be the biggest difference between a psychologist and a psychoanalyst…

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago

I used to teach in the Netherlands. Many schools there are run along these lines. If you look at modern Dutch schools, they are built to resemble panopticons.

Dave H
Dave H
3 years ago

I’ve always disliked “nudge theory” and its adherents. It’s paternalistic and patronising.

It treats people as too stupid to make good decisions (which may or may not be true) and then instead of seeking to persuade, it seeks to alter behaviour without consent, using tricks.

This should be anathema to a western government, which is allegedly there to support the people in their lives, not direct us.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago

Maybe it’s because I am only too aware of previous Government efforts to influence my behaviour at my expense that the current beyond crass “look him in the eyes” shite is provoking only cynical derision.

Dodgy Geezer
Dodgy Geezer
3 years ago

As far as I can see, ‘Behavioural Science’ is simply formalised propaganda.

Its impact seems to be to split people into two classes. One becomes sheep-like and subservient, taking directions at face value and refusing to think further about them – even if two contrary directions are given. This was famously noted, of course, by George Orwell.

The other class is the opposite – people who disbelieve the directions totally and may well go out of their way to break the rules – even if those are sensible and justified. These are the ‘Would you jump off a cliff if I told you not to?’ brigade.

I do not know which group is worse. But this dichotomy seems to be the result of compulsion. If the option of discussion and free choice is removed, we are left with acquiescence or resistance….

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
3 years ago
Reply to  Dodgy Geezer

Most sensible people do neither; they weigh up the evidence and make their own mind up.
I do agree that there are an awful lot of terrified sheep out there though.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago
Reply to  Dodgy Geezer

Sometimes it reminds me of my time in an orphanage where we all had to suffer for one boy’s misadventures. There was some kind of crooked psychology going on. It had the effect of turning us against the offender. Today it would be turning against the one who broke lockdown.

Granville Stout
Granville Stout
3 years ago

‘a policy that worked in countries like New Zealand and Taiwan’

Why do lazy scribes alway just trot out these two outliers when there are countries with much greater populations and as much success at controlling the virus. Perhaps they just don’t do the research. Just look at the success of countries like Nigeria with a population of 209 million and only 8 deaths per million, Thailand with a population of 91 million and 1 death per million or Pakistan 223 million and only 53 deaths per million or Bangladesh with a population of 165 million and only 49 deaths per million or Sri Lanka with a population of 23 million and only 16 deaths per million and DRC with a population of 91 million and only 7 deaths per million and quite comically we have just placed the last named country on our ‘red list’ 7 deaths per miliion as opposed to our 1,617 per million. Hmmm.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

You only have to compare the states of New York and Florida. Very similar populations in terms of size, and both with large urban areas. New York locked down almost totally for months on end, Florida only partially before lifting all restrictions at the beginning of October. I can’t remember the exact figures, but I think Florida had half the number of deaths. Lockdowns are a financial, moral and even health disaster.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Don’t you think it might be a bit more complicated than that? If you think that NY and Florida are directly comparable apart from their lockdown policies, but death rates in Florida are far lower, you are effectively saying that mandated social distancing makes people MORE likely to catch covid. I’d really like to understand the mechanics behind this effect, given that the disease transmits through exposure to other people. I can understand the argument that the indirect health costs of lockdown are bigger than any benefits from reducing covid, but I really don’t understand your specific argument here.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

I don’t pretend to know the answer to your question.
But one pssibilty is that with lockdown, people are spending more time together in their own homes. Thus increasing the possibilty of catching it from a family member.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

the argument is that lockdowns, in and of themselves, are not an effective strategy and can wind up contributing to the spread. NYC is densely populated; lockdowns essentially force people into tight quarters for longer-than-usual periods. If one person is infected, the chance of spreading is elevated because people in such tight quarters.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

The weather does that, too.

Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

Here’s another variable: Florida has an older population than NY and California which makes its “performance” even more interesting.

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago

In theory, the older population should be less vulnerable to being killed by the disease IF the older population is healthy and without co-morbidity factors. The killer aspects of the disease seems to be mainly a result of the body’s over reactive immune system, the (cytokine storm). Typically the younger i9mmune system will be more reactive. This is why the Flu pandemic of 1918 seemed to target the youngest and healthiest members of the population.

steve eaton
steve eaton
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

My guess is that due to the nature of the Corona Virus, it’s receptors being made largely of fats, the warmer climates tend to melt the receptors and impair its ability to attach itself to cells. That is why other Corona (common cold) viruses tend to become active in the winter.

John Keepin
John Keepin
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Comparisons between US states is a good place to start, but NY and FL are quite different demographically. ISTR that, partly based on the US tradition of relatively short ‘vacation’ times (compared with the UK), the range of age groups on vacation (holiday) travel is quite different, and there are certain groups that tend to travel south to avoid the northern weather patterns etc, so not as easy as it looks. I’m not an expert, but I have physically been in more US states on my travels compared with lots of Americans, historically. So, if age has an effect on the risk level, that could be a significant factor at certain times of the year.

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Isn’t it somewhat warmer in Florida? Sunshine, sea breezes and open spaces will do the job just fine.

James Moss
James Moss
3 years ago

Lazy scribes armed with such research don’t look to closely at the demographics of some of these countries. The Covid-19 infection fatality ratio is heavily age-related and countries such as DRC don’t have too many people old enough to die in droves from it. Nor are they that great at attributing actual Covid-19 deaths to their cause. Hmmm.

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago

Stuart, please consider that relying on social science rather than virological science and pharmachology exactly suits the Government’s purpose and in fact has been part of its entire Covid strategy?

The UK population has been terrified to death by the Psychology of Fear they have been bombarded with for over a year now. The latest disgraceful Horror Movie ads on TV show just how far the Government is prepared to go to continue terrifying the population into accepting anything it chooses to impose in the name of “Covid”.

It has all been very carefully worked out and orchestrated to blame the (social ) ‘science ‘ being followed for justiying everything they have done with no room being allowed for debate.

Real science and the real scientists who challenge the whole Covid scenario presented by the Government are simply ignored and marginalised .No objective Government seeking truth would do this unless it had its own agenda.

Meanwhile our freedoms have disappeared in a Covid fog of dodgy statistics and unsubstantiated predictions of doom.

No light at the end because they have now filled in the tunnel ” to keep us safe”!

shinybeast1
shinybeast1
3 years ago
Reply to  David Probert

I was at college when 9/11 happened and my media studies teacher told us about scare mongering and how they create problems, whip up hysteria and come with the solution which was usually just something they already wanted to do for other less appealing reasons. It’s always stuck with me. Were you my media studies teacher?!

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
3 years ago

Is BS really science? Or just BS?

peter.azlac
peter.azlac
3 years ago

Given the fact that the majority of the public were never at serious risk from Cov-2, only the elderly and those with comorbidities, aiming a message at the general population to change their habits was counter productive. It has delayed reaching herd immunity and not only given the virus time to mutate but the resulting lock down policy has killed thousands from other causes. The measures that were introduced have failed miserably to protect the elderly, with those in Care Homes making up a large proportion of fatalities. The general public neither have normal contact or access to care homes unless they have a relative there or run them, such that rules not psychology should have been directed at those that do. The main failure in message has been in not telling the public how to boost their immune systems and in failing to do so in care homes via simple changes to diet combined with prophylaxes like vitamin D, zinc, hydroxychloroquine or Ivermectin that have been used effcitively in other countries like South Korea since February last year. The Government will come to regret the strategy of depending on lock down whilst relying on vaccines a the virus mutates beyond the reach of vaccines. This has been recently demonstrated in an insane trial by a virologist in Italy who has passaged the virus through cells of recovered patient and so taught it bypass the neutralising antibodies. This is also happening in Brazil where at least two patients have each been infected at the same time by two variants not only allowing more rapid mutation by exchange of RNA but a new strain emerging by recombination.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  peter.azlac

Great post. I agree with every word. Millions of lives have been disrupted (or ruined), and thousands of business destroyed. for no good reason whatsoever.

John Keepin
John Keepin
3 years ago
Reply to  peter.azlac

It may well be that the vast majority of us are at a more serious risk from the Gov itself, rather than Cov-2. That said, with some of the people I know, there’s a fair amount of success at manipulating their moods etc. I know a relatively elderly couple (mid ’70s) who have had a shot of the Pfizer jab, and seem quite content with that so far, but I’ve learnt through the grapevine of a younger family who (allegedly) caught Covid-19, but seem to be in normal condition now. Take your pick.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago
Reply to  John Keepin

At this rate probably the majority of us will be at risk by the time restrictions are lifted.

David Slade
David Slade
3 years ago
Reply to  peter.azlac

Completely agree with everything you said. Sadly though, I think it’s the rest of us that will be doing the regretting, not the government.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  peter.azlac

The problem with this analysis is that you are doing it with hindsight. Easy to do but not meaningful. You would have been very clever if you had typed this last March.

David Slade
David Slade
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

That is sort of true – but there is some very generic advice – about taking exercise, losing weight, vitamin supplementation, ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, ensuring the population isn’t struck by anxiety etc – that would have been quite obvious to give and more in keeping with the responsibilities of public health in previous pandemics over the past 100 years.

By contrast, it should have been obvious that the last thing you should do is lock people up in their homes – where they can’t properly exercise, will suffer mental burdens – including anxiety about the virus and will be more at risk from poor diet and alcohol abuse. There is something perverse about such a thing being recommended in the name of public health (pandemic or not).

Ultimately, people need to be manipulated and terrorised into lockdown by behavioural psychologists and their little bag of tricks because they know instinctively that it’s bad for them. The fact that the government needed such manipulation should have been the first sign that they shouldn’t have done it.

Sometimes common sense trumps the experts.

peter.azlac
peter.azlac
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I gave this advice last March 6th to the UK newspapers and it was ignored. Here in Malta where I live they accepted the advice on hydroxychloroquine and zinc as well as vitamin D3 and we have had an IFR 40% of that of the UK in spite of having close links with Italy where the initial outbreak occurred and the majority of deaths the elderly in their mid to late 80’s and 90’s with comorbidities who died with rather than from Covid-19 .

peter.azlac
peter.azlac
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I should add that the only lock down we have had here was for elderly persons with comorbidity, of whom I am one, and that was during February until June, with the rest of the population advised to stay home if not working, and with all shops except supermarkets and pharmacy’s closed. We then had one of the lowest case and IFR numbers in the EU. Since July there have not been any lock downs, shops, restaurants, cafes, and other businesses have been open as normal, including hotels for tourists who came again from then, and we did not have any increase in cases or IFR until the winter weather kicked in, in spite of the arrival of the Kent B 1.1.7 variant some weeks back, and now the Gompertz curve has peaked and the numbers are declining as expected. This time last year most of the deaths in the elderly had already happened, as they do every year with the arrival of Spring weather and a decrease in respiratory disorders from which most succumb – this year, as elsewhere Covid-19 has replaced flue as the main cause of respiratory deaths and so to put them down to it is debatable. Since July we have only had compulsory mask wearing and social distancing in public places with recommendations for family bubbles in the home. A final comment on vitamin D, the UK Government and medical authorities recommend 400 Units but it needs to be at least 4000 Units per day and up to 10,000 units if the blood value is below 30 ng/ml. There was a tenfold error in calculation of the RDA

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
3 years ago
Reply to  peter.azlac

I can’t say that it is always done, but NICE guidelines recommend GPs to prescribe Vit-D supplements to anyone who doesn’t get enough exposure to the sun. This includes some in the BAME communities (particularly those whose religion means that they cover most of their skin), and those who cannot get outside enough such as care home residents.
Sadly, eventually no amount of help will keep the immune system going. I don’t have the figures to hand but have read that about 90% of those who die from flu have been vaccinated as almost all vulnerable people are prescribed their annual flu shot and take up is extremely high.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Why did you put your signature to a joint letter?

Why should you be taken seriously by anybody if you believe yourself, your signature to be that of a sufficiently important person to change the minds of democratically elected politicians, only if it appears as part of a collection of signatures representing your gang? What does that say about the kind of bully and coward you are? What does it say about your own psychology that you believe you have the right to attempt to dictate through manipulation not just how other people might act, but which ideas about how other people can be manipulated into acting should be made use of by democratically elected politicians?

If you have worthwhile criticisms to make and faith in your own understanding of the subject bl**dy well make them yourself, while acknowledging your total unimportance as just another member of the demos. Otherwise shut up. And don’t imagine we have fallen for your ‘but what do I know, I’m just a behavioural scientist’ shtick. Go and get a real job, in a supermarket stacking shelves.

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

My god, you really have taken against this person

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

It’s part of democracy Alison to be able to lobby one’s MP and bring perceived wrongs and injustices to their attention. You cannot do this in a dictatorship.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

Hey now, didn’t all this stuff work for drugs? Remember how “just say no”, DARE and “this is your brain on drugs” ended drug use overnight? Or was that just a hallucination I had while on LSD?

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

No wonder people are taking drugs when Boris’ “reality” is all around us.

John Keepin
John Keepin
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

And there was a more recent event in the mid 1980’s through which a similar ad tactic was used. Not going to mention it’s name, or those at whom it was targeted.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Psychologists have become a plague themselves-infecting schools, businesses, government-everywhere one goes, everything one does, is under the lens of “behaviorists”, seeking to modify our thoughts and acts to comply with what the perceived need of the moment dictates. Of course “indulgences” can be had in the form of kneeling to the current pieties…

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

6% of all students in the US study some form of ‘psychology’. Thus (non) jobs must be found for them as they worm their way into every aspect of our lives, causing misery and mental devastation wherever they go.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

I do not like being told what to do and think.
Luckily I do not watch TV, so I have not seen these ads, but from the descriptions in the article they seem preety vile.
The only important information, is the number of “positive cases”, (hospitalisation and deaths follow a clear path from that).
I modify my behaviour according to those figures – always within the rules, of course – not because some “clever” scientist tells me what to do.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

How do you modify your behaviour? What immoderate things were you doing before? Speaking in public without covering your mouth up, eating in restaurants, visiting friends, exhaling hard in the proximity of others, walking in the country? The b*stards have got you, though you have tried to defend yourself against their worst efforts.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago

“Look her in the eyes and tell her you never break the rules.”

As a British expatriate, one of the things I don’t miss about Britain is the moral mawkishness of messaging like this. It’s rooted in control rather than real care or concern.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

It is all over the West. Especially the USA

Andy Gibson
Andy Gibson
3 years ago

Can we stop humans from being human….I think not

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Gibson

They certainly seem to be trying their damnedest to do so

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Gibson

The socialists and their fellow travellers will continue trying as they always have done.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  John Wilkes

fellow travellers

– where does that term come from? I hear it a lot in my CritTheory classes.

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Gibson

Schwab wants to try!

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
3 years ago

The same picture could be three of the tens of thousands permanently maimed by road traffic every year with the caption … STAY HOME : DON’T DRIVE A VEHICLE : SAVE LIVES.
True, but my educated hunch about risks … well, I won’t elaborate.

William Cameron
William Cameron
3 years ago

It is far far more effective to provide the information and people will then mostly do the right thing- rather than hector them . “Look him in eye ” just irritates people who are doing the right thing. Treat people like children and they will behave like children.

Jeff Mason
Jeff Mason
3 years ago

What’s missing from this article is the question, “Why are governments using psychology to manipulate their citizens into certain behaviors rather than just being honest with them?” Governments treat their citizens like children being told that Santa will give them a lump of coal fro Christmas if they don’t behave? Governments have been wrong as much as they have been right during the pandemic. Masks not useful – masks vital. Lock downs will stop the spread but instead caused cases to soar. Outside activities are okay, no wait, they’re bad. Schools are hotbeds of COVID… um, not really. Any dissent or skepticism means you want to kill grandma. Hydrochloroquine is quackery! Oops, scientific studies prove it can work. Psychology itself is a questionable science as evidenced by an audit that showed that over 50% of peer reviewed psychological studies could not be replicated. That make this science essentially a coin toss. And they wonder why people don’t listen to them.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Mason

It is based on control and marketing strategies. Political campaigns and Big Tech social media show how well it works. By “work” I mean manipulating people into contributing and engaging into the desired directions of the influencers. I don’t think the purpose is to make a positive contribution to society or solve difficult problems. The purpose is for influencers to have power and control over others. Have you seen the stock market? Have you read how well the billionaire class has done during this? The author of the article is very mistaken. This has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. We will continue to see a lot more of this.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith
3 years ago

The “look them in the eyes” advert is not behavioural science, it’s a nasty, obscene and outrageous attempt at emotional blackmail. I would quite happily look them in the eyes and tell them that no matter what their situation lockdown is immoral.

David Slade
David Slade
3 years ago

Respecting the agency of your fellow human beings rather than treating them like malleable farm animals would be nice.

Far too many ‘clever’ people patting themselves on the back at what they have gotten away with, from Behavioural Psychologists trying out their Phd thesis in real world scenarios to computer modellers treating us like input.

It’s ironic that an abundance of intelligence at the top has caused a regression in basic humanity.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
3 years ago

Hectoring is extremely annoying. Save lives , protect NHS, Stay alert are messages for 10-year-olds who need to learn the bullet points before an exam. I think the government has got it all wrong! They have forgotten that they are dealing with people of a nation not a classroom. It’s prompted many of us to turn off our TVs and ignore the messaging altogether. And then one is left feeling that one is a truant when a punishment (lockdown) is imposed.
In fact, in the initial stages I thought they were being smart by delaying the lockdown. They were THINKING about how to go about reducing the spread of Covid. Soon after, they stopped thinking, it was follow the leader, the leader being China. We will NEVER know if not locking down could have worked in the UK and had we given a chance, we might have risen to challenge & taken responsibility for ourselves . We were never given the opportunity.

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
3 years ago

Stuart,

Regardless of whether people’s compliance with the rules would decay over time, it would still have made sense to lock down earlier, because the virus spreads exponentially.

with respect, you appear to be suffering from the same debilitating condition that all academics advising our government suffer from. You don’t understand anything about how the real world works.

During the first so called lockdown, around 10 million people had to go to work every day or our civilisation would have gone full Mad Max in a week. Fortunately for those of us who had the privilege of sitting on our arses for six weeks, most of those 10 million people are working class and often are only paid if they actually go to their jobs so they had no choice but to go into the viral wasteland and risk infecting themselves and their families. Which, I’m sure we all agree, was so convenient for the middle classes that one would think SAGE had designed the lockdown around that.

Many of my professional class friends believed that only doctors and nurses were required to work during the first lockdown. One of them was surprised when I told him that the Ocado delivery driver who kept him from starving during lockdown is in fact a human being and not an android. He was even more surprised when I explained that it took many working class people in the logistics chain to feed him as he had thought that COVID-19 immune Oompa-Loompas did all the grubby jobs in our economy and was shocked when I told him that Oompa-Loompas are fictional.

I will let you in on another secret. A friend who used to live in a part of the South East outside London which one would describe as “very much working class and Brexit voting” told me that the pubs remained open in that area during the first Lockdown. “Why didn’t the police do something?” I hear you all ask. You ask that because you are middle class and afraid of the criminal justice system. Many of the people in this area are very familiar with that system and for them it is an inconvenience rather than a source of fear.

This area is by no means a “no go” area for the police but if the two officers had entered one of the lockdown breaking establishments and attempted to arrest the landlord they would have been told in no uncertain terms to remove themselves from the premises and, given the burly nature of the clientele and the fact that the police officers were likely middle class, criminology graduates from ex-polytechnics who had never in their lives been involved in any violence up against people for whom violence is a recreational activity, they would have been wise to immediately comply. The risk that someone would film this momentary breakdown of law and order and send it viral was a risk the police were not willing to take. Had that happened, they would have had to respond with more force and the police remembered that in 2011 it took them four days, relying on much outside assistance, to regain control of large parts of London taken over by mobs of leaderless teenagers. In this case, the opposition would have been made up of men who look like the cast of a Guy Richie film and who don’t appreciate being “nudged” by behavioural scientists issuing orders from ivory towers.

Lockdown is a middle class fantasy.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago

Here is the behavioural psychology being used by SAGE, NERVTAG etc

The document is freely downloadable on the gov.uk website in a page titled, “Research and analysis ““ Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures, 22 March 2020”.

Psychological techniques for behavioural change

The document itself, titled Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures, was drafted by SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group for SAGE.

SPI-B highlighted nine broad ways of achieving behavioural change in the public:

Education
Persuasion
Incentivisation
Coercion
Enablement
Training
Restriction
Environmental restructuring
Modelling

In the document, SPI-B focused on the methods most relevant to their stated goals and set out ten options that were evaluated on six criteria.

The six criteria, under the acronym APEASE, were:

Acceptability
Practicability
Effectiveness
Affordability
Spill-over effects
Equity

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Government persuasion through fear

A key part of SPI-B’s behavioural change strategy that seems to have been adopted was to ‘persuade through fear.’ The Persuasion section of the document states:

A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened.

Clearly, the psychologists felt that, as of late March, the public was still not afraid of COVID-19. It therefore suggested that the government increase the level of fear:

The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.

Appendix B of the document lists ten options that can be used to increase social distancing in the public. Option 2 advises:

Use media to increase sense of personal threat.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

In hindsight, this explains the tone of government sponsored social media and physical billboard advertising campaigns that started appearing around April.

SPI-B recommendations to increase personal threat and use hard-hitting emotional messaging are on display with eerie imagery coupled with taglines such as:

“Anyone can get it. Anyone can spread it.”
“Don’t put your friends and family in danger.”
“Stay home for your family. Don’t put their lives in danger.”
“If you go out, you can spread it. People will die.”

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Hysterical news headlines

During the first week of April 2020, the InProportion2 project noticed a change in the BBC headlines and posted the article, BBC: Informing or scaring?

The article compared hysterical BBC news headline from the first week of April 2020 with those from 2018, when mortality rates were peaking due to a bad flu season. It found no references to flu or excess mortality on the BBC home page during the 2018 peak. InProportion2 asked, “Do the headlines reflect the gravity of the situations in an equivalent way ““ or is additional fear being stirred up in 2020?”

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Persuasion through shame and approval: Covidiots and heroes

SPI-B psychologists knew that fear on its own would not persuade everyone. Messaging needed to be tailored to take into account different ‘motivational levers.’

Some people will be more persuaded by appeals to play by the rules, some by duty to the community, and some to personal risk.

It therefore suggested using both social approval and disapproval, with compulsion (legislation) as a backup:

Option 6: Use and promote social approval for desired behaviours
Option 7: Consider enacting legislation to compel required behaviours
Option 8: Consider use of social disapproval for failure to comply

We can see the obvious approval-disapproval dialectic with the ‘Heroes and Covidiots’ narrative that soon began to surface in the news. The term ‘Covidiot’ appeared around March with The Economist’s 1843 Magazine describing covidiots in this way:

Even in a pandemic, many of us are prone to judge others and find them wanting: the term “covidiot” describes any and every person behaving stupidly or irresponsibly as the epidemic spreads. Sometime in early March the word was born, and, almost as fast as the virus spread, so did instances of covidiotic behaviour.

Although it’s not clear how the term came about, it was quickly adopted in UK mainstream and social media. At the same time, we began seeing praise for heroes who ‘did the right thing’ by complying with the government measures.

Social approval: “These local heroes have been doing amazing things”Š”
Social disapproval: “Lake District closed”Šbecause covidiots won’t stay away”Š”
Compulsion: “Matt Hancock threatens to close beaches”Š”

Suze Burtenshaw
Suze Burtenshaw
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

And with the mandating of mask-wearing, the sense of danger is constantly kept at the front of our minds. It is the single most potent symbol of the public’s compliance due to the government’s constant message of fear. It has also been implicit that we will, of course, either silently or aggressively enforce the mandate by disapproval of those who can’t or won’t mask up. It is a blunt but effective use of ‘divide and conquer’. All pretty despicable, I’d say.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago

Indeed. It reminds me of that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the main characters take their masks off when they realize that the authorities have lied about an outbreak and just strewn dead animals around the road.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago

Not so much Divide and Conquer, more Compliance and Control.

Jane Robertson
Jane Robertson
3 years ago

The only reason mawkish over-sentimental ads are being shown is because people that watch ads like them, they like having their mawkish sentimental buttons pressed for free. There’s no need for them to “work” or not “work”, whatever that means, it’s just a thing people do; “I know, let’s spend money on ads, people like ads!” It’s business, it’s economic activity and work, and work feeds people, which is ultimately the main purpose of all mindless entertainment.
I don’t watch ads if I can avoid them, which is easy. Don’t watch ads, they are mostly rubbish and we had Jimmy Savile telling us to fasten our seatbelts. I rest my case..

Me MyselfI
Me MyselfI
3 years ago
Reply to  Jane Robertson

My daughter (in London) is incandescent with rage whenever she sees one of those ‘look into my eyes’ adverts on a bus shelter. She’s waiting to get on a bus, in a busy city, to go and do her key worker job that can’t be done at home, and doesn’t pay her enough to buy a car. She feels like all these posters do is make people more anxious, more despondent, more cynical, more frustrated – people in these settings don’t need reminding of their vulnerability and the risks they are taking. Not just in terms of spreading but, to themselves as well. It’s another way the cosy and comfortable can smugly pass judgement on the great unwashed, I suppose.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

Controlling people’s behaviour never works out well. Hitler is a good example.

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
3 years ago

Another lockdown enthusiast quoting death numbers without the intellect to explain them, and avoiding discussing the deaths arising from ld, and not to mention the economic devastation to come from LD

Group think muppets like this would be adored in the Indy

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago

Very true. I’m not sure how much I believe in any of this anymore. As far as I can tell. China changed policy in late March. They quit considering people who were asymptomatic as disease spreaders and only focused on symptomatic people. They opened up Wuhan on April 8th and haven’t had a long large scale lockdown since. A couple small ones based on symptomatic spread. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam never had a large long term lockdown and only considered symptomatic spread. The longer this nonsense has gone on the more I believe our healthcare system has become criminally negligent. By not allowing family members to assist in health care of the elderly, advocate for their elderly relatives,and verify quality of care we have seen a huge increase in the deaths of the elderly. Particularly dementia patients because they have little ability to protect themselves. That is the major driver of the “covid” deaths. If we returned to traditional health care practices we would be no worse off than SE asia now. We have done this to ourselves.

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago

Just a typical social scientist of the Cultural Marxist variety – one would have thought strange bed-fellows for Johnson but apparently not . We live and learn

Ian Standingford
Ian Standingford
3 years ago

This article would have been twice as good had it been half as long.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
3 years ago

That goes for an increasing number of UnHerd pieces.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
3 years ago

I am sorry, but you have no evidence that either Taiwan or New Zealand managed to contain the diffusion of COVID. Indeed, it may be no accident that the New Zealand government banned the importation of serological test kits. Evidence that the virus had been stewing in the population would blow up the conceit that the government managed to find Patient Zero and contain the virus.

Meanwhile, there are alternative hypotheses. (For example, certain populations. like those in East Asia, may already have had much experience with zoonotic coronaviruses. That might afford important protection.) And the evidence that lockdowns work doesn’t really stand up to the data. The countries that went full lockdown have also fared the worst. So, maybe lockdowns could work in principle, but if the virus has already become widely diffused in a population, lockdowns may have no effect. Hmm…. So many hypotheses. Perhaps we should write about we can say (f anything) about those,

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

I wonder if the behaviour scientists advised on the danger of fatigue with repeated Government over promising, repeated U turns, slow, delayed responses , and pure stupid overpromising e.g world beating track and trace all leading to yet more deaths . As for the rest – an overhyped pseudo science repackaging common sense to a Governemtn that is out of its knowledge depth ( all Oxbridge PPE grads)

Jane Robertson
Jane Robertson
3 years ago

You would have had to listen to all of that for it to be a “danger”.
I listened to very little of it, just read a few headlines which told me all I needed to know. I was in no danger from fatigue.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
3 years ago

The principle behind BS (well initialed) is that special people can learn to control ordinary people. Most BSs are unaware that this is the principle behind their twisted, pseudoscience. But that’s what it is. That is also why the government likes the idea. They haven’t the mental capacity or psychological humility to acknowledge to themselves that they have attained positions of political power through hard, dedicated work and within a political framework have climbed up a greasy and morally dubious pole and, with a large degree of good fortune; in particular in the coincidental rise and support from useful connections they have networked, have reached the top. They may be intelligent and good at networking, they may be presentable and have some charisma, but these are qualities millions of people have. They have been successful and deserve some respect for that. But they are not special and neither are people who are naive enough to believe that BS is a genuine field appropriate for studying with graphs and data analysis. It isn’t. Political leaders believe there is something special within them that has raised them above the populace. That alone is the cause of this cosmic tragedy.
The reality is that between 90 and 93 percent of the public forced the government into lockdown at the time the government were preparing a strategy of herd immunity. The public knew best; the public would not have left the borders open, which was a policy akin to a chimpanzee scooping water out of a leaking boat with a teacup whilst a demon poured buckets full into it behind him. The herd was smarter than the elite. The elite also did nothing whatsoever at all for six weeks in early 2020. That alone should see them never work again in public life.
Don’t be fooled by our moderately competent vaccine programme. The reality is, again, with public participation, we could vaccinate the entire country in two months, or less. Britain’s programme only looks successful in comparison with other nations. The EU is the obvious example of the flaw in top down politics. But China is a better example. It’s strict lockdown succeeded but its vaccine roll out programme is even worse than the EU’s. This is because top down, elitist politics can physically control a population if the army and police are onside. But when public participation are required, as with a vaccine roll out, it is disastrous.
Public participation in politics is also better at preventing pandemics, as the CCP’s cover up demonstrates. Most likely it would also have been better at managing the lockdown itself, at least in the West. With around 90 percent of the public onside, the strategy needed to focus on how to harness public spirit for support rather than cynically manipulating people because of a deluded and egotistical sense of superiority. We failed and we’re here because of it.

Simon Wells
Simon Wells
3 years ago

Yeah, ‘cos being mentally toyed with by those who regard themselves as ‘the brightest and the best’ and governments who see taxpayers, many more intelligent than them, as germs in their petrie dish is guaranteed to inspire a cooperative response.

I have witnessed employees in the workplace being deliberately stressed for the practitioner’s personal gain by the use of Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques. This advertising campaign gives me the same queasy feeling as those attempts to create the compliant zombies that resulted at work. It wasn’t discredited NLP techniques that got the
job done; it was colleagues’ horror that their overlord was such a nutter that he would openly espouse them and the fear that he was capable of worse, just like our government is capable of.

So, here’s a crazy suggestion. Why not try a little honesty? Are we mere taxpayers not
worthy enough, or is the elite now incapable of providing provable facts in the post-truth era?

Tell the truth and give a plausible reason why we should modify our behaviour and I guarantee as a layman that the populace would self-regulate its behaviour much more readily than in the face of gems like ‘Protect the NHS’ that should be protecting us; Hancock’s don’t ‘kill your gran’; and Ferguson’s 500,000 dead.

This new campaign ain’t nudge, it’s sludge, and expensive sludge at that.

Simon Wells
Simon Wells
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Wells

Ah, cummon. A guy down lower than here got 26 votes for straight abuse. I got 3 for this deep thought, that I now discover most decent men already had. Honest, my stuff wasn’t like that when I originally wrote it for Unherd.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago

Lockdowns will continue until the people embrace communism.

Keith Payne
Keith Payne
3 years ago

Surely the appropriate use of behavioural science would be to predict behavioural reaction to proposed measures and build that into those measures.

Dodgy Geezer
Dodgy Geezer
3 years ago
Reply to  Keith Payne

Yes. How does that differ from deciding how you want to control a population and generating measures accordingly which have ńe best chance of working?

John Ramsden
John Ramsden
3 years ago

Another “nudging technique” that might work well at this stage to bolster lockdown compliance is to draw attention to the irony of going down big time and possibly dying of covid so close to when one would have received the vaccine! It’d bad enough dying in a war, but what rotten luck to be a fatality on the very day it ended!

J StJohn
J StJohn
3 years ago
Reply to  John Ramsden

More than half the population are now functionally immune to COVD. They’ve had it, been vaccinated, or are simply resistant any way. In any case over 99% of cases survive. And the ones that die were, typically about to die anyway. Cases are currently falling off a cliff. We all need to take our lives back. Now. I’ve started.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  J StJohn

‘And the ones that die were, typically about to die anyway.’

Care to put a figure on how many years of life expectancy count as ‘about to die anyway’? 1, 2, 5, 10?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

A trio of researchers from Duke, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins have estimated that roughly 900K additional deaths will occur from the economic harm imposed by govt measures. Presumably, very few of those people will be 80+. A previous study from the 2008 recession put the additional deaths at 500K in the US, again economic harm leading to health harm.

No one wants grandpa to die but the reality is that efforts at providing him an additional one or two, or even ten years, wind up cutting short the lives of people far younger. Any equation requires balance. Preventing healthy people from interacting with other healthy people makes no more sense than treating every member of society as being at equal risk.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

And if the additional ten years are for someone aged 40 with young children? Or 30 and recovering from Cancer but immuno-compromised? The validity and effectiveness of lockdowns is something to debate. There is another debate to be had that it is the way the economy was and is structured that is leading to the damage imposed by lockdowns and another debate around how to mitigate the impact of lockdowns.

If someone is arguing that we should ignore Covid, because those who die were about to die anyway its reasonable to ask for a definition of ‘about to die’.

If lockdowns aren’t worth the economic damage they cause because the lives they save are aren’t valuable enough we should ask if care homes for the elderly are economically viable? They cost a lot of money and people are only in them a few years. Is any geriatric medicine worth doing? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just estimate life expectancy for each individual on an annual basis and if it’s less than a given number of productive years only offer palliative care in the event of illness? Or euthanasia?

Graeme Cant
Graeme Cant
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Statistically, I’d say it’s less than 1.

You can do the working yourself from data about life expectancy at various ages and the age distribution of Covid deaths.

Phil Vernon
Phil Vernon
3 years ago

Interesting. I recall that data on HIV in Uganda years ago (in the Lancet) suggested helpful behaviour modifications had pre-dated behavioural-science led campaigns, and was most likely a result of the actual, visible, knowable fact of widespread prevalence of AIDS cases in communities and families.

Arild Brock
Arild Brock
3 years ago

Would you yourself like to be subject to behavioural science? I would not. I would rather engage in discussion and information exchange with other people, including health authorities. Behavioural science makes us all objects, which is in fact de-humanising.

Unless you “join” the science, then. Thereby you remain on the side of an acting agent – albeit deprived of the bond of mutual recognition which would normally connect you with the people whose behaviour is of interest to you.

Admittedly, I also tended to slide into the behaviour science perspective as I worked my way through the article. The author, a behaviour science scientist, obviously invites readers here at Unherd to share his perspective. None of us will then have to (consciously) take the somewhat unpleasant position of an object.

Is the disease in question really as dangerous as seems to be the underlying premise of the article? Unherd, by its lock-down TV, started out being rather critical of the measures (as overdone), and in my opinion for good reasons. However, gradually I believe the critics have become more quiet. Instead all kinds of particular aspects are scrutinised in detail, like here a behaviour science view of the crises.

You may argue that evidence of Covid being a dangerous decease has occurred later. But I hold the view that evidence is not sought, rather it is blurred, the greatest blurring being the lack of distinction between dying FROM and dying WITH Covid (from which also Richie’s article suffers). Another possible blurring would be that the measures and the attention to the disease themselves could create what you can call a “negative placebo effect”. I shall not expand on that, however.

Returning to the article with a behavioural science perspective, some readers of my comment might find my criticism above a bit sophistic, albeit logical. I would then argue that the “objectivation” of people done by the behavioural science perspective is part of a greater issue on trust. I suspect that the government does not trust the population and the population does not really trust the government either (regarding the pandemic). However, only a few dare express distrust openly. Perhaps people don’t even trust themselves! One feature of the Covid crisis is that the “enemy” is invisible. Moreover, also the medical effects of the virus are to many people invisible. With 100 000 “Covid-related” deaths, how many have seen somebody they know die or seriously ill? The MEASURES, however, are seen everywhere, and they are then extremely more visible than the threat itself. This in fact takes A LOT of trust, if you will rely on trust.

My suggestion would be to build trust through honesty. To express felt distrust would then be an important step towards building trust.

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
3 years ago

You can’t prevent virus spreading, masks don’t work, and locking down wastes public money and resources. I know these things because the “UK Influenza Pandemic Planning Strategy”, recommended by SAGE to UK Gov for adoption a year ago today (5th February), says so.

The fact that we are now doing precisely the opposite and, by doing so, incurring a collateral death rate caused *by* lockdown measures estimated by the Office of National Statistics at 200,000, therefore requires some explanation.

One explanation is a phenomenon that lies at the heart of current behavioural science efforts, and one to watch like a rabid dog. It’s called “Reflexive Law”. This is coming from the World Economic Forum”the billionaires club”and underpins the “Sustainable Development Initiative” they’ve signed with the UN. It’s the emerging area of jurisprudence that imagines a world where, instead of the state imposing laws, citizens monitor and police each other in accordance with norms created covertly by the billionaires who have captured the State. Hence the face mask: “Voluntary. But expected”. Of course they don’t work when used by anyone who isn’t a trained clinician”just exhale a lung full of Vape and watch it belch from the top, bottom, and sides. It’s an instrument for practicing policing each other, and for building up obedience.

Sounds like conspiracy theory? Well, a reliable way of telling if something is *not* a conspiracy is if the people doing it tell you that they are doing it. The WEF has recently published a video to YouTube explaining it (this is the so-called “Great Reset” you may have heard about). I suggest you watch it.

We are in extraordinary danger. Everyone who is confused about why we have killed our economy and impoverished our children for a virus that, in 2020, killed half as many healthy people as died in road traffic accidents in 2019, should do everything possible to resist this insidious, dangerous cult. Demand our world back, and do it now. Write to your MP and demand (s)he calls for an enquiry now into how on earth this was allowed to happen, and what is going to be done to ensure it never happens again.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Lyon

“UK Influenza Pandemic Planning Strategy”, recommended by SAGE to UK Gov for adoption a year ago today (5th February)

In other words, before the disease had even arrived in the UK, and when rather little was known about it was spread. Now let’s look at what SAGE4 actually minuted.

Was it “You can’t prevent virus spreading”? No, it was “SAGE will tackle science questions under standard headings: […]; measures to limit spread and impact of those measures; […]”

Was it “masks don’t work”? No, it was “There is some evidence that wearing of face masks by symptomatic individuals may reduce transmission to other people, and therefore NERVTAG also recommends that symptomatic people should be encouraged to wear a surgical face mask, providing that it can be tolerated.”

Was it “locking down wastes public money and resources”? No, it was “Measures within the UK ““ such as shutting down public transport and suspending public gatherings ““ would probably be relatively ineffective”

Why write things which are so easily seen to be incorrect by simply looking at the minutes of the meeting?

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

Fourth SAGE Meeting 4 February 2020 (released 1530 5 February) Minute item 6 states: “SAGE agreed that HMG should continue to plan using current influenza pandemic assumptions”.

Allow me to quote verbatim from those current influenza pandemic planning assumptions i.e. Department of Health’s “UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011” (Unherd won’t allow me to link to the copy at UK Gov asset publishing but it you can search):

“It will not be possible to stop the spread of, or to eradicate, the pandemic influenza virus”Šit would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so: Although there is a perception that the wearing of facemasks by the public in the community and household setting may be beneficial, there is in fact very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use : There are no plans to attempt to close borders in the event of an influenza pandemic. The UK generally has a high level of international connectivity”ŠEven a 99.9% travel restriction might delay a pandemic wave by only two months : There is very limited evidence that restrictions on mass gatherings will have any significant effect on influenza virus transmission. Large public gatherings or crowded events where people may be in close proximity are an important indicator of ‘normality’ and may help maintain public morale during a pandemic

The disease arrived in January. The Preparedness strategy notes (p.15) “the plans could be adapted and deployed for scenarios such as an outbreak of another infectious disease, eg Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)”.

The decision not to invoke lockdown and border closure assumed an Infection lethality on arrival of 2.5%. It’s 0.3%.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Lyon

Considering that the recommendation for adoption reads “SAGE agreed that HMG should continue to plan using current influenza pandemic assumptions, which can be modified as data becomes more certain“, (you forgot to quote that condition for some reason) read in conjunction with the other minutes decisions which I’ve already quoted, and which do indeed modify those assumptions quite explicitly, it is absurd at best and deliberately misleading at worst to suggest that SAGE was recommending a 9-year old document on a different disease as reflecting in every detail the then current state of knowledge about Covid. In particular, the words you quote refer specfically to influenza, when most of that SAGE meeting appears to have been devoted to trying to identify the ways in which the novel coronavirus differed from flu.

It doesn’t help your case that the ellipsis in your purported “verbatim” quotation “It will not be possible to stop the spread of, or to eradicate, the pandemic influenza virus”Šit would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so” covers 12 pages of intervening text. That’s not a quote, it’s a misquote. The sentence you might have intended to quote is ” It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so.” Since lockdown was not proposed as a measure to “halt” Covid, it is equally misleading to claim that the document supports your claim that “locking down wastes public money and resources”

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

I’m sorry you can’t be civil–this appears to be something of a defining characteristic of supporters of this phenomenon. May I encourage you to accept that others have different opinions and information, and that it is possible for this to be so and still to debate civilly and in good faith.

The fact that the document is 9 years old is quite irrelevant. There are only so many ways that a civil response can be organised, and the document was actively maintained. The fact that it endured is a measure of the confidence in the strategy at the time SAGE recommended its assumptions.

I suspect you typed your response after I inserted the reference in the UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy about its suitability for other acute respiratory infectious diseases “with an altogether different pattern of infectivity” including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and I think this answers your claim. Such an extravagant reversal might have been justifiable if the virus had an even higher lethality than the scenario planned for. In fact, it’s less that 20% of the planned for lethality–more healthy people died in road traffic accidents than from SAR-CoV-2–which makes the decision to reverse standing planning and impose measures known to be ruinously harmful even more astonishing.

The fact that SAGE reversed in a matter of days assumptions that had stood for a decade is interesting. I can find no scientific basis that might account for a complete reversal of a decade of standing UK pandemic emergency response planning that itself noted the relative lack of scientific evidence to justify more coercive measures, itself echoing World Health Organisation guidance at November 2019 rejecting lockdown as an instrument of infection control due to concerns about catastrophic collateral damage.

Of course what we now know is the impact that Italy’s tolerance of the imposition of authoritarian lockdowns had on SAGE. Ferguson: “‘[China] is a communist one-party state,’ we said. ‘We couldn’t get away with it in Europe,’ we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realized we could.”

I can make no sense of your final paragraph.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Lyon

Thank you for your views. I think I understand your position well enough, although I believe it to be misled and misleading, and you apparently do not understand mine. There seems no point in continuing.

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

Very well. I’m sorry about that. I should have been interested to understand where you disagreed in case I have misunderstood something. Best wishes.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Lyon

Quoting a single IFR for Covid is disingenuous since it is a moveable feast and varies according to where you are in a pandemic, how many people are infected (an unknowable figure) and the age spread of your population (just to name 3 confounders).

Given that the risk of catching and dying from Covid varies 10,000 fold according to age if you must use it as a figure, it would be more truthful to give a range : 0.1 – 15% in one systematic review, and 0.1 – 1.7% in another – just to show how useless this statistic is.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Lyon

a collateral death rate caused *by* lockdown measures estimated by the Office of National Statistics at 200,000

I’ld like to see the reference for that.

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

ONS. Direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 on excess deaths and morbidity. (2020). https://assets.publishing.s

They estimated c.600,000 “life years” lost to COVID compared to 1,000,000 lost to recession and deprivation caused by the first lockdown. This was justified at the time on the basis of the claim that three times more “life years” would be lost in the “do nothing” case. To claim this, they used a Fatality Infection Rate of 3% –it’s actually 0.3%–and there have been two more since then.

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

I’ve posted a link to the asset publishing service at HM Government, but that triggers Unherd moderator triggers. See what happens

Mike Young
Mike Young
3 years ago

Any attempt at manipulation (sorry behavioural science) is so irritating that I find myself immediately rebelling against it.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
3 years ago

Behavioural “science”, like much, if not most, of social “science” is not really a science in the same sense as, say, physics or chemistry.. Certainly, it cannot predict individual or societal behaviour with an acceptable degree of accuracy, or often at all.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
3 years ago

The only possible interpretation of any research whatever in the ‘social sciences’ is: some do, some don’t.
Ernest Rutherford (Baron Rutherford of Nelson) 1871-1937

Russ Littler
Russ Littler
3 years ago

The Prof: Susan Michie disease is going to find herself before a Nuremberg charter style court just very shortly for crimes against humanity. I cannot wait.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
3 years ago

It’s easy to list the various factors that play a part in altering or reinforcing behaviour for better or worse:

-Guilt/morality vs greed/hate/fear
-Status/recognition/pride/power/social acceptability
-Belief/trust/credibility
-End benefit (versus a sense of futility/pointlessness/no end goal)
-Clarity (versus misunderstanding/incomprehension/confusion/ignorance/stupidity)
-Ease of compliance (vs laziness/inattention ““ self-elites call it “behaviour fatigue”)
-Identifying with message (vs dissociation)
-Religion/superstition

Belief/trust/credibility is a major factor and is affected by 2 factors:

(1) The persuasiveness of message – which must have built into it the end-benefit to the audience receiving the message. It boils down to “comply or die”. Less brutally, heed the message and improve your chance to survive coronavirus. Less frighteningly, heed the message and minimise your risk of being unlucky. This message becomes confused or compromised by highlighting the negative proposition or cringing plea “Save the NHS”, which is a threatening confirmation of the inadequacy of a nationalised health system. A gentler proposition that brings the NHS less pitifully into the frame is that, with coronavirus, prevention is hugely better than cure, eg coronavirus is no ordinary flu. Behind all that night time pavement clapping for the NHS is a more deep-seated realisation that once you need the help of NHS for coronavirus, your life expectancy takes a dive

(2) Sponsor bias: The credibility of the sponsor has a major effect on the credibility of the message and is at an all-time low when delivered by an advertising agency, pension salesman or estate agent “Š.. or, sadly, a politician. Politicians suffer a treble whammy when it comes low credibility of the message: first, (the audience knows or strongly suspects that the politician would sell his soul for votes or career enhancement or career preservation, which means toeing the party line, being a yes-man, second, the politician has an incurable allergy to “telling it the way it is” and answers probing questions with deflects and obfuscations, third, most politicians these days are inarticulate unless they’re reading from a script. This shouldn’t matter if the message is delivered by the scientists. Except that the scientists are rubbing shoulders with politicians at televised progress updates (which is akin to lying down with dogs and waking up with fleas). What’s the politician’s bu!!l5sh!t phrase for 2020? “We’re following the science”. It turns the sage-full of scientists into shills.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 years ago

I think things are made more difficult by having a divided country to go into this crisis (any crisis) and a media, especially broadcast media, that is partisan and over-adversarial.

Adversarial; good, over-adversarial; bad.

This interacts constantly, in a two way feedback loop always moving at warp speed, with an always on, always unpredictable social media and in effect creates a hostile environment for almost any government messages, whether overt or covert.

Whether the UK with Brexit, USA with Trump, Spain with separatists (indeed Scotland with a very virulent division over Independence with Brexit as a variant *virus*), France, and Italy (which has more divisions than a primary school maths excercise book) all these did badly…whereas many countries like Sweden did better *because people are more disciplined and listen to messages and accept personal responsibility*…or, perhaps are not quite as divided socities going into the whole thing as the countries mentioned.

James Moss
James Moss
3 years ago

Terribly confused. The government did follow behavioral science but it didn’t. SAGE did base advice on behavioural science but it didn’t. The wrong behavioural science was referred to. But is the right science wrong or right? The hard science is difficult enough, let alone the soft science.

Is this article just a placemarker article of the requisite length provided for the usual btl suspects to insert their rants beneath? Not that Unherd is tailoring its output to some perceived “market”, surely not! I wonder what the thoughts are on making it subscription only? Some way away yet I fear.

Michelle Johnston
Michelle Johnston
3 years ago

There are many comments which echo my thoughts. For me a simple though rather unsentimental thought.

Those that suffer badly from Scars CoV2 are portrayed as victims. People who because of someone else behaviour would otherwise be fine.

The reason I will or will not contract the Virus will be entirely my fault. It will because I have not managed risk effectively and i have sufficient understanding and knowledge what all the touch points are and the risks of different environments.

I am fit and healthy but if I were Comorbid and over 75+ and in charge of my faculties I would be exceptionally careful. That that group still dominates hospital admissions and deaths means either they or those that look after them are failing in their risk management strategies or maybe there is another thought like Victoria whatever you do however draconian, the Virus is too tricky to stop the elderly dying. One good piece of news is that Aged Care Facilities in the UK are not producing substantial excess deaths in this winter endemic phase. Better knowing management can work at an institutional level. Far more people of course die of many other things in homes but that is entirely separate although it should not be.

I would add one further thought I am according to my Police Certificate a Law abiding citizen with no trace of criminal behaviour so my observance has been good. I believe almost nothing of what we are offered on this matter. I am sure many of us could write a book on the mis observations, exaggerations and completely incorrect analysis which has dogged the last year.

I offer just one thought I am entirely happy to believe that some of the new sequences have the capacity to attach with a greater degree of success but if I observe SD, wear gloves a shield and a mask in particular indoor environments I believe I am no more at risk than against any other sequence. Incidentally no one has produced evidence in situ how these sequences are actually more successful at transmission or which circumstances make them more so. The assertion is as we moved to the classic peak week 52 that they were.

It is instructive in countries which harboured B117 and the SA variant the case numbers are falling rapidly as they always do in Week 1 to 6 for respiratory illness and far to quickly to be the consequence of government dictate. Inevitably over a 30 day period case numbers fall if you bring society to a halt but hitting deaths this winter of 3 to 1 Sars CoV2/Influenza remains on track.

What I have been reminded of this year is we have a large frail elderly population and a growing younger unhealthy one. Those are facts I believe.

andy young
andy young
3 years ago

Personally I’m a firm adherent to the Keith Cuntabout school of behavioural science : -)

Dorothy Webb
Dorothy Webb
3 years ago

If the NHS were offering some of the helpful medecines – even cures – that would reduce the effect of this Chinese bug they could be keeping more people out of hospital and so “protecting the NHS”. They kept insisting that hydroxychloroquine didn’t work, until just recently they have back-tracked on that – but there are still no signs of its being used. No wonder most of us (who are still able to think for ourselves) are fed up with Government, NHS, lockdowns and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago
Reply to  Dorothy Webb

Governments decided what was right in month one of this, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to admit they were wrong about anything. There’s reelections to think about!

Look them in the eyes and tell them you don’t care about their political careers.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago

I know one thing. HMG set out to scare us into compliance, aided and abetted by the Opposition parties. They’ve now painted themselves into a corner, as all age-groups , especially the youngest, vastly inflate their chances of dying of the disease, causing a sizeable proportion of the population to oppose any relaxation of restrictions, even once we start to move into spring, with vaccines, and the dangers of a respiratory virus begin to recede.

Steven Sieff
Steven Sieff
3 years ago

If the author is representative of behavioural scientists then it seems that for that group ‘our ability to alter human behaviour using clever psychological techniques is weaker than we’d like’. I would wager that for the majority of the rest of us, the prospect of being constantly manipulated to behave in a certain way is not so appealing and may even stray into appalling. I personally would much rather that less effort be put into manipulating (‘nudge’ is such an inoffensive word, let’s call it what it is) our behaviour, and more into presenting the available data in a neutral way which allows for nuance and personal risk assessment.

At the risk of over simplifying, I suspect that the communication failures of the Government have not been so much down to a failure to use the right behavioural ‘trick’ as to a failure to present data in a way that has been transparent, reliable and easy to understand/follow. Constant mixed messaging and unreliable presentation of data undermines confidence very quickly. When backed up by a complex system of laws and guidance which changes extremely rapidly and requires legal expertise to understand, is it any surprise that public confidence and compliance suffers?

Finally, it may be the case that ‘behavioural fatigue’ has little basis in ‘behavioural science’. But I can assure the author from personal experience that if asked to live in a certain way that I dislike for a period of time, I will become fed up with it. And that the more the duration or extent of the restrictions is extended , the more fed up I will become. I suspect I am not alone. And it seems intuitive to me that at least some of that sense of frustration will boil over in some people to an attitude that they are done with trying to do as they are asked, and that it is time to do as they please. I would describe this as an erosion of community spirit caused by fatigue, but I am not a behavioural scientist. By the sounds of how that profession operates, I am extremely glad not to be.

Mauricio Estrela
Mauricio Estrela
3 years ago

Let’s give it a try at the ad approach:

– A picture of someone on the brick of suicide: “Look them in the eye and tell them it’s just one more week without seeing anyone”

– A picture of a person living in a 20 sq meter apartment: “Look them in the eye and tell them they should just exercise at home”

– A picture a of a child living in a shitty place: “Look them in the eye and tell them to play inside the house”

– A picture of a family with an empty fridge: “Look them in the eye and tell them it’s just a job”

– A picture of a tumbstone from someone who died from undiagnosed cancer: “Look them in the eye and tell them this is the most dangerous virus in the world and they could die by leaving the house”

queensrycherule
queensrycherule
3 years ago

There was never justification for lockdown, Chris Whitty himself said infections were falling before lockdown.

Lockdown is communist and mediaeval superstition.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
3 years ago

I really can’t see the problem with any of this. Governments control our behaviour by enacting legislation and we accept that. If they don’t think legislation is necessary then they can point us in the right direction by nudging us with the assistance of behavioural scientists. We can then then make a choice.
There is a whole industry out there which is hell bent on persuading us to do things, we might otherwise not. Advertising, I believe it is called. Of course everyone you ever ask about advertising always claims never to have been influenced by them. Yet we all go out and buy the products anyway.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

I can ignore advertising without penalty. Doing the same with policy tends to produce different results. And there are limits on what behavior can be governed by policy. If it’s prohibitions against doing harm to others, and creating a means of punishing those who do wrong, no one would argue that. But when it’s policy that veers into decisions that free individuals should make on their own, that’s quite another matter.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Not to mention the many millions of taxpayer extorted funds paying for all of this “advertising”.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Agreed. I think Academic Behavioural Psychologists advising governments are the benign end of a spectrum that at the other end works for, indeed is the reason for, the big tech companies (Facebook, google et al). That’s where behavioural modification really happens.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

With government we pay for the adverts ourselves.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

The ads are a lot cheaper than HS2

Don’t we also pay for the ads (or other marketing/selling costs) in the stuff we buy? How many products can you think of which you buy that don’t include the marketing/selling costs?