There is a war on for your mind, as behavioural scientists increasingly shape the narrative that you hear and see. This is especially true in regards to Covid-19. As a UK government document from March of last year stated, “many issues around the coronavirus response relate to behaviour.”
This is why the UK government has an entire team of behavioural scientists who work to improve public compliance with scientific dictates in relation to Covid-19. It is called the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), with a similar group formed during the co-called swine flu pandemic of 2009/10 and the Ebola crisis of 2014.
The behavioural team is a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which advises the UK government on Covid-19. This sub-group is comprised of more than 40 scientists and academics, from such fields as health psychology, social psychology and anthropology. They provide “behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical or epidemiological experts.”
The behavioural sub-group has suggested various measures. In order to increase public compliance with Covid dictates for instance, the sub-group suggested “increasing risk perceptions.” A UK government document also notes that the behavioural sub-group is “maintaining a log of COVID-19 specific behavioural science, including polling.” In other words, Covid-19 is the grandest live social experiment in human history, and we are the guinea pigs.
Although it is a sub-group of SAGE, some participants of the behavioural team are also direct participants of SAGE, such as Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, who is the Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge. Some participants of this behavioural sub-group on Covid are also part of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), such as Professor David Halpern. Also known as the Nudge Unit, the BIT generates and applies behavioural insights to inform policy.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines behavioural insights as “an inductive approach to policy making that combines insights from psychology, cognitive science, and social science with empirically-tested results to discover how humans actually make choices.” The OECD notes that there are over 200 institutions around the world that are applying behavioural insights to public policy.
The British BIT was originally set up within the UK Cabinet Office a decade ago. Today, it is part owned by the UK Cabinet Office, NESTA and its employees. The BIT has worked with various UK government departments, in addition to the NHS, the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Development Program.
Take Your Shot
The BIT even has a podcast, called Inside the Nudge Unit. In their latest episode, Covid Vaccines and Tech Repairability, they talk about the behavioural work that is being conducted to increase vaccine adoption. The hosts interview Carolina Toth from the BIT’s New York office, who has been working on designing and testing behavioural “evidence-based messages that Mayors and local leaders can use to help encourage uptake of the Covid-19 vaccines.”
In addition to all this behavioural nudging that is taking place, it was also revealed last year that a psychological warfare unit of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), called the 77th brigade, was working to counter so-called Covid misinformation online, using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to do so. In the words of the MOD, “the 77th brigade uses non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers as a means to adapt behaviours of the opposing forces and adversaries.”
“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” That was what Edward Bernays, the father of public relations (PR) and nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote in his 1928 book, Propaganda. Bernays’ characterization of society still rings true today; the only difference is that there is a whole new technological layer of behavioural insights in play.
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The role of behavioural science in the coronavirus outbreak 14th March 2020 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/873732/07-role-of-behavioural-science-in-the-coronavirus-outbreak.pdf
Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/independent-scientific-pandemic-influenza-group-on-behaviours-spi-b
List of participants of SAGE and related sub-groups https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/scientific-advisory-group-for-emergencies-sage-coronavirus-covid-19-response-membership/list-of-participants-of-sage-and-related-sub-groups
Professor Dame Theresa Marteau DBE https://www.phpc.cam.ac.uk/people/pcu-group/pcu-senior-academic-staff/theresa-marteau/
Professor David Halpern, Chief Executive of the BIT https://www.bi.team/people/professor-david-halpern/
BIT Podcast: COVID vaccines & tech repairability https://www.bi.team/blogs/podcast-covid-vaccines-tech-repairability/
Behavioural insights (OECD) https://www.oecd.org/gov/regulatory-policy/behavioural-insights.htm
Gregor Young, Defence chief says 77th Brigade is countering Covid misinformation https://www.thenational.scot/news/18398012.defence-chief-says-77th-brigade-countering-covid-misinformation/
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