Manipulating the Human Mindscape – influencing behaviour in a Post Truth World

When I was studying psychology, back in the late 70’s, ‘behavioural psychology’ was associated with a man called Pavlov who trained dogs to drool at the sound of a bell which had been strongly associated with food. Similarly, pigeons were being trained by a certain Mr Skinner to obtain food by pressing a button and turning in a complete circle. Apparently pigeons were even trained to identify and reject substandard nuts and bolts from an assembly line.

In 2009 , Sir Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, sought to review the implications of behavioural theory for policy-making. The Cabinet Office commissioned the Institute for Government to produce a report exploring the potential applications of psychological theory to influence behaviour through public policy. The result was a document called ‘Mindscape’.

As declared in the very first sentence of Mindscape, influencing people’s behaviour is nothing new to Government, which often uses tools such as legislation, regulation or taxation to achieve desired policy outcomes. In fact, at its roots, the word ‘government’ actually means ‘control state of mind’.

It seems behavioural psychologists working for UK.Gov.plc are no longer simply interested in conditioning rats to press a button to obtain food or pigeons to spot dodgy nuts on an assembly line. Nowadays it is government policy to use our habits of thought and default positions to prime, affect and guide what we do, how we behave, and even how we think.

According to the authors, ‘Many of the biggest policy challenges we are now facing – such as the increase in people with chronic health conditions – will only be resolved if we are successful in persuading people to change their behaviour, their lifestyles or their existing habits.’

We are encouraged to believe that such persuasion reflects a sophisticated understanding of what affects human behaviour, that it will result in innovative solutions and better outcomes, and that practical, appropriate and effective policies will result. The intention is to discover ‘low cost, low pain ways of “nudging” citizens into new ways of acting.’

We have only to look around us to see how well this process is working for governments and their lackeys, and how clearly misleading it is for the population at large.

In fact, as Mindscape informs us, the vast majority of public policy aims to change or shape our behaviour as legislation and regulation seek to compel us to act in certain ways. Less coercive measures, such as incentives and information provision (e.g public health guidance), serve to encourage the behaviours desired by government. The authors claim to show how this framework can help to tackle challenges in major areas of policy such as ‘crime and anti-social behaviour’, ‘healthy and prosperous lifestyles’ and what they call ‘pro-social behaviour’.

The document acknowledges that ‘nudge-type policy tools’ may require careful handling as the public need to give permission and help shape how such tools are used. With that in mind, consideration is given to the processes by which democratic permission can be obtained for behaviour change policies.

The logic is that if government is already attempting to shape behaviour, it should do so as effectively as possible. This is not simply a matter for Central Government and the Cabinet Office as they seek to ensure that local and professional applications of behavioural approaches are rigorously evaluated.

‘Once cost-effectiveness for an application is clearly shown, and public acceptability has been established, central government might then move to national implementation’.

Apparently the management team aim to break with tradition and ‘reduce crime, strengthen communities, and support healthy and prosperous lives.’

I’m sure I will be forgiven for having my doubts!

Mindscape’ and its implications are examined in more detail on Dr Rock’s Internet Radio Show podcast Manipulating Mindscape – The Madness is the Method.

The show was originally webcast at on 13th February 2020.

dr 16/2/21