U.K. Gov’t Behavior Modification ‘Nudge Unit’ Chief Asserts Citizens’ Obedience to Future Lockdowns: ‘Fear-Based’ Messaging Necessary for ‘Wrongly Calibrated’ Individuals

Originally published July 6, 2023 7:21 am PDT

In a recent interview, the head of the U.K.’s Behavioural Insights Team, or the “nudge unit,” Professor David Halpern, has expressed confidence that British citizens would freely comply with future pandemic lockdowns.

Based on their past experience, he claimed that they have “practiced the drill” and could easily repeat it if another health crisis were to arise.

Last week, a similar message was conveyed by Matt Hancock, who emphasized the importance of preparing for potential disease outbreaks with swift and extensive lockdowns.

Professor Halpern’s comments followed, affirming that the populace would respond obediently to new “stay at home” orders since they “kind of know what the drill is.”

Using the experience from the COVID-19 pandemic, the leading behavioral scientist suggested that the nation will now more willingly accept local restrictions if required.

He defended the use of “fear-based” messaging in critical circumstances, noting that sometimes it is necessary to “cut through,” especially if you think people are “wrongly calibrated.”

Professor Halpern’s remarks are unsettling to those skeptical of lockdowns due to their societal, economic, and health impacts.

During the pandemic, the U.K. government engaged the nudge unit to maximize compliance with COVID rules through accessible behavioral expertise.

The nudge unit leveraged catchy slogans such as “hands, face, space” and visual prompts in its campaigns.

As per Halpern, these cues were effective, causing people to feel “naked” without a mask and encouraging the establishment of new behaviors.

He stated, “In principle, you can switch it back on.”

Explaining the concept of a habit loop, Halpern suggested that the pandemic had left an “enduring trace on society.”

This “quasi-evolutionary” impact would facilitate the reintroduction of mask-wearing and work-from-home measures in the event of another infectious disease outbreak.

He stated that people might express initial resistance, but once the “muscles” have been exercised, they’re likely to comply again.

Notably, the professor also acknowledged that a portion of the population (8%) had been non-compliant during the pandemic.

The reliance on behavioral science in the government’s pandemic response has invited scrutiny, with some calling for an inquiry into its ethical implications.

Last year, the U.K.’s Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) called for an inquiry into the use of behavior modification.

APPG co-chair Esther McVey MP said, “We must ask the question: was it ethical to deploy covert psychological strategies on the British people?”

Responding to criticism that some nudge unit messaging was “unnecessarily scary,” Halpern believes that behavioral interventions should be debated openly.

“It’s entirely appropriate for a democratic engagement to be had,” he said.

In early 2021, psychologists were accusing U.K. government officials of using “covert psychological strategies” to manipulate the public’s behavior.

They claimed the government was putting the country in “a state of heightened anxiety” and that the “inflated fear levels” among citizens would “be responsible for the ‘collateral’ deaths of many thousands of people with non-Covid illnesses” who are “too frightened to attend hospital.”

The psychologists were also concerned that the British public had been the subject of a mass experiment in the use of “covert” strategies that operate “below their level of awareness.”

They cited a March 2022 document from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), a British government body that provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision-makers during emergencies.

The document called for increasing the public’s “perceived level of personal threat.”

“A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened,” the document reads. “[I]t could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group.”

It went on to say that “although levels of concern may be rising,” the “perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

“To be effective this must also empower people by making clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat,” is said.

In order to increase public compliance, the document recommended the government “use media to increase sense of personal threat.”

Though that tactic’s spill-over effects “could be negative,” it was seen as having “high” effectiveness.

One regular SAGE attendee stated that the British people “have been subjected to an unevaluated psychological experiment without being told that is what’s happening.”

“All of this is about trying to steer behavior in the direction an elite has decided, rather than deciding if it is the right thing or the ethical thing to do,” they added.

Retired National Health Service (NHS) consultant clinical psychologist Gary Sidley said at the time, “It’s as if there is a little industry around pandemic management and it excludes alternative voices.”

“There is growing concern within my field about using fear and shame as a driver of behavior change,” he warned.

Sidley and 46 colleagues wrote to the British Psychological Society (BPS), raising “concerns about the activities of government-employed psychologists” in their “mission to gain the public’s mass compliance with the ongoing coronavirus restrictions.”

“Our view is that the use of covert psychological strategies—that operate below the level of people’s awareness—to ‘nudge’ citizens to conform to a contentious and unprecedented public health policy raises profound ethical questions,” they wrote.