Behaviour change as psychological governance – making psy-citizens?

Rhys Jones, Mark Whitehead and Jessica Pykett
Rhys Jones, Mark Whitehead and Jessica Pykett

Rhys Jones and Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University, and Jessica Pykett, Birmingham University discuss their article, Psychological governance and behaviour change which was published in Policy & Politics in 2013, and is available free during May 2014.

‘Behaviour Change’ has become a familiar term in UK public policy. This trend indicates the growing influence of the behavioural sciences (including behavioural economics, social psychology and, to a certain extent, neuroscience disciplines) on UK policy making communities in a range of sectors –from personal finance, through public health, to environmental communications. Our work to date has involved a policy ethnography of the emergence and rise of Behaviour Change as an agenda for governance which embeds behavioural insights into public policy design and delivery. We are now investigating the significance of the UK as a policy laboratory for these behavioural forms of governance, as the Behaviour Change agenda spreads internationally. We have identified hundreds of countries in which Behaviour Change initiatives are commonplace as well as several nations in which Behaviour Change has become a centrally-orchestrated programme for governance.

In this article we examined how such policies urge us to rethink common interpretations of neoliberal governance in ways which challenge the idea that power has become straightforwardly decentred, which consider how assumptions about rational choice have been quashed, and which question the invocation of entrepreneurial forms of ‘active citizenship’ on which neoliberal forms of governance have been based.

The Behaviour Change agenda challenges all three of these contentions but often in contradictory ways. Firstly, the imperative to change people’s behaviour relies on alliances between civil society and private actors which clearly go beyond the state in the design and delivery of behavioural interventions, recognising the expertise of these sectors in knowing and reaching potential target audiences. In this sense, there are a number of significant new intermediaries and networks which mediate state-citizen relations in the pursuit of behavioural governance, with behaviour change experts embedded within government departments, private marketing and communications consultancies, and the newly mutualised Behavioural Insights Team playing a crucial role. Yet there is also a hint at the potential re-centring of power away from the citizen and towards ‘choice architects’ whose (often) randomised, experimental evidence on human choices and decision-making is privileged in the design of policy environments which nudge people towards making socially appropriate choices.

Secondly, the rationality principle at the heart of both neoliberal forms of governance and their critiques has been substantially undermined by an (arguably belatedly popularised) emphasis on the psychological aspects of decision-making. There is an assertion within behavioural economics that humans are somewhat flawed in their decision-making capabilities. We rely on rules of thumb, we are subject to various erroneous judgments and we are engaged in an ongoing battle between our automatic brain processes and our more reflexive selves. Homer Simpson has become the unlikely icon of such assertions and we are warned that there is a Homer inside all of us. And yet within the policy and academic literature on behaviour change, an underlying distinction is too often drawn between those judged responsible decision-makers and those who are too susceptible to their inbuilt psychological fallibilities. As such, there is a danger that policies using the psychological techniques of subconscious behavioural change, anchoring, priming, default setting and cleverly designed choice environments will be directed disproportionately at carefully segmented population groups deemed to be guilty of making poor decisions on a regular basis.

Thirdly, this all means that the notion that neoliberal forms of government succeed partly through the creation of an ‘entrepreneurial’ and active kind of citizen who will make rational choices in the pursuit of their self-management is no longer presumed by policy makers. However, there continues to be much political rhetoric celebrating the value of co-produced and co-designed public services and the potential for citizens and communities to feed into policy development at an early stage. The Behaviour Change agenda seems to make similar appeals in its calls for partnership working, designing policies with real people in mind and going with the grain of human cognition. But there are again contradictory imperatives at work here. Where that grain of human cognition is seen to be self-defeating and essentially flawed, a new rationale is opened up for increasingly interventionist and at the same time subtle and potentially invisible means to by-pass our reflexive minds in order to overcome and over-ride deficiencies in our automatic selves. In this way, the active, self-managing citizen is replaced with a more passive psychologised subject for whom ‘foolproof’ policy solutions must be deployed. This citizen is in many ways divorced from the material and socio-economic contexts in which decisions are made and from the collective fora through which choice environments should arguably be constructed.

These three sometimes contradictory challenges to contemporary accounts of neoliberal governance provoked us in this article to consider how the behavioural sciences must necessarily negotiate the prerequisite conditions for governing both the psychologically-rendered soul and socially segmented whole populations. We explore these issues in greater depth in our recent book, Changing Behaviours. On the Rise of the Psychological State (2013) which charts the emergence of the Behaviour Change agenda in the UK and explores its significance in relation to policy areas such as organ donation, urban planning, school food and nutrition and responsible gambling. Far from suggesting that the Behaviour Change agenda signifies a centrally-directed manipulative set of mind-control techniques, we instead raised questions concerning the democratic validity of ‘choice architects’, the potential unintended consequences of the wide-spread adoption of behavioural insights in public policy, and the sociological assumptions and blindspots on which behavioural forms of governance are founded.

Psychological governance and behaviour change is available free on Ingenta during May 2014.

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