How politicians and nudgers deliberately frightened an already fearful population

KNOWING that people are already in a state of heightened fear, what government would choose to further frighten and shame them? If citizens have adapted their lifestyles to function under difficult circumstances, what government would actively try to disrupt these necessary and understandable adjustments? And what government believes that a fearful population during a ‘pandemic’ is not acceptable, and chooses to sow panic instead? A recently published article by HART member Dr Gary Sidley has revealed that such a regime is our own British government, assisted by their advisors and behavioral science experts.

The strategic use of fear, shame and peer pressure/scapegoating by the state to promote compliance with Covid restrictions has been extensively documented (see for example here and here). Focusing on the harrowing and highly controversial ‘Look them in the eyes’ (LTITE) messaging campaign of January 2021, Sidley has conducted a forensic analysis to uncover the reasons offered by the Cabinet Office for banning the use of these emotionally disturbing adverts on justify the internet. the British people. The findings provide insight into the mindsets and motivations of our political leaders and expert advisors, revealing their callous disregard for the well-being of those they are paid to serve.

The advertising agency responsible for the production of the LTITE videos and posters was from MullenLowe, and a reminder of the moving tone and content of this campaign can be found on their website. The ads feature close-up images of acutely ill patients in intensive care units, alongside tired and stressed healthcare staff (all dressed in ventilators or masks, of course), ominous background music and a voiceover that says: ‘Look them in the eye and tell them that you are doing everything you can to stop the spread of Covid-19. Multiple behavioral science nudges support the images and slogans, with fear inflation and shame being particularly prominent.

Based on the Cabinet Office’s responses to a series of freedom of information requests, Sidley has revealed the official statements given by our political leaders and state-funded experts in their attempt to stop inflicting further emotional distress on an already to justify an overly fearful population. Specific aspects of the Cabinet Office’s reasoning in January 2021 that were used to support the approval of the LTITE campaign are listed below, followed by a brief evaluative response:

Level of perceived risk. . . is not as high as March 2020. March is a shock to the system, but has now learned to live alongside COVID‘ (FOI, 2023).

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have been ‘living alongside’ respiratory viruses. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that such an observation is positive, and a political establishment that puts the well-being of its people first would welcome this finding rather than use it to justify inflicting more fear and shame on its citizens .

They have settled on their own level of ‘acceptable behavior’. . . that suits their lifestyle, their specific needs and circumstances‘ (FOI, 2023).

It is perverse to see these adjustments as grounds for state intervention. A more rational interpretation of these behavioral changes would be that people increasingly made their own individualized, balanced risk assessments as the basis for their pragmatic decisions about how to best function in challenging circumstances.

Significant and visible difference in behavior and attitudes between the two lockdowns. . . Anxious but much less panic this time‘ (FOI, 2023).

The implication here is that the observation that people were ‘anxious’ was insufficient to satisfy our policy makers; they wanted outright ‘panic’. In a liberal democracy, those in positions of influence should try to maintain calm rather than increase panic; only tyrants deliberately frighten their own people.

The challenge lies in overcoming the established ways in which people manage their lives within the lockdown rules‘ (FOI, 2023a).

In a civilized society, in times of national “crisis,” our elected leaders (and their expert advisors) would strive to support and strengthen the creative efforts of their citizens so that they can continue to function in difficult times. It is inexcusable to strategically strive to override people’s coping strategies.

What role did state-funded behavioral scientists (“nudgers”) play in these decisions to sow even more fear and shame among an already overly fearful population? Sidley’s research suggests some answers.

The quotes cited in the FOIs (as described above) are from the Cabinet Office’s own qualitative research, carried out by Solutions Research, a private research firm. However, Sidley reveals other key state actors who were directly involved in the development of the LTITE campaign. Conrad Bird (Director of Campaigns & Marketing at the Cabinet Office) was the senior civil servant leading the engagement team that provided the creative brief to MullenLowe. Furthermore, the senior minister ultimately responsible for signing off on the harrowing LTITE videos and posters was the then Health Secretary, Matt – ‘don’t kill your grandma’ – Hancock. In terms of behavioral science input, the ‘internal Cabinet Office Government Communication Service Behavioral Science team provided insight and guidance to Conrad Bird’ (FOI, 2024). This small group of behavioral scientists, based at the heart of government, was thus formally tasked with providing Bird with expert advice on the appropriate use of nudges within LTITE communications; As such, it is reasonable to argue that this group of experts bears a significant degree of responsibility for the fear inflation and shame inherent in this campaign, via either their active guidance to Bird and his team, and/or their inability to intervene to prevent the unethical use of these psychological persuasion strategies.

The central conclusion to be drawn from Sidley’s critical analysis of the genesis of the LTITE campaign is that we have a government, and a corresponding group of behavioral science advisors, prepared to frighten and shame an already fearful population to promote compliance with state dictates. . As things stand, we can expect the same tone and content in government communications the next time our political leaders choose to declare a ‘global crisis’, whether under the banner of health, climate, pollution or a another supposed global threat falls.

This article appeared in HEART on April 15, 2024 and is republished with kind permission.