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Chief Nudger, David Halpern, says UK has been drilled to accept a future lockdown
Lockdown sceptics were "wrongly calibrated"
David Halpern is a British psychologist, author, and government advisor. He's best known for his work in the field of behavioural economics and his role as the Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or "Nudge Unit" in the UK.
Halpern's work with the Nudge Unit involves using insights from behavioural science to inform and influence policy and practice in areas like public health, education, and tax compliance. The team's nickname derives from the book "Nudge" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which advocates for subtle policy shifts to help people make better decisions for themselves.
Before joining the Behavioural Insights Team, Halpern was the Chief Analyst in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The BIT initially focused on policy areas within the UK, but it quickly gained an international reputation. Its work demonstrated that relatively minor tweaks could, for example, significantly increase tax compliance or organ donation rates. The team's successes prompted interest from governments and organizations around the world.
In 2014, the BIT was spun off into a social purpose company, jointly owned by its employees, the UK government, and Nesta (an innovation-focused charity). This allowed the BIT to work with other countries and organizations, and it has since set up offices and run projects in numerous locations around the globe, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Canada, among others.
Can you spot a pattern in the list of countries in which the BIT advises!?
When it came to lockdowns, Halpern said the UK had “practised the drill” and “could redo it” in a future crisis. He predicts that if another pandemic were to occur, the country would comply with another lockdown because they “kind of know what the drill is”. He even thought that the nation’s prior experience made it “much easier to now imagine” the population accepting new restrictions.
The professor said that although fear-based messaging is generally not effective, “there are times when you do need to cut through…particularly if you think people are wrongly calibrated”. Take note, lockdown sceptics, you are wrongly calibrated, next time you will be sent to the quarantine centre for recalibration.
He confirmed what we all know, that posters acted as visual prompts so that “when you go into a shop or somewhere else, it re-reminds you, it cues, it acts as a trigger for the behaviour”. Often the behaviour it triggered was irrational aggression from those who were brainwashed by the BIT.
The BIT used the correct triggers to make the population feel “naked” without masks. “You would feel like, Oh my God, I haven’t got my mask. You feel naked, right?”, he said.
He likened the public’s response to exercising muscles - once they’ve been used, they’re more likely to be reused again. The professor said that once the public is taught a new behaviour, “in principle, you can switch it back on”. “You’ve got the beginning, particularly, of what is called a habit loop: if this has happened, then you should do that”.
Halpern said that major disasters “leave this enduring trace on society” which is a “quasi-evolutionary” impact, strongly indicative of future behaviour. He thinks that the public would wear masks again “relatively rapidly if they were persuaded”.
Sadly, I agree with him and the recent pandemic has only strengthened the nudgers. “We figured out a lot more than we did before, so we’ve practised the drill and we could redo it,” he said.
“Imagine if it happens, not across the whole population, but it happened in an area, a city, and you said, ‘it is really important to do the following thing’. “It is much easier to now imagine that that city would then say, ‘OK, we better do this, stay at home and wear masks when we’re out or whatever.”
The BIT identified 8% of the population as “super spreaders”, i.e. citizens that didn’t comply with Covid restrictions. “They’re the ones you really worry about”, he said. Whilst his team didn’t design the ‘can you look them in the eyes?’ posters, Halpern said, “I can perfectly understand why they were put together in the way they were.” The images were aimed at non-compliant individuals for whom the message was “not emotionally cutting through”.
Maybe Halpern should be told to look at these posters instead.
When asked about the “unnecessarily scary” pandemic adverts, Halpern said there is precedent for tougher messaging.
The genie has been let out of the bottle, will it ever go back in again?
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