Thursday, 15 September 2011

Nudge, Nudge. Now Stop Smoking

Behavioural Insights Team. What a heap of crock!

The UK Government have set up this new psychology team in Whitehall (also known as the ‘nudge team’) to encourage – and I use the term loosely – people to fit into social norms. By this I mean to quit smoking, eat healthily, donate to charity and carry organ donor cards. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is being promoted through patronising and subversive means with as much hope of success as the sudden resurrection and deification of the irritating mosquito I squashed against a wall last night.

If this is the Government trying to be smarter it must think an ostrich with its head buried in the sand is the paradigm by which all Governments should formulate policy. Central to the theme appears to be adopting whatever costs little or nothing. Not central to the theme is adopting what works. Daggers of irritation are already appearing in my head.

The Independent Newspaper reports one of the experiments tried through this team, using the notion that human nature is mostly lazy, change the wording on tax letters that led to an extra £200 million in revenue. In other words the Government thinks that getting sneaky in its attempt to fill the treasury coffers is helping people to make better life style choices? But there are lessons in this success story where the example needs to be followed.

For a start, the letter was sent to tax payers by the tax office. This is good because you would expect them to know about tax. The success of this story is basically down to the way information was delivered to the individual – and the individual, without having a comparison to dispute what the taxman said was normal, felt inclined to believe the taxman. While this may work for the tax office, let’s look at the other areas they want to tackle.


The UK currently has the highest obesity rate in the world in some age categories. We are fat because generally the food we eat is rubbish or nutritionally challenged through intensive farming, including meat and poultry. Andrew Lansley has recruited food and drink multi nationals to think up ways of ‘nudging’ people into eating more healthily. Isn’t this a bit like asking an abattoir to think up ways of making slaughter more attractive? The very people who sell you rubbish are now going to advise you not to buy rubbish? I don’t think so. Most likely they will pay lip service to the Government, using their own psychologists to ensure that anything they say will be largely banal and will do nothing to prevent shoppers from carrying on spending money on rubbish as usual.

The supermarket is hardly the best adviser on healthy eating. Indeed I wonder how much of the supermarket’s influence over the cost of the nutritional value of fresh meat and vegetables through tougher cost margins has led to the deterioration of the food we eat.

There are no plans to regulate, which is a crying shame because crap food (higher in salt, sugar or fat than could possibly fit into a proper day’s food intake) should be labelled with a big red sticker that identifies it as ‘this will make you fat’ or ‘this will harden your arteries’ if eaten on a regular basis. Food that is supposed to be good for you should be labelled green. Anything without a label would be treated as suspect.

It is not that humans are lazy or can’t be bothered. They simply do not have time to read all the food labels, anymore than any of us feel inclined to read through all the small print. In fact why don’t we pass a law saying that all small print must be in 250 characters or less? That way we would have time.

We need to be properly informed about food and what is in it. Misrepresentation in advertising and ignorance of the real truth is an area worth spending more effort on. I am informed, for example, that ‘free range’ could mean a little square box in the corner of a big shed that I chicken may be able to pop its head out to see the sky.

Apparently some information that is useful to the uninformed has already started with fast food joints having to advertise how many calories exists in their food. I wouldn’t know for sure as I try never to set foot in such places. My rule is simple – No packet food, no fried stuff, no processed food, no fast food. I bet you the supermarkets won’t be ‘nudging’ their customers not to buy anything I just listed and fast food companies would be apoplectic at the notion of plummeting sales. But if the UK Government was serious about reducing the nation’s weight, that would have to be their advice.


The Government will no doubt say that the chief medical officer is the person who should advise on ‘nudging’ people to quit smoking. In fact the chief medical office has been advising for years and the fact that so many people still smoke is a great testament to how the chief medical officer is not the person to advise on how to quit smoking. If you really want to quit smoking you have to talk to someone who has quit smoking (see Stop Smoking: Diary Of A Quitter)


David Cameron wants us to give to charities. When people do not have enough money to look after themselves, it is hardly appropriate to start giving your money away. There are thousands upon thousands of charities available. My question to David Cameron would be why is there the need to create so many charities? Where is the world’s responsibility towards its people? Why have we not, once and for all, worked out how much digging wells for fresh water in Africa will cost and just do it? The one thing a big charity will never want to do is extinguish the need for the charity. How many charities do you know that reported ‘We got all the money we needed thanks’?

Charity is a huge business. How much of your money goes to pay for those awful advertising campaigns? Why isn’t that money going to the place it was given for? Who pays for the huge offices, staff and administrators? No wonder they need so much money. I would consider giving money to help a starving person if I could be sure that it went to feed a starving person– but I will not to pay the wages of a charity fund raiser. Charity in its current structure is a parasitic drain, surviving on other people’s income. The reason for the charity is merely the recipient of whatever is left after so many expenses have been taken away.

‘Nudge’ me about charities and I will kick where it hurts.

Social Networks:

The Behavioural Insight Team recognises the importance of community networks and their ability to work together to get things done for no cost to the Government. No one lifts a finger to help anyone in any circumstance until the problem is plonked in their back garden. Then they want the world and his wife to ‘join the cause’; look at David Cameron and his ‘Big Society’ for example. The simple fact of life is that people will get together when there is a strong enough shared interest. But when the first priorities are earning enough money to keep a roof over your head, making sure the children get what they need and don’t get into trouble, making a better life for your family and protecting your property, there is neither the incentive nor the energy to invent more life by joining a group that holds no benefit to you or your family. Only rich people who have the time and luxury to consider the ethics of a wider world can indulge in their little bit of ‘I’m doing my bit for the big society’ and sleep happily in their bed knowing they just made the world a better place. Isn’t it great being an ostrich!

No comments:

Post a Comment