Giving government a harder nudge


democracy, political ideas

Author(s):  Rupert Brown
Published date:  28 Feb 2012
Source:  IPPR

The social phenomena that psychologists study are just as concrete and just as important for society as any number of economic indicators.

Despite the claim in recent years by governments of all colours that their policymaking is ‘evidence based’, the research evidence it draws on is often very limited. It is usually economists who receive an especially attentive hearing from civil servants and ministers, while experts from the field of social psychology are listened to with half an ear, if they are invited to the table at all.

Quite why this should be is not clear. It may be that social psychology’s relative youthfulness as a discipline is a factor. After all, many universities themselves did not have departments of psychology until the early 1970s, and social psychology as a sub-field has always been under-represented in those departments. Given that most government ministers and policymakers have been recruited from other academic disciplines, perhaps it is not surprising that they do not spontaneously turn to social psychologists for advice. It may also be that social psychologists have for some time been rather ‘off message’, making recommendations that have not always been completely in tune with the zeitgeist of recent decades, which has prioritised increasing economic growth and material wellbeing at all costs. And, it must be conceded, social psychologists themselves might have been more proactive in seeking to influence public policy, sometimes preferring the sanctity of the ivory tower to the messy realpolitik of policy development and implementation.

But I would argue that social psychological research could and should play a bigger role in local and national policymaking. Social psychologists are particularly well placed to do this, given the kinds of issues we typically study, our concern with behavioural outcomes and the wide range of methodologies we have at our disposal, both to analyse social behaviour and to evaluate the effects of interventions which aim to change that behaviour.

In their analyses of social phenomena, social psychologists can draw on several different approaches. We may employ large-scale surveys to examine patterns of covariation both within the surveys themselves and with other society-level variables (such as social class or ethnicity). Sometimes we will systematically observe what people do in naturalistic settings, again with the goal of accurately describing patterns of co-occurring events. We frequently use experimental techniques in order to establish which factors should properly be considered causes of behaviour, and which effects. Finally, we might use in-depth qualitative approaches to get behind the numbers in order to understand the full complexity of the understanding people have of events in their social world.

Social psychology is a broad field that concerns itself with the attitudes and behaviour of people in and towards their social environments. Above all, it focuses on how people’s relationships – whether with other individuals, with others in their groups, or with those who belong to different groups – affect behaviour and how they are, in turn, affected by the social context in which people find themselves. Given that a primary object of many policy initiatives is to change people’s behaviour, obtaining a modicum of social psychological input to the formulation and evaluation of those initiatives would seem to be at least desirable.

This can be illustrated by one area of social behaviour which is of particular concern to ministers at the moment – healthy living.

One important focus of social psychological research is the extent to which people adhere to government guidelines for health-related behaviours, including for alcohol use, diet and physical activity. A crucial aspect of contemporary public health agendas is that individuals should take responsibility for their health behaviour to minimise short- and long-term harm. However, many people appear not to be sufficiently motivated by health concerns to change their behaviour, and even when motivated to make healthy choices, they may not feel that they have access to and understand information about healthy and unhealthy choices. One example of such a gap concerns alcohol consumption.

Government guidelines for safe or sensible alcohol consumption are not accepted and used by all drinkers. Studies show that many people do not understand how to use unit-based alcohol intake guidelines, and that many of those who do nevertheless don’t consider them to be realistic or helpful. The results of a drink-pouring activity in one recent study revealed that people’s usual drinks contained substantially more than one unit, and that people typically overestimated the volume of a unit of different alcoholic drinks. Such findings have implications for the validity of self-reported alcohol consumption in research and clinical settings – most people underestimate how much they actually drink – and they indicate a need to develop alcohol guidelines that are easier for people to understand and to put into practice.

People seem not to be persuaded by other health promotion campaigns either. These campaigns frequently focus on the dangers associated with engaging in health-damaging behaviours. Unfortunately, the very people at whom such campaigns are aimed are often the least likely to be persuaded by such health-risk information.

However, recent research using a technique called ‘self-affirmation’, which involves making people temporarily feel good about themselves, increases the likelihood that they will be persuaded by health-risk information. For example, incorporating a simple self-affirmation task into a health promotion leaflet on the dangers of not using sunscreen has been found to increase the likelihood that sunbathers would (a) be persuaded by this information and (b) request a free sample of sunscreen. Similar techniques could be employed to encourage greater take-up of healthier eating and exercise opportunities.

In this short article, I have covered only one policy area where research evidence from social psychology could help policymakers to achieve better outcomes. But the insights from the discipline are just as relevant to other areas: to getting people to reduce their carbon footprint, encouraging constructive citizenship, achieving greater integration between different ethnic groups, promoting happiness and wellbeing, reducing hate crime, and understanding the wellsprings of terrorism.

At present, it seems that policymakers frequently view social psychological research as only being concerned with ‘soft’ attitudinal outcomes, in contrast with what are seen as more reliable and ‘objective’ data, such as unemployment statistics, inflation rates or wage levels. But the social phenomena that psychologists study are just as concrete and just as important for society as any number of economic indicators.

To end on a positive note: it may be that the tide is turning slightly. We can perhaps take comfort from David Cameron’s reported exhortation to his ministers to put Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge onto their holiday reading lists: much of the research that underpins that book, and many of its policy recommendations, are fundamentally social-psychological in nature. Likewise, we applaud the creation of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team whose stated aim is ‘to help the UK government develop and apply lessons from behavioural economics and behavioural science to public policymaking’. Although the membership of this team is not easy to discern from its webpages, a glance at the content and bibliography of one of their recent publications, Applying behavioural insights to health, suggests that there is at least one social psychologist among them. We hope that others of us may soon follow suit.

This is an edited version of an essay by Rupert Brown, Richard de Visser, Helga Dittmar, John Drury, Tom Farsides, Donna Jessop and Paul Sparks – all of Sussex University – which appeared in the latest issue of IPPR’s quarterly journal PPR.