Culture

How The UK Government Weaponized Behavioral Psychology During Covid To Make People Compliant

By Rebecca Hope··  11 min read
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Fear is an incredible thing. It’s a remarkable defense system, enabling us to jump into action should we sense danger or see a predator approach.

For the past two years or so, the majority of the world’s population has lived in fear of something. Some have lived in fear of a virus and their neighbors, who may be infected. Others grew fearful of their government and the very institutions that are in place to protect them. They questioned the government’s draconian lockdown measures, protested, and resisted in an attempt to maintain liberty.

Many would call these people conspiracy theorists simply for questioning the necessity and effectiveness of lockdowns. However, is it not right to question measures that were first seen in a communist country? Moreso, if you didn’t question these measures, why didn’t you? 

In the UK, we were subjected to repeated lockdowns, social distancing measures, school closures, and mandatory mask wearing. Jobs were lost, businesses went bust, and suicides and suicide attempts increased, even among young children. You would think such devastation would cause rioting, but it didn’t. Instead, the UK became one of the most frightened populations in the world. But what was it that made the UK one of the nations with the highest levels of concern about Covid?

Throughout Covid, the UK government, and governments around the world, used behavioral psychology to manipulate their people, weaponize fear, and ensure their people did exactly as they were told. Nudge theory, in particular, was a driving component.

British journalist Laura Dodsworth did an incredible job investigating nudge theory and the organizations behind it. In her book, A State of Fear, she outlines the psychological techniques used and how they were implemented in regard to Covid. Here are some of her findings.

What Is Nudge Theory?

Nudge theory is a concept in behavioral science that uses encouragement or suggestions to “nudge” decision-making and change a person’s behavior. These nudges aren’t obvious or forceful but are subtle suggestions, meaning they happen without you even being aware. The idea is that although you’re being nudged in a certain direction, as it’s not mandated, you’re still making the decision of your own free will.

Isn’t it disturbing that there are people who can change your thinking and behavior without you even knowing?

According to Cass Sunstein, the person who conceived the term nudge, “By knowing how people think, we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them, their families, and society.” This kind of thinking is particularly concerning. Should people not be given all the facts to make an informed decision, rather than institutions nudging them into the actions they decide are best for them? Is it not disturbing that there are people who can change your thinking and behavior without you even knowing?

Although it could be argued that nudge theory can be used for good, such as addressing health issues currently impacting the population, it perhaps denies individuals freedom of choice. According to Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, “Nudge theory is about denying certain choices or making other choices harder. It is used to avoid having arguments and instead to manipulate people without them realizing. It is a real assault on people’s capacity to make up their own minds. It treats us like mice in a laboratory. If people don’t do something, it’s not because they are incapable of doing it. It’s because they have chosen not to.”

Unfortunately, there are many behavioral scientists embedded in the UK government, nudging their people to do what they have decided is best for them. The most prominent is the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also known as the Nudge Unit.

The Behavioural Insights Team

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was set up in 2010. It was the “world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy.” As Britain is one of the pioneers in nudge theory, there are now offices in London, Manchester, Sydney, Wellington, Paris, New York, Singapore, and Toronto, delivering nudge theory around the globe

Many members of the BIT, as well as other psychologists, currently sit on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B). SPI-B is a subgroup of SAGE, an advisory group that provides advice to the UK government about how to ensure the impact of its Covid-19 communications is maximized.

Psychologists didn’t seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic and became manipulative.

A person of particular interest is Susan Michie, who sits on SAGE, SPI-B, and Independent SAGE. Michie is a member of the Communist Party of Britain and has reportedly been for 40 years. The Communist Party of Britain wants "a revolutionary transformation of society, ending the existing capitalist system of exploitation and replacing it with a socialist society in which each will contribute according to ability and receive according to work done.”

It is fair to question whether or not a person advising the government through multiple advisory panels may be influenced by their political views, especially when they hold views such as Susan Michie’s. In an interview with Good Morning Britain, journalist Richard Madeley asked Susan Michie this exact question. She, of course, declined to answer. 

In Laura Dodsworth’s book, A State of Fear, she interviewed members of SPI-B and SAGE who said they were “stunned by the weaponisation of behavioural psychology” and that “psychologists didn’t seem to notice when it stopped being altruistic and became manipulative. They have too much power and it intoxicates them.”

So how did they do it? How did the government and its behavioral psychologist advisors make the British public one of the most compliant populations? 

MINDSPACE, Mantras, and Masks

When introducing the lockdowns, the government was worried there would be riots. The minutes of the SPI-B meeting on March 22, 2020, just before the first UK lockdown, stated that people don’t feel sufficiently threatened so “the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased[…] using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” According to retired clinical psychologist Dr. Gary Sidley, “behavioural scientists know that a frightened population is a compliant one,” which was absolutely exploited as a way of compelling the British public to abide by Covid restrictions. 

A comprehensive report of the psychological approaches used by the BIT can be found in the document MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy. Under the acronym MINDSPACE, the strategies are Messenger, Incentives, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitments, and Ego. These strategies are underpinned by a robust evidence base of behavioral psychology and the four most prominently used during Covid, according to Dr Sidley, were Messenger, Ego, Affect, and Norms. Dr. Sidley goes into greater detail about the four most prominent strategies here. To fully understand how the MINDSPACE strategies work, especially in regard to Covid, it’s a worthwhile read.

MINDSPACE in Action

Armed with a full suite of manipulative techniques, the UK was bombarded with fear-inducing information, and of course, the mainstream media were complicit. Scary slogans such as “Don’t kill granny,” “If you go out you can spread it,” and “People will die” were used to deter rule-breaking. Recurrent footage of dying patients in ICUs played on the news, as well as inflated predictions of future casualties. 

Ego

Those following the rules were branded as “heroes” and those who didn’t were “covidiots.” This plays into the MINDSPACE strategy Ego, which acknowledges that we all strive to maintain a positive view of ourselves. This is why we exhibit cognitive biases in the way we make sense of the world. To preserve a virtuous self-image, each of us routinely displays what psychologists refer to as a “fundamental attribution error.” We take the credit for good outcomes while blaming others for bad ones. This drive to protect our ego, to act and think in ways that make us feel better about ourselves, was absolutely exploited by the BIT specialists to nudge British people to comply with Covid restrictions.

Those following the rules were branded as “heroes” and those who didn’t were “covidiots.” 

Normative Pressure

Norms, another MINDSPACE strategy, taps into how we are strongly influenced by what others do. As the MINDSPACE document outlines, “Social norms are a very powerful driver of both minor and more serious forms of crime. Essentially, we often take our cues for ‘what goes’ from those around us.”

The awareness of the widespread views and behavior of our peers (social norms) creates enormous pressure to conform. In turn, being seen as a deviant or a “covidiot” can cause a large amount of discomfort. This kind of normative pressure was repeatedly used by the UK government throughout Covid to gain the public’s compliance with their escalating restrictions.  

A clear example of this is how, during interviews with the media, ministers would regularly say the vast majority are “obeying the rules,” in regard to social distancing or travel restrictions, for example. By government representatives repeatedly stating that most of the public were conforming, and maintaining this repetition, compliance was improved and maintained. 

However, normative pressure is less effective in changing the behavior of the deviant minority if there’s no visible indicator of pro-social compliance, which is where masks come in.

Mask Wearing

At the beginning of the pandemic, public health advisors and politicians told the world that masks were not effective in the community. In the UK, our Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said, “In terms of mask-wearing, our advice is clear: that wearing a mask if you do not have an infection reduces the risk almost not at all. So we do not advise that.” In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci shared this opinion, saying, “People should not be walking around with masks.” He also said that wearing masks may make people feel better, but it won’t give people the protection they think it will. In fact, it can even increase transmission. 

Randomized controlled trials investigating whether face coverings have any impact on community transmission with SARS-CoV-2 showed surgical masks achieve no significant reduction in infection risk for the wearer. 

But if masks do little to reduce transmission, why were they brought in?

Behavioral psychologists love masks. They believe they promote collectivism, as well as the feeling that “we’re all in this together.” Plus, they’re a visible indicator that there is danger all around, a constant reminder that every passerby could have the virus.

Masks are a visible indicator that there is danger all around, a constant reminder that every passerby could have the virus.

Throughout Covid, Brits were denied many basic freedoms around travel, work, leisure, and education. However, to maintain such draconian restrictions, self-policing by the populace was vital. Face coverings provide immediate identification of the rule followers and the deviants. To go without a mask in a supermarket or train station while the majority abide by the rules would be incredibly uncomfortable. Subsequently, those who went without were pressured to put a mask on, often through verbal abuse. 

The argument many have made is “it’s better than nothing.” This simply isn’t true. Individual scientists have recognized that wearing face coverings will likely increase viral transmission. Potential harms also include exhaustion, facial dermatitis, dehydration, and headaches. 

Plus, they’re dehumanizing. As social animals, humans need to interact with others to maintain well-being. Face coverings create a barrier, impairing communication and reducing the feedback we receive from others which we need to thrive. For children, in particular, peer-to-peer interaction is essential to social development and emotional intelligence.

Closing Thoughts

The above barely scratches the surface of the psychological manipulation the UK government inflicted on its people. What’s particularly concerning is how effective the nudges were and how it’s set a precedent for further use.

Given the perceived threat of the virus (very different from the actual threat), many may believe that the weaponization of fear was a necessary measure. However, it’s particularly the collateral damage we should be paying attention to. Fear inflation led to many people becoming too scared to attend hospitals with non-Covid illnesses. Some who wished to see doctors but were denied appointments were given late cancer diagnoses when they were finally seen by healthcare professionals. As a result, many have experienced devastating outcomes. 

Not only that, but many old people who were too afraid to leave their homes will have died prematurely from loneliness. The impact of coronavirus restrictions on children will last for years in terms of education and social and emotional development. The list goes on.

Given the nature of the tactics deployed and the emotional devastation it causes, an open debate about the ethics of this approach is vital but has yet to occur. However, knowledge of these psychological techniques and how they work may, at the very least, give power back to the people to decide what’s best for them and not the behavioral psychologists who unethically choose for us.

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