Silver Bullets need a careful aim. Dilemmas in applying behavioural insights

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There are many popular and accessible accounts extolling of the virtue of behavioural insights for public policy makers and commercial marketers. By contrast there are very few reports which provide an overarching appraisal of the current application of behavioural insights. This review outlines some of the principal ethical and political dilemmas raised by the influence of behavioural science on public policy as critical evaluations of this policy agenda have accrued over the past 10 years. Rather than providing a blueprint for ethical forms of behaviour change, it is intended to open up a space to collectively consider what might be the best course of action in shaping behaviour change interventions.

Introduction: from silver bullets to gold standards
The emergence and global spread of public policies informed by behavioural science promises to furnish several national governments with a sophisticated set of insights which will make policy more effective, less costly and more in tune with the natural pre-dispositions and preferences of citizens. ‘Behaviour change’ has become a silver bullet in the regulatory armoury, intended at once to guarantee individual choice and improve the overall health, wealth and wellbeing of the population.

Within this framework, citizens are no longer addressed by governments in a blanket approach which treats them as the rational automata of classical economic theory. Instead policies are shaped around our psychological and behavioural tendencies, drawing on observations from disciplines such as Behavioural Economics and Social Psychology. These policies are tested and developed in an experimental mode, using Randomised Controlled Trials as the gold standard to determine what works, and draw on long-standing methods from consumer and social marketing in the careful design of decision-making environments to solicit behaviours aligned with the public good. Over the past decade, a wide range of ethical and political concerns have been raised by commentators, practitioners and academics regarding the application of behavioural insights, including ‘nudge’ type policies, the ‘behaviour change agenda’ and consumer and social marketing approaches to public policy. This report outlines just some of those ethical and political dilemmas, arguing that adopting a behavioural approach requires ‘ethical proofing’ just as much as tests for effectiveness.

An ethical toolkit for applying behavioural insights
In addressing the ethical and governance considerations of the application of behavioural insights in public policy and commercial marketing, it is worth keeping in mind the positive outcomes and achievements of such practices. For instance, the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team has reported significant cost savings to the public purse. So too, policies which are shaped around both individual choice and public welfare have wide appeal across the political spectrum, favoured both by those fearful of bigger and more interventionist government as well as by those seeking to retain an active role for the state in improving health, wealth and wellbeing. But the application of behavioural insights has also raised a number of substantive dilemmas which need to be considered in the design, delivery and evaluation of behaviour change interventions. Here we draw on existing critiques of the behaviour change agenda to provide a series of ethical prompts to be considered in the application of behavioural interventions. Whilst not an exhaustive list, it offers a starting point to support policy makers and practitioners to establish some of the underlying political and ethical principles and dilemmas concerning behaviour change.

Is the behavioural intervention open to challenge?
What is the legitimacy of the behavioural expert?
Is behaviour the real problem to be tackled?
What might be the unintended consequences of behavioural interventions?
Is what works the best thing
to do?