Even before the publication of the Behavioural Insights Team’s Applying behvioural insight to health, it was hard to ignore the number and variety of social experiments reported last year.
Here are some examples:
Yale University experiment to assess The Moral Life of Babies
The experiment involved asking toddlers (6-18 months) to choose between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters in puppet shows. In itself it sounds harmless enough, as it simply observes behaviour – but some of Bloom’s conclusions may not be. He writes: ‘when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.’
See also Babies can tell good people from bad.
Group behaviour experiment
Starts with the idea that ‘our natural, genetic instinct is to behave in an altruistic and supportive way if we witness someone being attacked. So if, in modern society, we fail to do so, something would appear to have gone badly wrong.’ The program went on to develop the idea that people act, or don’t act, according to group relationships, using first the military then football fans as examples. It examines ways of making groups ‘as inclusive as possible’, citing this as the responsibility of legislators and authors of social policy.
Neuro-education experiment at Histon & Impington infant school
Aims to obtain an ‘understanding of the underlying processes of the developing brain,’ aided by ‘our ability to see inside the brain using scanners.’ And according to contributor Paul Howard Jones teachers ‘are the professionals that are in charge of changing the connectivity and structure of their children’s brains on a daily basis’. The concept of ‘reward consistency’ (‘games-based learning’) is discussed, with the conclusion that ‘uncertain reward’ is more motivating. Usha Goswami predicts that neuroscience will provide ‘biological markers for learning difficulties like autism or for dyslexia, and we we know very early on who was more at risk… and then enrich the environment in ways that… might make a difference to the whole developmental trajectory’. Goswami acknowledges that there are ethical issues.
What is the point of these experiments? Why are there so many?
On the surface the first two may sound like socialist propaganda, designed to demonstrate collectivist instincts and support a multiculturalist agenda. But looking at the conclusions, they may be something quite different. For example, is the idea to ‘fight what children have from the get-go’ in order to manufacture the ‘enlightened morality’ to which Bloom refers? How? And will legislators and social scientists be able to change group behaviour to make groups as inclusive as possible? How?
The third experiment might seem distasteful, as it is an experiment on very young children. Also, however, it may provide answers to both of these ‘hows?’ by looking at how to change the connectivity and structure of children’s brains, testing a reward system which would seem perverse even to the more wordly-wise, and finally by providing a ‘scientific’ way of identifying problems in the ‘developmental trajectory’ at an early stage. What will they do then? Already, quite a lot of children are seized by the state.
Who wants this information, and what will they do with it?
Judging from the language used, this research seems to feed into Government masterpieces like the Cabinet Office’s ’nudging’ document. In the very first paragraph, the reader immediately learns that the is ‘irrational’ if he hasn’t insulated his loft, and from then on it gets worse, talking of behaviour change, encouraging social norms, conditioning people. Opinions will vary about which suggestion is the most Orwellian – my personal favourite is the idea that supermarkets should provide quarterly ‘nutritional profiles’ for their customers. But could it also be used to determine their eligibility for health care they’ve already paid for?
It even has an interesting lineage, being the result of Labour’s MINDSPACE project.
The Independent and Telegraph provide more detail, but what seems to have been overlooked is that these are all the same ideas as we saw in the experiments above – ideas which are being used to indoctrinate children.
Who is under attack?
Top of the list are smokers. Just as the previous administration tried to ‘denormalise’ them, this one wants to stamp them out altogether. Making a virtue of intolerance may sound like the language of Nazism, but I suppose the same was true in 1996, when the BMA didn’t seem to mind too much. In fact, it’s been an interesting exercise: now that we know how easy it is to denormalise, or exclude from society, a significant minority, how much easier would it be with a much smaller group, especially with our new knowledge of group behaviour? Are any immigrant groups getting lots of bad press at the moment?
Teenage mothers take third place. Now, I’d agree that it’s not ideal for children to have children, but I’m uneasy about the solutions proposed, to give ‘higher-risk’ girls more teaching about sexuality and relationships, and make them supervise and play with a toddler for a number of hours each week. What will be the effect – to make them want never to have children? Is this desirable? Will they be offered sterilisation (yes, it is still mentioned) afterwards? And whose child will they supervise? Does no-one ever think of dropping sex education in some schools?
Then there’s diabetes. The idea here is that children should have fun with a Bayer Didget pin-prick blood-sampling device which connects to their Nintendo Gaming System. Not just that, but they can join a fun Web community with it too. Could this be a health risk? Do parents have control over what data this machine sends when it is connected?
Food, diet, alcohol and organ donation also get a mention, but the last one which really got my attention was The Piano Stairs In Stockholm. Incredibly, there are lots of adults who will stop using the lift and walk up stairs instead, just to hear some childish plonking noises. To begin with it was a 66% increase… and then more followed them! Now, that is worrying – and I’m not being sarcastic. If so many are so easily amused by so little, it suggests they must be a bit on the ‘vulnerable’ side – in less politically correct times, we might have called it ‘soft in the head’. And when others follow like sheep, what does that say about us? How easily might we be conditioned by people who want to manipulate group behaviour in a bad way?
The model society
The ideas contained in the Behavioural Insights Team’s document sound uncomfortably close to someone’s belief in the ‘perfectibility of mankind’ or ‘model society’. Have the people behind it forgotten the kind of regimes which tried this in the mid-20th century, and the hell that it led to?
And when we read of experimental treatments and sterilisations being forced on people the state deems not mentally healthy enough, we could wonder whether there are more parallels with the past.
It is sad – and frightening – that some people still think that way.
 Cabinet Office, Behavioural Insights Team Dec-2010 Applying behavioural insight to health
 Paul Bloom New York Times 5-May-2010 The Moral Life of Babies
 James Randerson The Guardian 22-Nov-2007 Babies can tell good people from bad
 Nick Ross BBC 13-Sep-2010 Walk On By
 Claudia Hammond BBC 29-Mar-2010 Inside the Brain of a Five-Year-Old
 Philippe N. Tobler, John P. O’Doherty, Raymond J. Dolan, Wolfram Schultz Jouranl of Neurophysiology 22-Nov-2006 Reward Value Coding Distinct From Risk Attitude-Related Uncertainty Coding in Human Reward Systems
 Christopher Booker Daily Telegraph 30-Oct-2010 Child protection: MPs must act on the scandal of seized children
 Institute for Government MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy
 Martin Hickman The Independent 3-Jan-2011 Nudge, nudge, wink wink… How the Government wants to change the way we think
 Brendan O’Neill Daily Telegraph 4-Jan-2011 Nick Clegg’s sinister nannies are ‘nudging’ us towards an Orwellian nightmare
 Robert N. Proctor BMJ Dec-1996 The anti-tobacco campaign of the Nazis: a little known aspect of public health in Germany, 1933-45
 Tim Ross Daily Telegraph 20-Oct-2010 Judge tells doctors they can enforce treatment on mentally ill woman
 Martin Beckford Daily Telegraph 28-May-2010 Secret Court of Protection can order abortions and sterilisations of mentally ill patients