Dr Gary Sidley analyses the language of fear that has been peddled throughout the pandemic.
By Dr Gary Sidley and cross-posted from The Critic.
The British public’s widespread compliance with lockdown restrictions and the subsequent vaccine rollout has been the most remarkable aspect of the coronavirus crisis.
The removal of our basic freedoms — in the form of lockdowns, travel bans and mandatory mask wearing — have been passively accepted by the large majority of people. Furthermore, the proportion of the general public expressing a willingness to accept the Covid-19 vaccines has been greater in the UK than almost anywhere else in the world. But has the government achieved this widespread conformity through the unethical use of covert psychological strategies — “nudges” — in their messaging campaign?
A major contributor to the mass obedience of the British people is likely to have been the activities of government-employed psychologists working as part of the “Behavioural Insights Team” (BIT). The BIT was conceived in 2010 as “the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy”. In collaboration with governments and other stakeholders, the team aspire to use behavioural insights to “improve people’s lives and communities”. Several members of BIT, together with other psychologists, currently sit on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE, which offers advice to the government about how to maximise the impact of its Covid-19 communications.
A comprehensive account of the psychological approaches deployed by BIT is provided by an Institute of Government document titled MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, where it is claimed that these strategies can achieve “low cost, low pain ways of ‘nudging’ citizens … into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act”. Several interventions of this type have been woven into the Covid-19 messaging campaign, including fear (inflating perceived threat levels), shame (conflating compliance with virtue) and peer pressure (portraying non-compliers as a deviant minority) – or “affect”, “ego” and “norms”, to use the language of behavioural science.
Behavioural scientists know that a frightened population is a compliant one, so this was exploited as a way of compelling us to abide by the coronavirus restrictions. The minutes of the SPI-B meeting on 22 March 2020 stated: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased … using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” Aided by the mainstream media, the British public were subsequently bombarded with fear-inducing information, images and mantras: Covid-19 daily death counts reported without context; inflated predictions of future casualties; recurrent footage of dying patients in Intensive Care Units; and scary slogans like, “If you go out you can spread it”, or “People will die”, often accompanied by images of emergency personnel wearing PPE…