Manufacturing Compliance: The Nudge Unit and its Privatisation

Blakes 7 weapon

Federation scientist Cozer and his companion, the freed slave Rashel, await galactic freedom fighter Blake in the Blake’s 7 episode, Weapon.

Last Friday and today, the I newspaper has run articles reporting the impending privatisation of the Government’s Behaviour Insights Team, or Nudge Unit. The article describes the unit as using

‘insights from the emerging field of behavioural economics and psychology to subtly change the processes, forms and language used by government – to achieve outcomes that are in the in the “public good” and save money.’

A boxed article at the side then goes on to explain it more fully, stating that

‘Nudge articulates the idea that people can be persuaded to make the right decisions by simple changes in how choices are presented to them.’

It goes on to explain that the theory was first proposed in a book of the same name, published in 2008 by the economics professor Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein. They acknowledged that people frequently make bad decisions in their lives, thus contradicting one of the central tenets of economics – that people will always act rationally for their own good. The two authors then argued that the way choices are phrased or presented – the ‘choice architecture’ can be framed so that it nudges ‘people towards the most beneficial outcome without restricting their personal freedom.’

Although the two authors stated that “‘the libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like.” They then qualified this with the statement that it was ‘legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.”

Today’s I carries an interview with one of the founders of the Nudge Unit, David Halpern. He states that the Unit was set up four years ago under Tony Blair as his Strategy Unit, at a time when ‘the Blair administration was expanding the size of the state – spending more and regulating more’, often according to Blair’s own personal inclination. It did not, however, catch on with the Labour government, and only came into its own with the arrival of the Coalition in 2010. Halpern states that ‘Their instincts were generally ‘we’ve got no money and we’re going to constrain the size of the state and deregulate’.

The Nudge Unit is now about to be part-privatised into a company partly owned by the government, partly owned by the social-enterprise charity, Nesta, and partly owned by Halpern and his fellow employees.

As it is presented in the I, the Nudge Unit sounds very jolly and entirely innocuous. The piece opens with Halpern describing the work of the American psychologist, Carol Dweck, and her work showing how well school children perform in tests can be boosted simply by telling them that they’ve made a good effort.

It then describes the way the Unit experimented with personalised text messages to encourage people, who were about to be hit by the bailiffs, to pay their bills on time.

In the concluding paragraphs, Halpern describes his goal to unlock ‘hidden entrepreneurs’ ‘who never get beyond garages’. He mentions the way the mountain bike arose simply through someone experimenting in their garage with bits of other bikes. ‘Studies’, according to Halpern, ‘suggest 6 per cent of Britons have come up with a significant adaptation in the last year. But most never diffuse.’

The only doubts raised about the Unit and its methods are whether they are effective. The boxed article states that it has its critics, who have argued, like Baroness Julia Neuberger in the House of Lords, that there is little evidence that it works on large scales. The main article, however, leaves the reader in little doubt: ‘A lot in government were nervous of Nudge but the theory did work in practice – and the services of the Nudge team were suddenly in demand’. Hence its privatisation three years down the line.

Now all this seems entirely benign. Few people would cavil at methods that get people to pay their bills on time, thus avoiding a visit from the bailiffs, or get children to do better at their exams, or, indeed, just to have ‘longer, healthier and better’ lives.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In the 20th century, such departments like the Nudge Unit would have been the objects of considerable fear and suspicion, especially after the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century used propaganda and coercion to generate the mass obedience and approval they demanded from their captive populations. This found its expression in the various dystopian regimes portrayed in Science Fiction. One of the great Science Fiction series of the 1970s and ’80s was Blake’s 7. This was a space opera, whose heroes were a kind of ‘Dirty Dozen’ let loose in a strange, totalitarian far future. They were led, at least in the first two of their four TV seasons, by Roj Blake, a former dissident, who had been captured and then suffered psychiatric torture at the hands of the Federation. This was a future Fascist super-state, which governed through a mixture of military force, propaganda and advanced psychological techniques and drugs, that sapped the will to resist from its people. The Federation permitted no freedom of speech, belief or movement amongst its citizens. Dissidents were brutally murdered, and the survivors framed and re-educated. Heading its armed forces was the seductive Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, and her henchman, the violent and psychotic Travis, played by Brian Croucher. Both Croucher and Pearce have appeared in Dr. Who; Pearce as a treacherous alien super-scientist, Jocini O’ the Franzine-Greeg in the Colin Baker/Patrick Troughton Story ‘The Two Doctors’, and Croucher in the early Tom Baker serial ‘The Robots of Death’. He has also appeared in Eastenders and as an East End hard man in the detective drama, New Tricks.

Blake’s 7 was influenced by Star Wars and Star Trek, though it’s characters and background were darker than either of those two SF classics. Blake’s second-in-command, Kerr Avon, was a ruthless embezzler with a cynical contempt for idealists. ‘Show me the man who believes something, and I will show you a fool’. Such attitudes were not a fictional exaggeration. Similar sentiments were expressed by the evolutionary biologist, Jacques Monod, who once said ‘Scratch an idealist, and an egotist will bleed’. It isn’t hard to feel that the show’s creator, Terry Nation, had modelled the cool, rational, scientific Avon on Monod and other scientists like him.

And the methods used by the Federation to keep its citizens enslaved were also chillingly real. The show several times covered conditioning and similar brainwashing techniques used by the Federation to break and then manipulate its victims’ psychologies. Blake himself had been conditioned by intensive psychological therapy after he was captured leading a revolutionary group. Under the influence of the therapists he betrayed the other members, confessed to his own guilt, and was then reprogrammed to forget all about the events, his arrest, trial and the mass executions of his friends and family.

This aspect of the Federation was based on the notorious brainwashing techniques associated with the Communist dictatorships, particularly Mao’s China and the brutal regime of ‘self-criticism’ for those who challenged the Great Leader’s precepts during the Cultural Revolution. It also bore more than a little resemblance to the Soviet abuse of psychiatry revealed by Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward. Soviet psychiatrists had invented a spurious form of ‘schizophrenia’, which was curiously amorphous, taking just about any form required by the doctors diagnosing it and their superiors. It was used to incarcerate in lunatic asylums any and all opponents of regime. These ranged from religious believers to Communist idealists, such as a general and Old Bolshevik, who vociferously felt that Brezhnev’s Soviet Union had betrayed the noble principles of the Revolution. It also harks back to Skinner’s experiments in conditioning in the 1960s, and his fictional description of a utopian system in which the citizens had perfected themselves through the use of such psychological techniques.

About a decade ago Adam Curtis described the way Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, had used Freudian theory to lay the foundations of modern PR in his landmark series, The Century of the Self. Curtis was similarly unimpressed by PR, and dissected the way such techniques were used by corporations, the government, and some of the more sinister self-improvement cults that sprang up in the 1960s to control people’s minds. He was particularly unimpressed by the way the self-realised people of the Hippy counterculture then went off and, from reasons of liberated self-interest, voted for Ronald Reagan. The existence of the Nudge Unit seems to suggest that Halpern and his fellows saw the theories, and instead of looking at the dangers and fallacies accompanying it like the rest of the viewing public, immediately thought it was all rather cool.

Blake Carnell Weapon

The psycho-social strategist Carnell and Supreme Commander of Federation forces, Servalan, contemplate the success of David Cameron’s ‘Nudge Unit’.

Apart from the use of conditioning and psycho-therapy, the Federation armed forces also included an elite corps of ‘pscho-social strategists’, nicknamed ‘puppeteers’ by the rest of the Federation’s Starship Troopers. These specialised in using advanced psychological techniques to predict and manipulate the behaviour of the regime’s opponents. For example, in the episode, ‘Weapon’, Servalan uses one such puppeteer, Carnell, played by Scott Fredericks, to predict the mental breakdown and then manipulate a scientist, Cozer, who has designed an unstoppable superweapon, IMIPAC. Her goal is to seize the weapon for herself, while at the same killing the Blake and his crew and taking over their spaceship, the Liberator. Of course it all fails, and the weapon is taken over instead by the former slave girl, Rashel, with whom Cozer had escaped, and the other weapon in Servalan’s plan, a clone of Blake. The two become guardians of the weapon, with Travis remarking wryly ‘The weapon protects itself’.

With fears of totalitarian states manipulating and abusing their victims’ minds in reality and SF, something like the Nudge Unit would have been enough to bring anyone with a distrust of authoritarian government out onto the streets, from old school Conservatives with a hatred of Communism and Fascism all the way across the political spectrum through Liberals, Socialists to members of the Hippy counterculture, who were extremely suspicious of what their own governments were doing about this through reading the reports about MKULTRA and the CIA LSD experiments in the underground press.

And there are real dangers to this. Who, for example, decides what project is going to make people happier, with longer, better lives? Cameron undoubtedly claims it’s the Tories, but with something like 38,000 people dying per year thanks to welfare cuts and benefit sanctions, we can safely discount his opinion. Mike has several times mentioned the Nudge Unit in posts on his blog over at Vox Political, pointing out that the forms and courses used by the Coalition as part of their welfare to work package have been set up by the Nudge Unit with the deliberate intention of getting the unemployed to blame themselves, rather than the government’s policies, for their inability to get a job. Like the children in Dweck’s experiment, they are being encouraged to do better in a situation that is not their fault. It tacitly reinforces the government’s values and the economic system which leaves the unemployed without a job, and frequently without hope. And this is most definitely malign.

This is quite apart from the dangers of ‘function creep’, in which an administrative technique or department gradually acquires more power and extends its scope, as more administrators see its potential for solving their problems. The Nudge Unit is perhaps only a minor part of British government at the moment, but it has the potential to become something far larger and much more sinister. If we don’t carefully monitor it and similar initiatives, it could easily expand into something every bit as totalitarian and manipulative as Blake’s 7 Federation and its psycho-strategists.

I found the opening titles to the first season of the Blake’s 7 on Youtube. They show some of the major themes of the Federation – the use of armed force, brainwashing and surveillance. I leave it to you to decide for yourself how much of this unfortunately is coming true, though there are surveillance cameras all over the streets and Boris Jonson has bought two water cannons to use on any more protesters in London. Here it is. Enjoy!

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22 Responses to “Manufacturing Compliance: The Nudge Unit and its Privatisation”

  1. ipmyers Says:

    Reblogged this on The Prisoner.

  2. Mike Sivier Says:

    Four years ago under Tony Blair? Shurely shome mishtake..?

  3. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political.

  4. Howie Says:

    There isn’t anything new with this…George Orwell used this device in ” 1984 ” in the form of the five minute ” Hate Session ” also known as ” News “.

    • beastrabban Says:

      I’ve got a feeling Orwell based the ‘5 minutes hate’ on Stalinist Russia and the way Trotsky was used as the greatest enemy of the Soviet public in the purges and show trials. The same techniques are still used in many of today’s authoritarian regimes. Just look, for example, at the way Iran has invoked the spectre of Salman Rushdie whenever its rulers decides there needs to be another campaign against the alleged evils of the west. The Nudge Unit and its psychological games are similar, but rather more sophisticated.

      • Howie Says:

        Thank you for your most interesting reply.
        I have always found it to be most interesting that Orwell used the BBC as the model for ” The Ministry of Truth “.

        The novel is, after all, set in London.

        It also needs to be remembered that it was written and published at a time when the General Public was having hysteria induced in the collective mind by all the horror stories of the evils of an authoritarian state such as the USSR by both the state controlled news service ( The BBC )
        and also newspapers.

        Some of these ‘papers owners were of the opinion that Adolf Hitler wasn’t such a bad chap-just a little misguided… .

        They had everything to fear from the ” commies ” and so engineered the news to suit their own agenda…just like they still do.

        Nothing changes does it

        This is how an authoritarian state maintains its power.

        With the passage of time and the general frailty of the of ordinary folk

  5. Colin M. Taylor Says:

    Basically, the Nudge Unit is a Cardsharp . The cardsharp lays out some cards and asks the Mark to “pick a card, any card”. The Mark always chooses the card that the Cardsharp always intended him to

    • beastrabban Says:

      That’s a very apt analogy. And like a good magician, it’s all done by misdirection. Thus the claims that they’re all nice, cosy libertarians not trying to undermine our free will.

  6. beastrabban Says:

    It’s what the article said, Mike. But you’re right – it would have to be Brown.

  7. Franklin Percival Says:

    It isn’t a nudge unit, it’s a bludgeon.

  8. Redgoblin Says:

    Reblogged this on Pillow Walker.

  9. George Berger Says:

    Check out the series of blog posts that includes this: http://skwalker1964.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/dwp-psych-test-devised-by-us-torture-guru/ . The history that this post links to is described here (in case anyone misses it): http://www.ethicalpsychology.org/materials/APA_&_US_Torture-Basic_Facts.pdf .

  10. jaynel62 Says:

    Reblogged this on jaynelinney and commented:
    The ‘Nudge Unit is the very same group that devised the Job Centres ” FAKE PSYCH ‘TEST’ TRAINING GIVEN BY UNQUALIFIED ‘EXPERTS’ -http://skwalker1964.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/dwp-fake-psych-test-training-given-by-unqualified-experts/
    This increasing use of pseudo-psychology is nothing more that an attempt an brain-washing by the Tories – To TELL you HOW to THINK!
    Are YOU going to let them??

  11. jaynel62 Says:

    Reblogged at http://jaynelinney.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/manufacturing-compliance-the-nudge-unit-and-its-privatisation/ and commented :

    The ‘Nudge Unit is the very same group that devised the Job Centres ” FAKE PSYCH ‘TEST’ TRAINING GIVEN BY UNQUALIFIED ‘EXPERTS’ -http://skwalker1964.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/dwp-fake-psych-test-training-given-by-unqualified-experts/

    This increasing use of pseudo-psychology is nothing more that an attempt an brain-washing by the Tories – To TELL you HOW to THINK!

    Are YOU going to let them??

  12. Manufacturing Compliance: The Nudge Unit and it... Says:

    […] Federation scientist Cozer and his companion, the freed slave Rashel, await galactic freedom fighter Blake in the Blake's 7 episode, Weapon. Last Friday and today, the I newspaper has run articles …  […]

  13. Patrick Tracey Says:

    The potential fot this area to grow unregulated in the private sector without regulation or monitoring is indeed deeply concerning, especially if it ‘merges’ with an organisation such as G4 which has enough muscle to complete the Blake’s 7 analogy. It also smells of deniable plausibility to the government. Finally it allows it to roam internationally taking on jobs with tin pot dictators, unlike our beautifully if somewhat dated head gear of our own dictator. Who knows soon it could balloon into the nudge, nudge, wink , wink unit similar to that of the close protection unit!

  14. hstorm Says:

    Spelling errors; –

    “Cozer” should be spelt Coser.
    “Jocini” should be spelt Cessene.
    “IMIPAC” should be spelt IMIPAK. (Induced Molecular Instability Projector And Key.)

  15. hstorm Says:

    Reblogged this on TheCritique Archives and commented:
    Blake’s 7 on most levels was more of a warning against absolute state power, whereas the danger at the moment is more the erosion of all aspects of the state that serve as a counterbalance to the power of Big Business. But even so, there are inevitably considerable points of resemblance between Absolute Government and an Absolute Market.

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