Relying on your lenses.

What we now doubt (which we used to think), was that our models will enable us to look into the future and, indeed, to change the future to the benefit of mankind. We… the experience of recent years has been such that as soon as we develop a model that seems to be reasonably good at explaining the present, and there are few enough of those god knows now, the future changes.

I first watched this documentary in about 2004 and that quote has stayed with me. I have interpreted it to mean that over-reliance on one methodological framework with a good descriptive power of the past is no guarantee that it will work for prescriptive policy design. In fact, it is likely to fail.

I bring this up because I’ve noticed a trend in recent years to be too attached to a predictive model. Within some quarters of government heterodoxy blooms. People choose the right methodological tool for the job. You can see this in the way that the government talks about usability research. While personally I’d have everything be a long-engagement ethnography with a nationalised anthropology service providing useful, mediated data to policy makers.

But elsewhere, the framing relies on “nudge” which is a nice enough marketing word for a theoretical position called “behavioural psychology”.

Behavioural psychology has a choppy history. It relies heavily on the idea of humans as mechanistic, homogeneous actors that on balance respond to the same prompts in the same way. This is of course an over-simplification, but this is a blogpost not a thesis. It comes out of BF Skinner’s work on training pigeons. It takes a particular political standpoint that free will is illusory. Whether or not we agree on the nature of free will (please, don’t @ me), it is probably fair to say that a liberal democracy relies on at least giving citizens the courtesy of interpreting their status as having free will.

We can see the limits of this approach in plain view. The successes have been to use Nudge in the same way as a supermarket. Put some sweets by the till. This is Nudge and for my money, this is fine. It is pushing a social good as a bonus add on to a transaction that is already happening.

Once we get to the idea of behavioural psychology as a framing theory for how policy is delivered, especially through the Coronavirus outbreak, we see that it runs into trouble. We can see from a search of the outputs of government to parliament how prevalent this framework is, especially in response to the pandemic. We can also see the strange casualness and familiarity in the way government talks at once of Behavioural Insights Ltd being independent but also just “the behavioural insights team” as if it were a part of government that is just caught in an unfortunate cross-charging arrangement.

I have no issue with the use of research in government. I’m incredibly pro social research. What I worry about is an over-reliance on a particular lens for viewing the world. Methodologically, I am suspicious of this particular branch of psychology: it makes too many . At the risk of eliding two branches together, I’d like to quote briefly from this critique of evolutionary psychology:

“In the narratives of social life written by evolutionary psychologists there is a lot of “thinking” going on — decisions are made, problems are solved, rules are followed, costs and benefits are analysed, choices are made, and goals are met. Yet humans are not doing the “thinking” or “choosing”. Evolutionary psychologists constantly tell us that humans do things without being conscious of the subterranean genetic logic that motivates their actions. Humans think, make decisions and choices, solve problems and analyse costs and benefits in the same way as their sweat glands control thermal regulation — without needing to be conscious of the process… If sweat glands are the model for how humans make choices, it’s hard to know why brains evolved in the first place” (McKinnon 2005:37)

What it risks is a model where the actors are imagined like NPCs in a computer game, acting to a script rather than people with agency and non-predefined reactions to stimuli. We can also see that it, well, it isn’t working. Policies are being built around expected behaviours, but those behaviours aren’t actually happening the way that the model predicts.

But I worry that the colours are pinned to the mast. A lot of people working in government have heard of nudge theory or the behavioural insights team. Are there any other of the human sciences that have such reach and prevalence and such an unchallenged veneer of legitimacy? Research design is often about picking the right tool for the job. In government that is especially important as research is expected to positively or negatively impact the design of policy. Having one methodological tool used to inform so much of policy making risks privileging a model that doesn’t work well in the circumstances.

I don’t particularly want to set up a large critique of business psychology here (although I do think plenty of it demonstrates large methodological biases and scale up errors from individual behaviour to society level), but I want to critique the idea of relying on one theory. Government needs to learn to treat academic frames more like tapas than a man vs food ribs challenge. A little from lots of little plates.

Further reading:

Public sector specialist. Anthropologist on the internet.