State-sponsored behavioural science: The urgent need for an ethical framework

The ubiquitous deployment of behavioural-science techniques – ‘nudges’ – to increase compliance with both covid-19 restrictions and the vaccine rollout has raised major ethical concerns. Particularly alarming has been the state’s strategic use of fear (or ‘affect’ in the language of behavioural science), shaming (‘ego’) and peer pressure (‘norms’). The tentacles of behavioural science have extended beyond the arena of pandemic management and into many other areas of day-to-day life, including debt collection and the green agenda. Given their widespread prevalence and the profound ethical questions associated with them, it is imperative that the Government’s deployment of these powerful techniques adheres to a robust and transparent ethical framework. Alarmingly, politicians and state-sponsored behavioural scientists have – to date – displayed a stubborn reluctance to discuss these issues.  

A robust ethical protocol to guide and constrain future state ‘nudging’ would incorporate four core elements. First, a requirement to consider the moral acceptability of the methods per se, with a view to limit (or prohibit) the more aversive techniques of persuasion. A government strategically inflicting emotional distress on its citizens, as a way of achieving compliance with its agenda, does not sit well with what one might reasonably expect from a civilised Western democracy. 

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The four core elements for reform are: 1) limiting or prohibiting use of behavioral methods; 2) their lack of transparency; 3) “the perceived legitimacy of using subconscious nudges”; 4) informed consent. ABN

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