Originally a twitter thread, I thought it might be useful to lay out more readably:
There is a lot of criticism of behavioural science at the moment (because, largely, 1. of the people using it – & our memories of Cambridge Analytica; 2. It is highly impersonal & thus inappropriate when lives are involved).
Much criticism misses the distinction between vision, strategy & tactics. Behavioural science is a tactical tool. Its job is to enable strategies to be successfully carried out. This means in effect there are two legitimate forms of criticism.
First, that it is ineffective (I have seen this, and it’s true the architects of Nudge theory have a questionable attitude to reproducibility
Second, that behavioural science is so effective on such a wide scale & has the potential to be used by bad actors & at the moment there are a lot of bad actors in power, so we should not allow its use (akin to the argument on guns).
Neither of these is the most common form I have seen on twitter, which has instead tended to be criticism of the strategy behavioural science is being used to enable
It is very legitimate to question strategy, but in doing so we need to look up the tree to vision not down it to tactics.
What I mean is, strategy happens at the level of “how do we make emotionally wrenching decisions in times of crisis?” Our answer to that depends upon the question “What kind of world do we want?”
If we don’t like the fact that elderly & vulnerable people are a strategic battleground, then we need to think about that vision.
“I want a world in which we start by prioritising those in greatest peril” is a vision; “I want a world in which opportunity falls to those best able to take it for themselves” is also a vision. The two are not compatible
Side note – those of us who are disabled have been telling you this for years. You have not been listening
I grew up in the Cold War. Back then the zeitgeisty thing (like behavioural science now) was game theory. It was also a tool. It was a bloody awful one because it made the false assumption all humans act rationally
It was made to seem better than it was because everyone had a very simple vision “We want a world with people in it” & equally simple strategy “we want not to kill everyone”.
One of the things that hasn’t been addressed much is that many of the “we must do more” solutions rely on a more game-theoretical view of humans than a behavioural science one. We should talk about that more
I want to finish by talking about how strategy relates to tactics. Most strategies are convergent. They seek a single outcome. “Not extincting ourselves” is a simple one. “Maximising survival” is another
Convergent strategies are much easier to implement tactically. But that very fact makes them catastrophic in human terms – and if our vision is humane it will not be served by them
A classic example is “increasing survival rates for cardiac operations.” We all know where that led – to surgeons not taking on patients most likely to die
Another example is XR’s call for citizen assemblies for a pre-decided goal – they will make fabulous tactical decisions at great human cost
Convergent strategies are always prone to this – inhumane unintended but inevitable consequences. We have been saying this for years. The outcry we are hearing at present is the sound of the public catching up
It is only divergent aims, finely modelled and balanced, that can give us humane outcomes. The problem is that they require complex, multiform, and quite possibly opaque to many tactical tools to achieve
So it may be too late to get it right now, although we should try. But these are the conversations we need to have at the levels of the public, the government & academia before next time