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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Introducing the Psychological State

Mark Whitehead, Rhys Jones and Jessica Pykett.

In this post we introduce the idea of the Psychological State and explore some of the implications of modern governments’ engagements with the insights of behavioural economics and psychology. This post provides some political, philosophical and historical context for our forthcoming posts on contemporary manifestations of the Psychological State.

A New Era of Government?

Not all significant historical shifts are necessarily evident to the people who live through them. It has been suggested by some that the present generation may be witness to a significant, and yet often unappreciated, shift in the form and nature of state power. Some years ago now, Perri 6 observed that, ‘[F]rom the perspective of the twenty first century, the economistic view of government’s powers in the twentieth century may come to seem as obsolete as the military and imperial view of earlier centuries’ (Perri 6, 1995: 2). At the heart of Perri 6’s reflections was a belief that the twenty first century would see the rise of a more psychologically oriented and socially sensitive form of government. When Perri 6 was writing in 1995 the notion of a more psychologically oriented system of government was largely speculative. As we now make our collective way through the second decade of the twenty first century, the psychological state is taking tangible form. The psychological turn in public policy can be seen in the UK, where a the Behavioural Insights Team (or Nudge Unit) is using the insights of behavioural economic and psychology to advise government on the design of policies ranging from organ donations to the regulation of internet pornography. In France, the government’s Centre d’analyse stratégique has been drawing on neuroscience to inform the development of public health policy. In Australia the Public Service Commission has been promoting the value of behavioural psychology in shaping a range of public policy areas. Meanwhile in the US, the Obama administration appointed the arch behavourial economists Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and is now exploring the possibility of establishing its own Nudge Unit.

The initiatives described above are, in many ways, only the tip of psychological iceberg. Psychological insights into the nature of human behaviour is now informing government policies around the world as well as the work of local governments, non-governmental organizations and charities. But in amongst these rapid policy developments it is very easy to lose sight of precisely how psychological insights are influencing what governments do, and what the implications of these new developments may be. To these ends we want to briefly consider the emerging features of the psychological state and to raise some points of discussion concerning the potential impacts of more psychological oriented systems of government.

Why Now?

One question that we often get asked is ‘why are we seeing the rise of the psychological state at this particular point in time?’ Answering this question actually provides some valuable perspective on the nature and implications of the psychological state.  Our short answer to this question is that the psychological state actually reflects a confluence of ideas (largely drawn from micro-economics and behavioural psychology) and real world events. In terms of ideas, there is a tendency to assume that the rising impact of psychology on pubic policy design can be attributed to some fairly recent developments. The publication, in 2008, of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s hugely influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness has been interpreted by many as a key moment in the birth of the psychological state. In reality, however, the ideas that lie behind Thaler and Sunstein’s thesis are largely drawn from behavioural psychology and microeconomics, have been around for some time.

It was during the 1940s and 50s, while working at the Illinois Institute of Technology, that Herbert Simon exposed some key shortcomings in prevailing economic theories of human behaviour. Simon’s notion of “bounded rationality” asserted that, counter to neo-classical economic theories of seemingly boundless rationality, human decision-making was actually characterized by key cognitive limitations. These limitations were expressed in both the availability of relevant information, and shortfalls in the necessary analytical skills and time needed to effectively process the information that was available. Ultimately, Simon’s work indicative that a significant amount of human decision making was based not upon rational, contemplative action, but on more intuitive, emotionally-driven forms of motivation. Simon’s concern with the more-than-rational nature of human behaviour would lay the foundations for the emergence of a new academic discipline: behavioural economics. At its heart behavioural economics sought to fuse the interests of economists with the insights of psychologists in order to develop of branch of economics that was able to understand better the more intuitive aspects of human behaviour. The subsequent work of prominent behavioural economists such as Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and Richard Thaler, inter alia, revealed predictable patterns in the more-than-rational aspects of human behaviour. However, a further set of ideas would also prove crucial in enabling the political uptake of the insights of behavioural economists.

For some considerable time research in both behavourial psychology and cognitive design has revealed that subtle changes in the nature of the choice environments that surround people could have significant impacts on human behaviour. The insights of behavourial psychology and cognitive design had, of course, being influencing the practices of corporations for some time. These insights had, for example, shaped the nature of advertising and affected the design of commercial environments such as supermarkets and bars. We argue that it is important to interpret the psychology state, at least in part, as an attempt to utilize the practices of corporate marketing and persuasion in the pursuit of the “public good”. The insights of behavioural psychology and cognitive design were, however, also important to emerging psychological states political reasons. Since at least the nineteenth century, governments within liberal societies have been limited in the potential scope of their actions by the principle of preventing “harm to others.” In his classic nineteenth century account of the limitations of liberal state power, John Stuart Mill states that ‘[p]ower can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his [sic] will, to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant’ (Mill, 1985 [1859: 68). It is on the basis of this principle that many governments have now banned smoking in enclosed public environments (because of the harm to others caused to passive smoking), but not banned smoking in general (because of the harm it may cause to an individual’s health). What behavioural psychology and cognitive design suggested, however, was that it may be possible for states to intervene in “harm to self issues” (such as smoking and unhealthy eating) without, necessarily undermining individual choice and freedom. Consequently, it was suggested that through the clever use of default settings (such as the size of cups that soft drinks are served in), and the redesigning of choice environments (such as school canteens), it may be possible to the state to encourage healthy behaviours within having to erode personal freedom.

If the psychological state has been informed by the ideas of behavioural economists and cognitive design, the question still remains as to what real world events appear to have actually led to the uptake of these ideas within public policies throughout the world. It is our contention that the past decade has seen a particular confluence of social and environmental crises that have made the insights of various aspects of the psychological sciences attractive to policy makers. These crises can be seen in the context of finance, health and the environment. In relation to finance, the last decade has seen a rapid rise in rates of personal debt in many states throughout the world. The aggregate problems associated with bad debt eventually resulted in the crippling effects of the credit crunch and ensuring recession in European and North American economies. In terms of personal health, unhealthy lifestyles have resulted in the unprecedented rise of obesity and related cases of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The accumulated costs of treating lifestyle related illnesses has put significant strain on publically funding health care systems such as the National Health Service in Britain. Finally, in the context of the environment, scientific reports show that our collective addiction to the burning of fossil fuels could create significant near future problems for the healthy functioning of our planetary biosphere. We claim that the interconnected crises of finance, public health and climate change have provided the impetus in and through which the ideas of the psychological sciences have gained political support. On these terms, the psychological state appears to be have been conceived in the context of the existence of governments who want (and need) to govern more things, but which now have less resources to do the governing with.

Laying Drains and Building the Apparatus of the Psychological State

When we started our own research on the psychological state one of the policy-makers we spoke to compared the current era of government to the nineteenth century state that was busy laying drains and improving public hygiene. For this policy executive, just as the nineteenth century saw the laying of drains, the current generation is witness to the construction of the psychological apparatus of the state. Unfortunately, while the laying of drains had an obvious presence in the everyday lives of nineteenth century citizens, the gradual emergence of the psychological state is often far more subtle and insidious. Over the coming weeks we will post a series of blogs which seek to expose and critically analyze various aspects of the psychological state. In attempting to shine a critical light on the apparatus of the psychological state, we will be focusing our attention on the ethical questions that are associated with psychologically imbued systems of governance; the efficacy of psychological forms of intervention within public policy; and the impacts of emerging forms of psychological power on public empowerment. In the meantime you can find out more about the history of the psychological state and its modern impacts in our recently published book: Jones, R. Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M. (2013) Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of the Psychological State (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham).


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