Behavioural economics is being abused by politicians as a justification for flawed policies over the coronavirus outbreak
I first came across “nudge” – the concept many consider to be the pinnacle of behavioural economics – at a thinktank seminar a little over 10 years ago. We were all handed a mock wine menu and asked what we’d order.
This was supposed to illustrate that most price-aware diners order the second-cheapest bottle to avoid looking tight and that restaurateurs use this to nudge us towards the bottle with the highest markup. I remember thinking it an interesting insight, but that these sorts of nudges were nowhere near as likely to transform the world as their enthusiastic proponent claimed.
Lots of far more eminent people disagreed with me. Behavioural economics looks at how people make decisions in the real world – warts, irrational biases and all – and applies this to public policy. Its signature policy is set out in the 2008 book Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. The central insight is that changing the way choices are presented to people can have a huge impact.
Make saving for retirement or donating your organs an opt-out rather than opt-in and watch as people suddenly adopt more socially responsible behaviour. Coming just as the financial crisis hit, Nudge was perfectly timed to achieve maximum traction by offering politicians the chance to reap savings through low-cost policy. Sunstein was quickly appointed to a senior job in the Obama administration, while David Cameron set up the behavioural insights team, dubbed the “nudge unit”, led by psychologist turned policy wonk David Halpern.
The nudge unit has since had a mixed track record: there have been some real successes on pensions and tax payments but in other areas it’s been a bit of a damp squib. So I was surprised when Halpern popped up to talk about the government’s pandemic strategy in the press in early March. It was he who first publicly mentioned the idea of “herd immunity” as part of an effective response to Covid-19 (the government has since denied this was ever the strategy).
And it’s clear from the briefing he gave journalists that he favoured delaying a lockdown because of the risk of “behavioural fatigue”, the idea that people will stick with restrictions for only so long, making it better to save social distancing for when more people are infected. “If you go too early and tell people to take a week off work when they are very unlikely to have coronavirus, and then a couple of weeks later they have another cough, it’s likely they’ll say ‘come on already’,” he told one reporter.
Halpern is reportedly on Sage, the government’s scientific advisory committee for emergencies, and he is also the government’s What Works national adviser, responsible for helping it apply evidence to public policy. So one might expect there to be something substantial behind the idea of behavioural fatigue.