Behaviour Change - Science and Technology Committee Contents


2.1.  In this Chapter we look at the terminology associated with behaviour change, including "nudging". We also discuss some factors that may be relevant to determining whether a behaviour change intervention will be publicly and ethically acceptable.

Definitions and categorisation


2.2.  There is no single science of behaviour change. A number of scientific disciplines, including neuroscience, psychology, sociology and behavioural economics, contribute to what is known about human behaviour and we refer to these sciences collectively as the "sciences of human behaviour". Behaviour change interventions apply findings, drawn from these various sciences, in order to influence human behaviour.


2.3.  A wide variety of types of policies affect the way people behave.[3] Table 1 (which builds on the Nuffield Ladder of Interventions)[4] sets out a possible taxonomy, including examples, of different types of intervention. Some witnesses argued that the concept of "behaviour change intervention" could not usefully be defined on the ground that all government policies include, to a greater or lesser extent, some element of intended behaviour change.[5] Whilst we acknowledge the force of this point, and encourage policy makers always to consider the behavioural implications of a policy, we have focused on those interventions where the principal intention is to change people's behaviour. We have referred to these interventions as "behaviour change interventions".


Table of interventions

Note: * Demonstrates how regulation of businesses might be used to guide the choice of individuals, thus distinguishing it from regulation which restricts or eliminates the choice of individual.


2.4.  Although several Government officials who gave evidence to us recognised that a broad range of policy instruments, including regulation and taxation, could be used to change behaviour,[6] some suggested that the Government's emphasis on non-regulatory tools had led to a tendency for behaviour change to be linked only to non-regulatory interventions.[7] Gemma Harper, Chief Social Scientist at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), for example, told us that in her experience, within central government, "behaviour change is very much used as a shorthand for alternatives to regulation and fiscal measures".[8] The evidence of Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, also reflected this ambivalence. At one point, he used a broad definition of behaviour change intervention when he suggested that legislation was a "form of achieving change".[9] But, later, he contrasted "behavioural science" and "behavioural insights" with regulation,[10] suggesting that behaviour change policies included only non-regulatory interventions. We consider the implications of this uncertainty in the Government's approach to behaviour change in Chapter 5.


2.5.  The Government's non-regulatory approach to behaviour change has often been described as "nudging". The Cabinet Office's Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) (see Box 7, page 32) is referred to in the media as the "nudge unit",[11] and "nudge" has been used in Government policy documents, Ministerial statements and debates in the House of Commons.[12]

2.6.  The word "nudge" was originally used in the context of influencing behaviour by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.[13] They define a "nudge" as

    "... any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not."[14]

2.7.  "Choice architecture" refers to the environment in which an individual makes choices. Changing the way options are presented or altering the social and physical environment can make it much more likely that a particular choice becomes the natural or default preference. Individuals may often be unaware of the effect that changes in the choice architecture have on their individual choices and actions. In these circumstances, nudges can be understood to have influenced the non-deliberative aspect of a person's choices or actions (see paragraph 3.4 below). Businesses often seek to prompt non-deliberative actions by their consumers through, for example, by setting default portion sizes or using product placement in films and television programmes.

2.8.  We received differing accounts of the Government's use of "nudge". For example, the Sustainable Transport White Paper contrasts "nudging" with anything that forbids or restricts choice, and Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, equated "nudging" with a broad range of non-regulatory interventions, such as the provision of bus and train timetables. Mr Letwin, however, suggested that "nudging" had to involve "prompted choice" and therefore excluded informational and promotional forms of non-regulatory intervention.[15]

2.9.  In our view, interventions which may be described as "nudging" are not synonymous with, but rather are a subset of, non-regulatory interventions (see Table 1). We have drawn this conclusion because, first, not all non-regulatory interventions are nudges in the standard understanding of the term. Nudges prompt choices without getting people to consider their options consciously, and therefore do not include openly persuasive interventions such as media campaigns and the straightforward provision of information. Secondly, "nudges" themselves may be provided through regulatory means. For example, businesses may be required by regulation to provide a particular choice architecture in order to "nudge" individuals. Dr David Halpern, Head of the Cabinet Office's BIT, acknowledged this latter point when he said: "of course you can construct regulation to enable choice".[16] Similarly, Anne Milton MP, Minister for Public Health at the Department of Health (DH), said: "you can use regulation to nudge people".[17]

Interventions and ethical acceptability

2.10.  Many witnesses accepted the presumption that the state should develop and pursue policies which are of benefit to individuals and to the wider population. Consequently, they should aim not only to provide conditions in which individuals can achieve those benefits but also act to make it easier for them to do so. This position allows for governments to intervene, for example, to tackle obesity and reduce harmful alcohol consumption on the ground that individual health is a good which the government have a responsibility to promote.

2.11.  Even when a government is justified in taking steps to tackle a problem, the measures used to resolve the problem may not necessarily be judged ethically acceptable. The evidence highlighted two factors which might bear on the acceptability of an intervention. First, the degree to which an intervention intrudes into an individual's life. Secondly, the extent to which an intervention is covert. Witnesses also related the ethical acceptability of an intervention to the extent to which it is popular with, or welcomed by, the public.


2.12.  Some witnesses argued that the most intrusive interventions would require the most justification and should be deployed with particular care because they restrict or eliminate choice.[18] The Government said that they "aim to apply behaviour change theory only in ways that minimise intrusion".[19] This corresponds to the widely held classical liberal view, reflected in parts of the European Convention on Human Rights, that certain individual freedoms are intrinsically valuable and should be protected unless there is strong justification for doing otherwise—as, for example, the curtailing of freedom imposed by a prison sentence is justified because it prevents criminals from causing harm to others. The importance of protecting freedoms is a reason for testing the proportionality of proposed behaviour change interventions, but does not provide any single metric by which proportionality can be judged. As a general point, we accept that regulatory interventions which restrict choice may be judged more acceptable if there is good evidence that they will be effective in tackling an urgent issue which is having significant detrimental effects on the population.

2.13.  In seeking to avoid interventions that restrict choice, the Government have focused on interventions which enable and encourage certain choices.[20] Several witnesses argued however that interventions which enable and encourage choice by affecting non-deliberative processes, such as "nudges", also involve ethical issues because they involve altering behaviour through mechanisms of which people are not obviously aware.[21] This raises an interesting question about the extent to which nudging is compatible with the Government's commitment to "extend transparency to every area of public life".[22] It also highlights the potential ethical implications of the widespread use of nudges by commercial organisations.


2.14.  Professor Luc Bovens, London School of Economics and Political Science, suggested that there were two sorts of transparency which might be relevant to behaviour change interventions. Transparency might mean telling people about an intervention directly, or it might mean ensuring that a perceptive person could discern for themselves that an intervention had been implemented. He suggested that the latter, weaker form of transparency distinguished nudges from subliminal messaging, which was widely considered to be ethically unacceptable on the ground that it was wrong to influence people in a way that they are incapable of identifying . Professor Bovens concluded that ethical acceptability did not require governments to explain that an intervention had been implemented, especially as this fuller sort of transparency might limit the effectiveness of the intervention. On this view, an intervention would be acceptable provided those who were nudged had the ability to discern its implementation (even if in practice they almost never did so).[23]

2.15.  The line which divides an intervention that it is impossible to discern from one that it might be possible to discern, but almost never will be, is imprecise. We note however that this weaker form of transparency is all that is required of businesses when they seek to influence our behaviour through nudges. Retailers do not, for example, tell consumers that they have designed their stores in a way that is intended to encourage purchasing of specific types of product, such as confectionery.


2.16.  Some witnesses suggested that the ethical acceptability of an intervention was related to its level of public acceptance, or popularity, or even the degree to which its use was based on "public permission".[24] We are not convinced by this link. For example, levels of public acceptance for interventions might improve after their introduction, as happened for example with the ban on smoking in public places.[25] Moreover, the very fact that the degree to which the public accepts, or welcomes, an intervention can change over time suggests that this is likely to be determined by assumptions about the impact of the intervention which had perhaps initially been based on incomplete information. Consequently, it may be ethically acceptable for governments to introduce a measure even though it is unpopular if there is strong evidence that it will be effective and beneficial. For example, the ban on smoking in public places was not ethically unacceptable despite the fact that it initially had only modest levels of public acceptance.

2.17.  It is important to note, however, that a measure which does not have public support is, in general, less likely to succeed. Professor Mike Kelly, Director of Clinical Excellence at National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) drew our attention, for example, to the adverse impact of using pricing as the primary mechanism of control of alcohol in Scandinavia,[26] and Ms Milton appeared to agree when she observed that "the trouble with nannying is that it can be hectoring, and produce the opposite effect".[27]


2.18.  The discussion so far has focused on interventions which affect individuals. It was suggested to us that the arguments for the ethical acceptability of an intervention are different if it applies to businesses rather than individuals. Professor Thomas Baldwin, Professor of Philosophy, University of York, summed this up as follows:

    "… it is individual persons whose status as rational agents is a fundamental value of liberal society; but commercial organisations are not rational agents of this kind … So they do not merit the kind of liberal freedom from interference which applies to individual persons, and there is, therefore, no principled objection to regulating them in restrictive ways. What they can nonetheless demand is that they be regulated only in ways which are effective, well-motivated, and fair; and they can argue that if the ends sought by regulation can be achieved by voluntary codes, then this approach should be tried first. So here too there is an intervention ladder which starts from voluntary codes and ends up with restrictive formal regulations. But in this case the relevant considerations are primarily pragmatic rather than principled."[28]

We agree with Professor Baldwin insofar as he points out that different considerations should apply to interventions which affect individuals directly than those which affect commercial organisations directly. The latter are more likely to be pragmatic, rather than ethical, considerations.


2.19.  Though governments must consider the acceptability of any behaviour change intervention, there is no set of rules against which to determine whether or not an intervention is acceptable. Rather, ethical acceptability depends to a large extent on an intervention's proportionality. Proportionality can be determined by looking at the scale of the problem the intervention is designed to solve and the evidence that it will be effective in doing so. This should be weighed against ethical considerations including intrusiveness, restriction of freedom and transparency. We do not believe that levels of public acceptance or "public permission" are a necessary pre-condition of an ethically acceptable intervention, but given the potential impact of low levels of public acceptance on the effectiveness of an intervention, this must be relevant to any policy decision.

2.20.  The idea of the Government intervening to change people's behaviour will often be controversial, and so it is important that ministers are always able to explain the evidence-base of any proposed behaviour change intervention, and why it is a necessary and proportionate means of addressing a well-defined problem.

3   BC 76, BC 105, BC 107, BC 108, BC 110. Back

4   The Nuffield Ladder of Interventions is an analysis of interventions developed by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics in a report on ethical issues in public health published in 2007. It classifies categories of public policies according to degree of intervention in the personal life of individuals. (Public health: the ethical issues, Nuffield Council of Bioethics (2007)).  Back

5   BC 52, BC 76, BC 83, BC 86. Back

6   QQ 2, 55, 58. Back

7   QQ 2, 54, 55, 294. Back

8   Q 54. Back

9   Q 703. Back

10   Q 715. Back

11   For example: "David Cameron's 'nudge unit' aims to improve economic behaviour", The Guardian, 9 September 2010; "Nudge unit: how the Government wants to change the way we think", The Belfast Times, 3 January 2011; "Whitehall won't be nudged", The Telegraph, 17 February 2011. Back

12   For example: Creating growth, cutting carbon, Department for Transport (January 2011); HL Deb 30 November 2010 col 669; HL Deb 19 January 2011 col 824. Back

13   Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein (2008). Back

14   Ibid, p.8. Back

15   Q 703. Back

16   Q 47. Back

17   Q 705. Back

18   BC 75, BC 81, BC 107. Back

19   BC 114. Back

20   The Government's written submission to the inquiry quotes from the Coalition agreement that this Government "will be a much smarter one, shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past and finding intelligent ways to encourage support and enable people to make better choices for themselves" (BC 114). Back

21   Q 109. Back

22   The Coalition: our programme for Government, op. citBack

23   Appendix 6. Back

24   BC 81, BC 103, BC 105, Q 47. Back

25   Appendix 6. Back

26   Q 182. Back

27   Q 705. Back

28   BC 66. Back

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