For our own good?

Professor Gail Kinman (University of Bedfordshire) reports from a joint lecture at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference in Nottingham.

In November 2015, the British Psychological Society signed a memorandum of understanding with the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) to support collaborative work between the two societies. One initiative is a joint BPS/PSI lecture series, ‘Hands Across the Water’, with a speaker representing each Society. In the lecture at this year’s annual conference, Dr Ashley Weinberg (University of Salford) and Professor Liam Delaney (University College, Dublin) considered the link between psychology and politics and the role that it could (and should) be playing in influencing public policy to improve the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

Weinberg, who is currently leading a bid to establish a Political Psychology Section within the BPS, argued that psychology is uniquely placed to increase understanding politics in its broadest sense – i.e. organising control over social groups and making decisions on their behalf. Psychology, for example, can provide insight into political and social institutions and further our understanding of peace and conflict resolution, political corruption and how it can be avoided, and social activism and protest movements. Commenting on how perceptions of power and control shape political values and identity, Weinberg highlighted the uncertainty and fears for the future that influenced the recent vote for Brexit and the ever-increasing division between those who voted for and against leaving the EU. 

Psychological principles can also provide insight into the behaviour and functioning of politicians. Drawing on his own research on the wellbeing of MPs, Weinberg highlighted the consequences of long working hours (nearly 70 hours a week on average), heavy workloads, high expectations of others and intense public scrutiny of their professional and personal lives for their mental health and functioning. Quoting Edwina Currie, he observed that ‘broken marriages, ruined health and exhausted rationality’ are the norm, but politicians are reluctant to disclose their difficulties and little support is provided.

In his talk, Delaney commented on the increasing use of the behavioural sciences by Government. Although psychology can undoubtedly benefit the public by helping shape more effective policies, he argued that the ethical implications of manipulating our behaviour should be recognised. The Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, was the world’s first government institution that applied evidence from the behavioural sciences (particularly psychology and behavioural economics), to help people longer, healthier and better lives. He explained that by arranging the ‘choice architecture’ in a particular way, individuals could be nudged into making small changes in their behaviour without impinging on their perceptions of free will. Delaney said this has been used to shape policy recommendations to help people change their behaviours in many ways; for example in the areas of finance, recycling, education, health. Nonetheless, he argued that the use of psychological principles poses ethical dilemmas as insight into human behaviour can be also used to influence people by stealth, deception and coercion.  

Delaney also commented on the potential of ‘Big Data’ to boost economic growth, saying that it has the potential to compromise privacy, as the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrated. Delaney concluded that the use of psychology in shaping public policy to initiate behaviour change is ‘not a fad’ and is now deeply embedded in our political and social institutions. We need to be aware that they can be used for manipulation and coercion as well as for ‘people’s own good’. 

You can read more coverage from the Annual Conference online, and in the June and July print editions.

Photo: Tony Dale

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