Following, listening, or genuinely engaging?

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from BPS Conference 2021, with a symposium featuring psychologists who have been a part of the UK pandemic response.

What’s it like to advise government in times of covid? We heard direct from some of the voices who have featured so prominently on the airwaves and in our newspapers over the course of the pandemic. Professor John Drury (University of Sussex) took us through the process for early contributions of SPI-B, one of a number of subgroups that feeds into SAGE. Published reports were initially heavily redacted, i.e. ‘not taking the behavioural science advice that transparency was vital to winning trust’. Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews) gave numerous examples of ‘false and counterproductive assumptions about the public’, and the ‘terrible mistakes’ made as a result of those assumptions. Research going right back to the impact of bombing on morale in World War Two has shown connection and solidarity in the face of major events, and a general attitude that is ‘remarkably steady and restrained’. We need to ‘listen to the public, treat them as an asset not a problem,’ Reicher said, and recognise that ‘resilience is a property of what happens between individuals’. 

So how do we get the ‘right psychology’ – admittedly crudely defined, Reicher said – to the right places. A Chief Psychological Officer? ‘I do believe it’s worth working inside government,’ Reicher said. ‘But behaviour is not a matter of psychology alone. The judgement of how important consequences are is a political decision, and we shouldn’t pretend it’s a scientific one. We should perhaps replace “follow the science” with “listen to science”.’

Professor Ann John, of Swansea University and a member of the government’s Technical Advisory Group, echoed the idea that advice is taken by policy makers into a wider context. And ‘size matters’ in terms of that context: relationships in Wales had been, she said, much closer. There has been a ‘real step change in the understanding of the importance of behavioural science’, and ‘trust in government in Wales has been consistently high’. Governments can legitimately hold and implement different views, John said, but there’s always the risk that variable restrictions may generate a sense of unfairness, potentially undermining adherence to rules. 

Professor Susan Michie (UCL), who set up SPI-B as a subgroup of SAGE back in 2009 in response to the swine flu pandemic, said it’s ‘great that it’s survived and increased in terms of diversity’. She opened with Philip Ball’s comments in The Guardian, that ‘scientists should not passively resign themselves to the “on tap” status assigned to them by Winston Churchill’. Michie admits a tension here: ‘On the one hand we are not elected officials, and are often unfamiliar with the policy context. But on the other, evidence doesn’t implement itself; policymakers often don’t understand the scientific advice nor how best to translate it; translation and implementation are themselves the subject of scientific enquiry. Shouldn’t social scientists be asked to advise on the translation process itself? Shouldn’t scientists work in partnership with policy makers?’ 

Whereas others like Sir Mark Walport have emphasised throughout the pandemic that ‘scientists advise, but politicians decide’, Michie clearly feels that scientists should also consider whether a policy is deliverable, and what might be the consequences. There’s even a role for considering how the policy fits with personal and political values, she said. Psychology is not just about what goes on inside your head, she reminded us. It is shaped by the social and material world, and psychologists can therefore have ‘quite a broad brief’, including learning from other disciplines. 

Michie has found ways of informing policy beyond formal government structures, including as a member of Independent SAGE, calling for openness and transparency for better understanding and decision making, engaging with the public and policy makers. Ultimately, she said, there ‘should be no “hard border” between scientists and policy makers… we need engagement at all stages of the translational pathway’.

Where next? Reicher warned that we still have ‘a narrative of blame and individual responsibility without support’. But for a positive note, he added that we are ‘starting to see local councils and voluntary bodies stepping in’, and therefore as psychologists we should do more to work with other organisations.

-       Catch up with BPS Conference 2021. Get access to talks from some of the greatest thinkers in psychology including 5 keynote presentations, 3 student stream talks and 3 symposia. Register for £50 – watch anytime in July. 

Find our coronavirus coverage, including contributions from several of the speakers in this symposium, here.

See also the recent letter in The Lancet, 'Mass infection is not an option', signed by psychologists including Drury, Reicher and Michie.

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This comment relates specifically to a paragraph headed 'Mass infection not an option' which is referred to in the above entry. However, since the paragraph in question does not appear in the on-line version, I cannot enter this comment there. The paragraph itself consists largely of a quotation, with approval, from a multi-author letter in The Lancet to which a tinyurl is given. The authors of the letter include John Drury, Stephen Reicher, Robert West, and Susan Michie.

The main problem with the Lancet letter is that it fails, like so much “policy-relevant” research and so many of the systems dynamics models generated in connection with COVID, to offer anything approaching a comprehensive evaluation of the effects of alternative policies which might have been pursued. Specifically, it deals only with COVID infections among children. Comprehensive evaluation implies an assessment of all personal and social, short and long term, desired and desirable, and undesired and undesirable outcomes of the proposed policy. Without at least an approximation to such an evaluation, it is not possible to make meaningful decisions. The letter therefore offers yet one more illustration of the horrors that reductionist – viz. non-systemic – science has wished upon us. [For a discussion of the problems posed by reductionist science in connection with the evaluation of educational policy see Raven (2000) and, in relation to COVID, Raven (2020,  2021)]

In reality, something approaching a more balanced evaluation of COVID policy than the Lancet letter will be found in an Open letter from several healthcare professions to the UK government/administrators entitled Our Grave Concerns About the Handling of the COVID Pandemic by Governments of the Nations of the UK  A more general commentary is available in Hodgkinson (2021).

 However, while the comprehensive/systemic/reductionist science issue merits much wider exposure among psychologists, COVID – and government policies justified by reference to it – has brought to light a number of issues that seem to me of direct importance to psychologists.

 One has to do with the role of psychologists in implementing these policies. I voiced my concerns about the role some psychologists seem to be embracing in my comment on the contents of the July/August 2020 issue of The Psychologist in Raven (2020).

 However, it has been reported that some psychologists have been involved in advising government on how to further enhance the climate of fear (amounting to nothing less than terror for some people) which has surrounded this whole episode in order to induce more people to follow government directives.

 Many readers will, of course, assume that this is entirely justified given the assumed public interest of those directives.

 Unfortunately, a claim to be acting in the public interest has lain behind many of the activities which governments have promoted since (and during) the Second World War that have later turned out to be entirely otherwise.

 So it would appear to behove us to carefully examine, very carefully, the evidence put forward to support such claims.

 As far as I can make out, there has been no convincing comparison of the costs – including the deaths and destruction of lives and livelihoods now and in the future – of the policies which have been pursued with the benefits that have nominally been achieved. [An early study was published by OECD (2020) and, more recently, Recovery has reported that, the UN World Food Programme has warned that 270,000,000 people – ie more than were killed by Mao, Stalin and Hitler combined - face starvation as a result of the global impact of these policies.]

 My more general point is that one would have expected professionals, qua professionals, to demand such evidence before rushing to deploy their expertise to advance goals chosen, in this case contrary to the advice offered by the World Health Organisation over many years, largely in private, by a few politicians.

 To elaborate a little more, we have, as professionals, connived in a situation in which government has, though the Emergency Powers Act contrived to stifle discussion of such issues. Largely unknown to us, the government has imposed on Ofsted a duty, enforceable by enormous fines and imprisonment, to censor all information which runs counter to government policy (Monteith, 2021) . How could we possibly, as professionals and scientists, countenance such behaviour? The lockdown of information is the most destructive of all the Lockdown measures. It contributes directly to the situation found in totalitarian regimes where hardly anyone has any meaningful information for or against the policies they are being asked to support.

 But, something amazing, far from promoting discussion of this issue, The Psychologist has been promoting activities designed to purge “misinformation” from public debate … and doing so without seriously engaging with the question of how to distinguish information from misinformation, still less disinformaton achieved by, like the BBC and The Guardian, failing to report counter information. (For a fuller discussion see Raven, 2021.)

 One specific question I have been surprised to find few psychologists engaging with is: How has it been possible for governments across the world to orchestrate support for such policies which were, as the above article notes, specifically rejected by the WHO until 2020? How was it possible for governments across the world to implement essentially similar policies while everywhere attributing them to local politicians and experts.

 While this is perhaps a sociological question it has unmistakable psychological components.

 Then again, how is that people have been so willing to give up their civil liberties and support clearly corrupt centralised governments? It would seem that this story, repeated again and again over history with dire social consequences is something psychologists most urgently need to understand…. yet few psychologists seem to have raised it the context of the current experiment. What are the psychological dispositions that make it so easy. And what dispositions would enable us to guard against it. (I find it of more than passing interest that Hodgkinson has indicated that he proposes to give up his lifelong career as a journalist to investigate this question.)


By way of conclusion and without claiming that it is a specific responsibility of psychologists, qua psychologists, to contribute to the task, it is, with some relief that I am able to report that it seems that some people (See are instigating criminal proceedings against those who have, with so little opposition, found ways to inflict these destructive activities upon us.


Hodgkinson, N. (2021). Barricaded from Covid reality by government and media. TCW Defending Freedom. September 23, 2021.

Monteith, B. (2021) Ofcom’s mission creep is a threat to our liberty and more. The Scotsman, 7 June 2021.

OECD/ Ramos, G. & Hynes, W. (2020). A systemic resilience approach to dealing with Covid-19 and future shocks.

Raven, J. (2020). ‘Closing the gap’: Problems with its philosophy and research – A keynote address prepared for BPS Education Section Conference, September 2019The Psychology of Education Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, Special Issue, 2020 pages 2 – 40. ISSN: 1463-9807.  also available at:

Raven, J. (2021) Comment on Robson’s Vaccinating against viruses of the mind.  This Comment comes up if you click on and scroll down to Comments. Also available at