Changing Behaviours Through Government Politics – by Rhys Jones, Jessica Pykett and Mark Whitehead

Photo: Trodel, Creative Commons 2.0

A significant but, for many people, imperceptible force has been quietly reshaping the operational logics of many states since the turn of millennium. This largely intellectual force has centred on nothing less than the nature of the human subject, the relationship between our conscious and sub-conscious selves, and the complex interface between the rational and irrational. This political trend has manifested itself in the increased significance of Behaviour Change policies. 

Our forthcoming book, Changing Behaviours, charts the emergence of Behaviour Change policies in the UK under New Labour and the Coalition Government. By tracing the influence of the behavioural sciences on Whitehall policy makers, it explores a new psychological orthodoxy in the practices of governing. Chapters examine the impact of Behaviour Change policies in the fields of health, personal finance and the environment.  The book analyses how the nature of the human subject itself is re-imagined through Behaviour Change, and develops an analytical framework for evaluating the ethics, efficacy and potential empowerment of Behaviour Change.

Changing Behaviours is based on a three year research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which examined the social, political and ethical significance of Behaviour Change policies in a range of spheres, including gambling and saving behaviours, urban design, school food, alcohol policies and household energy consumption. Through these case studies, we provide original evidence of the potential impact of the behaviour change agenda on different social groups and on wider society, and we discuss in detail how Behaviour Change policies are understood and contested by different individuals and groups.

Our aim in the book is to raise broader questions about the impact of behaviour change on the democratic process, governance and state-citizen relations. By providing a critical analysis of the place of ‘nudge’ policies in a broader political landscape we seek to show how nudge policies re-conceptualize human action, and we trace the intellectual roots of nudge in terms of its links with emerging academic fields of behavioural economics, user-centred (and ‘persuasive’ technological) design principals and, increasingly, neuroscience. We consider questions about the way in which such policies imagine the rationality and political agency of the human subject.  As Human Geographers, we are particularly concerned with unpacking the place of the loose political philosophy of ‘libertarian paternalism’, through which Behaviour Change policies have found political purchase. We therefore situate the Behaviour Change agenda within the history and geography of ‘neoliberalism’. Through its engagement with contemporary social policies and practice, the book also builds on understandings of the politics of ‘neuroliberalism’ – based on governing neurological or psychological subjects.

Finally, we propose a new analytical model through which to develop critical, challenging and supplementary perspectives on Behaviour Change. The book provides a model of ‘efficacy, ethics and empowerment’ to critically evaluate policies which are self-styled to change people’s behaviour. Efficacy calls scholars and practitioners of Behaviour Change to expand and extend effectiveness measures beyond questions of ‘what works’ in favour of wider-reaching questions of democratic legitimacy, long-term sustainability and a fuller understanding of the complex social drivers of ‘sensible’ behaviour. Ethics refers to a need to establish a set of checks and balances on the kinds of psychological, psychographic and geo-demographic power used in the fulfilment of Behaviour Change interventions. We ask, for instance, whether the behavioural agenda itself creates an irrational and risky underclass, echoing previous examples of victim-blaming in public policy. Our third analytical tranche, empowerment, serves to shed light on the potential for Behaviour Change policies to enable citizens to develop the capacity to act in the future, with a key emphasis on the community contexts and social infrastructures required to enable more- than-rational forms of decision-making. In this sense, we question whether the Behaviour Change agenda should be considered incompatible with wider cuts in the funding of civil society organizations, welfare and state institutions.

Throughout the book, a core concern for us in the context of the contemporary challenges facing higher education research in general has been to show the value of a strongly social theoretic approach, countering prevailing trends towards a (re-)turn to behaviouralism with the UK social sciences.

Changing Behaviours jacket coverChanging Behaviours: On the Rise of the Psychological State will be published by Edward Elgar in 2013.

Rhys Jones is Professor in Human Geography at Aberystwyth University and is the author of People/States/Territoriesand co-author of An Introduction to Political Geography.

Jessica Pykett is a Lecturer in Human Geography (Urban Living and Behaviour Change) at the University of Birmingham, and the editor of Governing Through Pedagogy: Re-educating Citizens.

Mark Whitehead is Reader in Geography at Aberystwyth University and his recent titles include From Above: War, Violence and Verticality, Environmental Transformations, and Spaces of Sustainability.


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  1. Changing Behaviours | ELGARBLOG - January 14, 2013

    […] Dr Jessica Pykett (author of the Elgarblog article ‘Changing Behaviours Through Government Politics‘) talking about her forthcoming book on Huffington Post Live […]

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