We Need a Robust Ethical Framework to Curb the State’s Use of Behavioural Science

Gary Sidley

Since the advent of the covid-19 era in early 2020, many countries across the world have deployed behavioural science interventions – often referred to as ‘nudges’ – to strengthen their communication strategies and thereby increase compliance with the pandemic restrictions and subsequent vaccine rollout. These state-sponsored psychological methods of persuasion raise important ethical questions. Focusing on the UK, this article will highlight how some behavioural interventions have evoked ethical concerns as a result of their reliance upon the strategic elevation of emotional distress to promote adherence to unprecedented public health directives, their disregard for the principle of informed consent, and their often-covert mode of action. Despite the pressing need to examine these ethical issues, there is accumulating evidence that those in positions of power and influence in the UK are very reluctant to engage in such a dialogue. The priorities for further investigation will be highlighted, with the ultimate aim of embedding the state’s future use of behavioural science within an acceptable ethical framework.

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