Who guards the guards?

Last week, Experience Planners Julia and Natalie went to a talk on the ethics of behavioural science with some of the field’s biggest names.

The brief is simple, one hour to write a blog post, let’s go…

After a slow start and so, an extra wine, the talk kicked off with panelists giving their views on how to be ethical within the practise of behavioural science, immediately getting us thinking, who decides what is classed as good behaviour and what is not? One of the panelists Emily Haisley, Investment risk and Behavioural finance Director at BlackRock argued that if you can help people fully comprehend the decisions that they’re making and the consequences of that decision, then they tend to make better decisions and feel happier about them. Nudging them into a state of knowledge and empowerment means they’re in control of their decisions and are more likely to make decisions in the state of System 2.

System 1 and System 2 are our mind states when making decisions, System 1 is our emotional, impulsive state and System 2 is our rational, analytical state. Decisions made in System 2 are seen as morally more acceptable, but this may not always be the case.

So does targeting our System 2 state of mind mean we can drive genuinely positive behavioural change? Even when the ambition of a product fits squarely into what the wider society deems to be a positive, the outcomes can still be surprising. Using the example of the Fitbit, where people have chosen to be told about the number of steps they are taking a day, trying to nudge them towards daily targets, people with trackers actually lost less weight than those without. Regular reminders of how active they’ve been helped may have justified the extra slice of cake! Even when fairly confident about the positive nature of a nudge the outcome could still turn negative.

Another perspective was that we should educate people and children on how to recognise nudges, however this was shot down by nearly all the panelists as they themselves admitted that recognising nudges doesn’t stop you being influenced by them.

Looking to traditional advertising, we’ve long been comfortable using persuasive tactics to talk to our audiences. We use content and imagery to sell a lifestyle, we use language and emotions to encourage people to spend their money! Framing and social proof, chunking and default choice are all tools we use regularly in the design of everything from digital platforms to above the line advertising. We rely on regulations to define what is fair, but often it’s down to the team or individual to decide what’s right.

If we look to social media, there is an abundance of talking, sharing and posting, arguably manipulating and forming our point of view with stories and facts that may not even be true. ‘Fake news’ and clever algorithms mean our individual news sources can be hugely contrived and our exposure to differing opinions becomes extremely narrowed. Is that ethical? Should Facebook regulate further? Should the government then regulate Facebook?

When working on a campaign to reduce littering no one has any problem with us using behavioural science to drive change, no one will ever complain if we try and increase rates of recycling, but how do we define what is right? Whose needs are more important than others? Which causes get ticked off as ‘good’? And who gets to make that distinction?

Essentially, who guards the guards?

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