Why the Nanny State doesn’t work…

You’d think, that with over a hundred years of scientific study of human behaviour, that we’d have learnt a few ways of manipulating human behaviour. And you’d be right (see last week’s blog). So the great irony is that, although governments (or more correctly, government departments and agencies) often use psychological techniques for manipulating humans (e.g., disturbing riot control techniques like ‘kettling’), they don’t appear to have heard of this thing called ‘psychology’ when they attempt to change behaviour in other ways.

In recent times (let’s say the last 25 years), we’ve seen a raft of government-led initiatives that (so it is claimed) have been initiated to change our behaviour. Some of these ‘initiatives’ include the use of hidden speed cameras, other CCTV surveillance, increased ‘security’ screening at airports, and prohibitions (e.g., drugs, liquids on international flights). Often, these actions are paired with a fear campaign: drugs are bad, surveillance protects us from terrorists, etc.

Now, before this article descends into a series of accusations, conspiracy theories, or other such nonsense, perhaps we should look at what governments are trying to do, and whether it is working?

Effectively (or not – pun intended), laws or initiatives that exist to limit human behaviour are predicated on the idea that (i) the change is desirable (i.e., it is of use or value for society), and (ii) that fear or prohibition-based actions work. Typically, when a government puts these sort of limitations in effect, they are based on a version of the following argument: “people aren’t very bright, and we need to protect them from themselves. Item, group, idea, or substance ‘X’ is ‘bad’, so we should limit access to that item, group, idea, or substance, and punish people who try to obtain access”. This statement is usually backed up by something like “although we don’t have any real scientific data to back up our belief that item, group, idea or substance ‘X’ is, in fact, bad, we will impose this ‘initiative’ anyway, and the defend it vigorously, whilst refusing to admit that we might be wrong. If we do this for long enough, we’ll have tradition on our side”.

Oops, did that sound a tad cynical? Apologies, I’m not actually on libertarian rant. From a psychological perspective, this type of behaviour is deeply flawed, because it makes two dangerous (and incorrect) assumptions: first, that those in a position of authority are qualified to decide on questions of access and, second, that people respond effectively to being told what they can’t do and that punishment if a good way to reinforce behavioural change. If you’ve read my posts on arrogance (here, here, and here) you’ll know that it’s probable that the arrogance (and hubris) of those in positions of power is guiding their assumption that ‘they know what’s best’. This, to a certain degree, is both understandable (based on what we know about humans and power) and expected, but to go against 100 years of research on effective ways to modify human behaviour and revert, effectively to the oldest form of coercion (violence), is what pisses me off. Punishing an individual for circumventing a state-proscribed ban, might as well be called what it is. Punishment is violence, and violence doesn’t work when it comes to changing people’s minds (at least not in the long-term; it can be very effective in the short-term if you don’t give a shit about the consequences, or believe your own brand of bullshit).

Let’s use a few examples. Hidden speed cameras are touted (by the governments that make a lot of money from the generated fines) as excellent ways of reducing speeding. We have good evidence that speeding is a causal factor in fatal injuries on the road, so fining people when they go fast must be a good thing! Turns out that getting fine in the mail a month after you sped, doesn’t do much to reduce it. Even the knowledge that there might be speed cameras out there only makes people more vigilant for speed cameras. In places where speed cameras are obvious, people do slow down, but accidents actually increase, because people are focusing on their speedometers, not on the road ahead of them. And they speed up again as soon as the speed camera behind them. In other words, speed cameras do not stop people from speeding, they distract them temporarily from speeding.

Here’s another one. Especially in the UK, many governments have installed large CCTV networks predicated on the idea that surveillance reduces crime. It doesn’t. Although people are less likely to be mugged underneath a CCTV camera, they’re just as likely to be mugged elsewhere. Well, how about universal surveillance I hear you ask? Turns out that all you get is bad video footage of crime, with no measurable increase in the crime solve rate. It’s easy to wear a cap or hoodie to hide your face or, in the case of more advanced technologies like gait recognition, modify your gait! Worse, instead of making people feel safe, CCTV actually makes people feel afraid (if there’s surveillance, maybe I’m really at risk). London has one of the highest CCTV densities in the world, and yet they did nothing to reduce the 2011 London riots and might (although this is speculation) have even made it worse.

How about this one. Airport security – we all hate it, but tolerate it because we know it will keep us safe in the skies. Turns out it’s pretty much impossible to screen people properly (and keep an airport running) so, instead, the process is set up to give the illusion of safety. According to people who know a lot more about this than I do (see the work of Bruce Schneier), the entire security apparatus is nothing more than theatre. But do anything for long enough and it self-justifies. It’s easy to use the argument that terrorism has dropped (or hasn’t increased) since the introduction of increased security at airports, but this doesn’t bear close scrutiny. In the meantime, the prohibition of taking your own water bottle on a plane (despite the absolute idiocy of this restriction) remains, and people ‘feel’ safe. As we know (or at least you will if you read this), ‘feeling’ that something is ‘right’ is pretty much a guaranteed way of knowing that your primitive brain centres (the ones that deal with your safety) have been hacked.

Best one for last? Drug prohibition! Everyone knows that drugs are bad; heroin, ecstasy, marijuana are all evil right? I can’t even being to describe the hypocrisy in the ‘war on drugs’ – do a bit of research and you’ll realise it’s a combination of massive misinformation, specious reasoning, corruption, and prejudice. Because the desire to use drugs is about as old as our midbrain (with its reward centres that are activated by psychotropic chemicals), people have always (and will always) seek them out. Some of them are legitimised (alcohol, nicotine, caffeine) and others demonised. But the prohibition and punishment associated with the ‘bad’ ones doesn’t stop people using them, it only increases the negative consequences associated with prohibition (e.g., increased violence), which are then used as reasons to extend the prohibition. When drug prohibition strategies are compared with more laws in more permissive countries (e.g., Australia versus Portugal), it turns out that violent crime, rates of addiction, and even usage reduce in those countries that decriminalise drug use. It’s not the drugs that are bad, it’s what people will do to one another when the value of the drug is increased by its rarity (based on the difficulty of obtaining it).

Now, again, I’ve used hyperbole to make my point. As I’ve said, it’s not my intention to rant about things I don’t like. And my suggestion that governments don’t know what they’re doing when making laws is (although probably true a lot of the time) not by any means applicable all of the time. My problem is with the execution (again, pun intended) more than the flawed (read human) reasoning behind it. As I’ve said, people just don’t respond well in the long term to prohibition or punishment. They also really don’t like being told what they should do.

Here’s the facts. If you want to change human behaviour, whether your reasons are justified or not, setting restrictions and punishing violations of those restrictions simply doesn’t work long term. Short term you will get a reduction in whatever you want to reduce (or an increase in whatever you want to increase), but as soon as the restrictions are lifted, behaviour returns to its set point. People won’t stop drinking if you pass laws to raise the price of alcohol. People won’t stop eating sugar and fat if you tax fast food. And people won’t stop hurting each other if you put cameras up everywhere. People adapt to the new status quo (oh, it costs more to smoke, but I like to smoke, so I’ll spend the money on cigarettes instead of food for my family), or get creative. Always have, always will. And it turns out that the victims of prohibition are always the most vulnerable (the lowest earners, the poorest educated, the marginalised, the mentally ill, etc.)… Sadly, most governments make a fundamental attribution error in their understanding of behaviour.

So is there an alterative? Of course there bloody well is! It’s called social psychology and it’s been around for at least 50 years. Here’s how to design a program that is likely to result in permanent behaviour change.

1) Educate, educate, educate. Give people the tools to be able to make up their own minds without resorting to fear or misinformation. Don’t just use education campaigns, actually spend money on educating people from the ground up. And make sure that this is education, not brainwashing – believe it or not, a highly educated society is a highly stable society! If restriction is required, make sure that the requirement is based on real science, not opinion or anecdote, and then explain it properly.

2) Focus on permissive rather than restrictive laws. Instead of telling people what they can’t do, tell them what they can. For example, permissive drug laws accept that people will take drugs, but provide a framework around that knowledge. Thus, recreational drugs are regulated and sold at licensed facilities that guarantee a level of quality, and people are educated on the drugs, and receive information about their safe use. Although a black market will remain (and abuse will still occur), the majority will use the legitimate suppliers (so long as the price isn’t too high), drug-related crime reduces substantially, and governments even get to tax the goods!

3) Use social-psychology principles to help regulate undesirable behaviour. For instance, people respond a lot better to reward than they do to punishment, especially social reward. In other words, reinforcing behaviours through peer reward is massively more influential than being told you’ve been naughty by the system. This does take time, because it’s important that the peer group be reinforcing the right things. Here’s a good example – instead of telling people that speeding is bad, and then taking pictures of them and sending out fines when they do, educate them about the consequences of speeding, and then encourage their peer group to self-regulate. The picture gets sent to everyone in their social network, who then provide feedback.

I know what you’re thinking – a 25 year old male would speed, and get his picture sent to his mates, who would then provide highly positive feedback on his speeding. Yes, this would probably happen (now), because restrictive laws encourage law breaking, which is exciting and therefore desirable. It’s going to take a while to get here.

Am I being naïve? I do realise that humans are greedy, nasty and violent – but I’ve been writing for six months now about how humans can recognise and change that aspect of themselves. Maybe its time that governments stopped using the strategies they’ve been using for the last 3000 years and, instead, try something new. We’re connected in a way that we’ve never seen before in human history. Instead of using that connection to encourage more fear and restriction, how about using the science of human interaction and behaviour (it’s called psychology) to encourage something different? Turn off the nanny state and turn on society 2.0.

One Reply to “Why the Nanny State doesn’t work…”

  1. Hear, hear! Sadly modern government seems to thrive on how much it can increase the nanny-isms, and with that the dependent society. Positive incentives work in all areas of human activity – not the dull hand of tin-pot tyrant bureaucracy!

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