A clandestine team of government workers who used psychology to “nudge” behaviour and increase compliance during the pandemic has been called into question.
Secret documents show a team of NSW government behavioural experts used psychological tricks to “nudge” people’s behaviour during the COVID pandemic.
A rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at the attempts to influence people’s decisions and behaviours has been uncovered though Freedom of Information documents obtained by The Daily Telegraph.
The NSW Government operates a “Behavioural Insights Unit” as part of the Department of Customer Service, with a team of 14 staff.
During the height of the pandemic it told the government to minimise the public perception of the risk of vaccine side-effects by using decimal figures instead of easy to comprehend round figures.
It also suggested boosting QR code check-ins by “harnessing the surveillance effect” and increasing mask-wearing among young people by appealing to their egos.
In the UK, the use of a “nudge unit” during the Covid pandemic became a matter of public controversy, but here in NSW the unit has kept a low profile and refused to release all the documents requested by The Daily Telegraph on the grounds they were being prepared for the NSW Cabinet.
It operates by “understanding how people actually think and behave”, saying that “behavioural insights can help shift individual’s behaviour by subtly changing the way decisions are presented”.
Many of its regular activities are focused on improving customer experiences, but behavioural economic experts and the Institute for Public Affairs say it was “weaponised” as a tool of government during controversial pandemic measures.
“People tend to be more open to known risks compared to unknown risks,” an advisory from the nudge unit provided to the government last year states.
“When discussing (vaccine) risks, use the absolute percentage (i.e. 0.000004 per cent) rather than 1 in 250,000.
“We find it easier to imagine ourselves as the ‘1’ so perceive the risk expressed this way as greater.”
They also suggested politicians “change the default by framing vaccination as the status quo”.
“Framing something as a loss will have greater impact than framing it as a gain” it advised, so the government should tell people that not being jabbed would mean a “loss of freedom”.
In one presentation, the unit said that a message of “appealing to ego: Real heroes wear masks” would result in 10 per cent more young people intending to wear masks on public transport.
Under the heading “Insight 1. Harness social norms and highlight compliance surveillance”, the unit suggests telling shops that their check-in rates were lower than elsewhere, in order to bump up their rates.
The government should “harness the surveillance effect to make the consequences more salient and appear more likely”.
The Institute of Public Affair’s Morgan Begg said “official pandemic policy manipulated, rather than informed, the public about what the government was doing”.
“These documents are further evidence of how governments used unprecedented tactics, including the weaponisation of psychological tricks by officials, to get people to accept the unacceptable,” he said.
University of NSW economics lecturer and author of The Great Covid Panic, Professor Gigi Foster said the tactics used to convince people to get vaccinated “were more like shoves than nudges”.
“What is revealed in the documents … is the manipulation of a population by its government, using tactics that have been found in the behavioural economics and psychology literatures to be particularly effective at changing behaviour,” she said.
“Covid lockdowns were an economic catastrophe as well as an affront to such moral principles as care and compassion for our fellow man, and so on both fronts, assisting the government in manipulating people into complying with them is wrong.
“It is an example of what those trained in behavioural economics are capable of when they become merely the servants of power.”
One Nation MP Mark Latham described the unit as “clandestine” and “secretive”, as it had never contacted MPs to provide reports or analysis.
“Why the secrecy?” he said. “Who elected these people to advocate for certain behavioural changes in society – why are they not trying to add value to the public policy debate?”
The unit was also deployed to look at how likely people were to comply with COVID restrictions and found women were less tolerant of risk – “we used this insight to help design and test messages with groups of people who tend to be more open to taking risks”.
Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello did not respond to questions about the use of the unit.
Instead, a spokeswoman for the unit said it had partnered with government agencies to test approaches for community information to “ensure people could make informed decisions to stay COVID safe”.
“The BIU understands ethical considerations are critical with the use of behavioural insights,” she said.
“BIU research and evaluation activities undergo a process of ethical review in line with Australian standards set by the National Health and Medical Research Council.”