Neuroliberalism: welcome to government in the 21st century

The use of psychological techniques to shape human behaviour is increasingly common. Should we be worried?

Mark Whitehead
15 March 2020, 7.12pm
Pixabay licence. Pixabay/geralt.

If you type ‘neuroliberal’ into Google, the search engine assumes you’ve made a typographical error and helpfully shows you the results for ‘neoliberal’ instead. This algorithmic blip is actually a useful starting point for introducing an important idea in politics.

‘Neuroliberalism’ refers to the use of psychological techniques to shape human behaviour in free societies. As a political project it has become particularly popular over the last decade, during which it has been deployed to address the evident shortcomings of neoliberal society and its associated systems of government.

First and foremost, neuroliberalism offers a more realistic account of human behaviour. Neoliberalism is a system of government that assumes that rational action is the norm, but in the wake of The Great Recession, the Climate Emergency and public health crises, this assumption looks increasingly tenuous.

Drawing on the insights of behavioural and psychological science, neuroliberalism is based on a far less optimistic understanding of human behaviour. It recognises the inherent irrationalities and biases that characterise the human condition which see us prioritising present needs over those of the future, blindly following the example of the wider social ‘herd,’ and judging information only based on its conformity with our existing beliefs.

The origins of neuroliberalism can be traced back to the publication of Thaler and Sunstein’s influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health Wealth and Happiness in 2008, but it has a much longer history that takes in a complex set of interdisciplinary struggles between economics and psychology which began in the 1950s. Then, just as neoliberalism was being popularised by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s, neuroliberalism - in the form of the new interdisciplinary field of behavioural economics - started to develop the theories that would help us understand the all-to human limits of the neoliberal system.

Thaler and Sunstein’s book is perhaps best thought of as the ‘coming of age’ of neuroliberalism as opposed to its genesis point. What Nudge did offer was a frame to understand how psychological insights about human behaviour could be combined with the design sciences in order to create environments in which it’s easier to make better decisions.

Whether it’s promoting organ donor registers when renewing our driving licenses, redesigning canteens to encourage healthy eating, or the comparative statistics on prompt payments that often come with tax reminder letters (‘most people pay their taxes on time, so don’t be a social outcast’), it’s likely that most people have experienced expressions of neuroliberalism in one form or another.

In addition to offering policy solutions, neuroliberal insights are also used to diagnose the failings of policy. In the context of the Covid 19 outbreak, for example, neuroliberal ideas were used to diagnose the nature of the UK government’s previous overreaction to Swine Flu, which cost the NHS approximately £1.2 Billion and was a product of a common behavioural bias know as ‘ambiguity aversion:’ when confronted with uncertainty, humans have a tendency to overreact - though in other instances like the current Coronavirus pandemic the reverse may be happening.

As both a psychological diagnosis of neoliberalism’s problems and a proposed solution, neuroliberal policies are now evident in most countries and are increasingly promoted by international organizations such as the World Bank, the OECD, the European Commission, and the World Economic Forum. They came to particular prominence in David Cameron’s ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ in the UK, Barack Obama’s ‘Social and Behavioural Sciences Team’ in the US, and Angela Merkel’s ‘Behavioural Insights Applied to Policy Unit’ in Germany.

With its combination of smart psychology and low implementation costs, neuroliberalism appears to offer crisis-ridden societies a set of policy responses that align well with austerity-oriented budgets, but are there dangers lurking in this approach?

In a recent book entitled Neuroliberalism: Behavioural Government in the 21st Century, I and my co-authors explore and analyse neuroliberal systems of government from a critical perspective. Among the concerns that have been raised is the argument that neuroliberalism takes too dim a view of human nature. In assuming generalised forms of human irrationality and frailty, it supports an almost post-enlightenment view of the world in which governments must take a more interventionist role in our everyday and private lives.

Other concerns suggest that by operating on and through our psychological flaws, this approach embodies a form of behavioural manipulation that serves to undermine human autonomy. At the other end of the spectrum, however, critics claim that it’s a cheap and playful application of pop-psychology to public policy matters. In this context, neuroliberalism is often criticised for being a reiteration of the minimalist systems of government associated with its neoliberal progenitor; a kind of ‘survival of the fittest’ with a psychological upgrade.

Ethically, our book concludes that concerns over the erosion of human autonomy are often overstated, since it isn’t difficult to resist neuroliberal policies because of their intentionally-soft design. However, neuroliberalism does tend to take an unnecessarily pessimistic view of the capacity of human beings to overcome their irrationalities. In fact, we argue that the insights of the behavioural and psychological sciences should be a core part of human learning (i.e. learning what it is to be a human), rather than the privileged reserve of policy experts or so-called ‘psychocrats.’

Constitutionally, neuroliberalism raises questions about the legitimate extent of government intervention. The forms of gently-persuasive policies associated with this approach raise the prospect of intervention into areas of life that cause harm to ourselves but have previously been off-limits, such as unhealthy eating, smoking and binge drinking. In liberal democracies the limits to government intervention have historically been determined on the basis of whether our actions cause harm to others, but in the brave new world of neuroliberalism this looks set to change - with minimal political scrutiny.

Thus far, many of the concerns raised about emerging forms of neuroliberal government have proven unfounded. There have been few examples of the egregious application of psychological influences to pernicious ends. Related policies have proven successful at solving simple, short-term, and one-off behavioural problems such as prompt tax payments, but far less effective in solving more complex and meaty public policy challenges.

For example, the New Yorker magazine published a fascinating insight into attempts by Obama’s Social and Behavioural Sciences Team to address the problems associated with Flint’s recent water crisis around contamination and poorly maintained public infrastructure. The Team used psychological prompts and commitment devices to promote a behavioural shift towards using more bottled water and fitting water filters. But in the face of racial tensions, fear, a distrust of government advice, and a lack of public funding, psychological insights appeared to have contributed little to a solution.

Existing anxieties about neuroliberalism may actually become more salient in the future. The last five years have seen new developments in neuroliberalism as the behavioural sciences have fused with large-scale data analytics. The era of smart and often wearable technology, algorithmic machine learning, and social media platforms has presented unprecedented opportunities to monitor human behaviour, and potentially to reshape it.

Smart phones, watches, cars and even fridges provide new vectors in and through which those concerned with developing neuroliberal systems of government can deliver interventions. Unlike nudging in the analogue world, however, digital or hyper nudges can be repeated constantly at low cost. The impacts of these nudges on actual behaviour can also be more easily monitored and assessed.

What are likely to emerge are forms of neuroliberal policy that are both more scalable and more personally tailored to our own psychological proclivities. So, for example, if you didn’t reduce your calorific intake on the basis of the dietary feedback provided by your smart fridge, what would happen if it told you about the dietary successes of people you know, or even sent you targeted messages at times of day when you’ve previously proven to be more amenable to behavioural manipulation?

Of course, digital neuroliberalism isn’t hypothetical. Google has already run controversial trials involving over 60 million un-consenting participants to test out whether behavioural prompts could encourage people to vote (they could). Such developments suggest that many of the concerns raised about the ethical and constitutional implications of early forms of neuroliberalism may find their fullest expression in the digital world.

How can human autonomy realistically be expected to survive systems of algorithmic feedback that know us better than we know ourselves? Furthermore, what if neuroliberal government is increasingly coordinated by unaccountable tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Uber: how meaningful will the harm-to-others limitation on government intervention be then?

Neoliberalism was based on a crude and limited understanding of the human condition. Neuroliberalism is based on a much more realistic and accurate grasp of human motivation and frailty. But in a digital future it’s the systems of algorithmic learning and psychological prompting that know us best that should worry us the most. Perhaps those inept neoliberal systems of government won’t seem so bad after all.

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