Today, how we shop, and socially distance from others is fundamentally different from yesterday as we are called upon to 'do the right thing' to change everything about our lives and our daily interactions.
New forms of etiquette are rapidly emerging from the stoic 'good morning' across a 6-ft distance with neighbours (many of whom I've not spoken to before), to explaining that you cannot attend that digital hangout as you are already committed to another digital hangy-out thing. Behaviour change has always been essential to central policy and politics. While not exactly an exemplar for 'nudge', in the UK the PM Boris Johnson is relying on classic psychological nudge theory to encourage citizens to 'do the right thing' - a nudge-COVD_19 (nudgeC19) tactic.
Classic Foucauldian analyses enables us to see how social forms of embodiment writings on technologies of the self nudge users to change behaviour - such as calorie counting to lose weight. Typically nudge theory is closely aligned to neoliberalism that reflects shifting state-citizen relations and the responsibility of individuals: "Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together."
I'm a long time researcher of behaviour change and its relationship to individual health decision-making (especially around self-tracking and mHealth). It is not difficult to be struck by how Boris's appeals are designed to tap into variants of behavioural theory: rational (what we think, how we reflect on things) and emotion driven (automatic and instinctual reaction) systems. The success of nudgeC19 is to tap into the automatic system and reframe choices - essentially nudging citizens into the 'right' behaviour change that can be rationalised.
While policy and politics are always concerned with influencing citizen actions, there is an acute emphasis on our individual behaviour change and responsibility to get this right. Policy makers increasingly believe that – in the face of great social complexity and individualised citizenry – the only way to address ‘deadly' challenges such as the global pandemic, climate change or civil unrest is to encourage citizens themselves to change their behaviour. The socio-political impact of nudgeC19 has already been dramatic and we are on a radically new path.
Unsurprisingly, nudgeC19 has already attracted substantial criticism and political comment. Much of this revolves around caution against nudgeC19 being a political vehicle for extending Government activity (something that has already happened in the UK, in much of Europe and will continue to happen in the US), along with the explicit paternalism of nudge. In defence of this approach, in properly deploying nudge incentives this will improve (hopefully save) people's lives. Such measures have been set up to enable us to feel in control (as much as we can right now) of the choices we can make and ways we can contribute to 'solve' a major f*cking global problem. And we can do so while emphasising our freedom to make this choice.
I am not a fan of Boris or his politics, but I sincerely believe him when he states the current measures in place are not actions he wants to take. Yet we should also be aware, despite reassurances otherwise, that nudgeC19 is heavy-weight top-down politics. While there is a good case to make on the central role of nudgeC19 that this is for the greater good and citizens 'best interests' are at the heart of such conditions, our restricted movements reveal the disabling of our agency and impulsivity as everyday citizens.
In what follows over the next few weeks/months/year/s, we need wider social analysis of behaviour change. A sociological understanding of agency and new phase of Government-citizen relations that are characterised by extreme uncertainty that depend on deepening citizen reflexivity:
Will the Government retain responsibility for nudging citizens?
Will this be expanded to the military and police (likely yes, before the end of the week)?
For how long can we sustain the nudge behaviour (fatigue, boredom, frustration all at play here)?
Are we turning to a more reconstructive agenda where in the long-term Government interference on this scale will be welcome (for the greater good) and support the role of the state as a facilitator in daily life?
Ultimately, together, we will continue to endure more explicitly political Government interference and restrictive behaviour change that will change our citizenship identity forever.