Class Bias in How The UK Government Applies Cognitive Bias Mitigation Theory

17 06 2018

Class Bias in How The UK Government Applies Cognitive Bias Mitigation Theory

I was and remain a fan of behaviour economics and the other types of social science research that help us to think more clearly about thinking itself. I’m a fan because lots of evidence suggests that human decision-making is plagued by a range of biases that range from confirmation bias to the Ikea Effect and that we have the capacity to put in place countermeasures to the improve the quality of decision-making. It seems to me that behavioural economics is a rare area of social science research that gives practitioners guidance that isn’t trivial, is rooted has a strong empirical foundation, and which is non-intuitive. I’ve sought to apply various decision debiasing techniques in my own personal life, particularly with regard to food and exercise choices, and am at work on a paper on how we can reduce the likelihood of cognitive bias in researchers who do archival research.

As someone who was initially attracted to the concept of nudging and “libertarian paternalism”, I was pleased when I learned the Coalition Government here in the UK had established, in 2010, a unit within the government,  Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) aimed at helping government departments to develop policies that  take advantage of behavioural economics insights. The BIT, the so-called Nudge Unit, helped to design a variety of policies that were aimed at making small, incremental changes to how this country operates. These policies successfully encouraged a variety of forms of pro-social behaviour, from paying road tax promptly to reducing prescription errors in pharmacies. As a citizen of the UK, was actually quite proud that the British government signalled its commitment to evidence-based, social-science informed policymaking by creating this unit. Even though the underlying research was pioneered by Israeli and US academics, the UK became a global leader in applying Nudge Theory. The UK’s BIT inspired the Obama Administration to establish its own equivalent agency, but it had a much lower profile, didn’t do as much, and was immediately destroyed by the Trump Administration. Other countries and jurisdictions have used behavioural econ a little bit in their policymaking process, but the UK is the world leader in this area, at least to my knowledge.

Recently, I’ve become disenchanted with how the UK government is applying insights from the behavioural sciences. Simply put, the UK government displays a tremendous class and power bias in how it applies this theory: it loves to use behaviour economics findings to improve/de-bias the decision-making of poor people and of people who are too young to vote, but it doesn’t apply the same techniques to the decision-making of the rich and powerful (e.g, CEOs in the private sector or generals in the army), and particularly not to members of Theresa May’s own Cabinet!

Here’s an example of what I mean by this. We know that obesity is a growing problem in many advanced economies and that poor eating and drinking choices are more common in lower SES groups.  Since 2010, BIT has worked with other UK public-sector agencies to design policies (e.g., new types of food labelling) that will tackle this problem. For instance, behavioural econ principles were applied in a 2017 pilot project designed to improve eating decisions in three deprived London boroughs (see here). That’s a worthy project, especially since an individual’s poor eating choices do create some externalities for society as a whole (e.g., higher NHS costs in the future). I’m also that behavioural science has used to help design the package labels that now inform our food purchasing decisions. But why isn’t the BIT applying the same basic principles to traders in the City of London? After all, we know that financial decision-making, even by professionals is frequently plagued by systemic cognitive biases that can distort markets and have devastating consequences for whole societies?

Most importantly, we need to think about why behavioural economics research into how to improve decision-making isn’t being applied to the really big policy dilemmas currently facing decision-makers at the very top of the British government, such as the Cabinet’s debates over the relative merits of Soft Brexit versus Hard Brexit.  At the very least, my search of the UK government website have given no indication whatsoever that the BIT has been involved in helping to de-bias the decision-making process. Maybe the BIT has been involved behind the scenes. Maybe Theresa May has gone to them and said “I want to maximize the chances that I will make the right decisions about Brexit. What advice do you have for me?” However, I have seen zero evidence of that.

So here’s the pattern I see. The UK government’s willingness to apply lessons taken from behaviour economics to improving the decision-making of a group of people is a function of the lack of power of that group. Poor people? Obese children? Apply nudge away so that we can improve their decision-making. It is also acceptable to apply behavioural economics in influencing the decisions of motorists and ordinary supermarket shoppers. But we aren’t going to apply the same medicine to decision-making by well-paid people in the City.  We sure as hell don’t apply the treatment to political leaders. Many of us who have observed the debates within the Conservative Party over Brexit and how to handle it are basically a Festival of System One thinking: lots of gut instinct thinking, mood affiliation, hubris, motivated reasoning, logical fallacies, and pretty much every cognitive bias known in the literature have been on display in the public pronouncements of the relevant players. A few years ago, someone made a handy cheat sheet with all of the known cognitive biases in it. I sometimes think that all of these biases are in evidence in the decision-making process related to Brexit.


cognitive bias cheat sheet

Created by John Manoogian III. Source:



Brexit is an Eton Mess, to allude to both the name of a dessert and the educational institution that formed some of the minds we have recently had a chance to peer into. The policy dilemmas occasioned by Brexit (e.g., “do we stay in the EEA?”) are clearly a situation that calls for intervention by experts in decision science who can introduce some cognitive debiasing techniques. However, we don’t see any evidence of “libertarian paternalism” being brought into play.

Why not? The clue is in the term “libertarian paternalism”. The whole nudge movement has been about elite people (e.g., slim, non-smoking, grad school social scientists) trying to improve the decision-making of low SES people (see here). It’s not about applying the same tools to the decision-making of their rulers.

I rarely use social class as a lens to understand politics, but in this case a bit of old-fashioned social class analysis helps us to explain who gets nudged and who doesn’t. I’m not saying that I accept all of the criticisms of libertarian paternalism that have been made by my Austrian economics friends (my priors are sufficiently different for me to embrace that line of reasoning) nor do I accept the view that Nudging is “soft totalitarianism.” However, I am certainly more sympathetic to their POV on this issue than I was a few years ago.


I don’t know if my class-based analysis of whose decisions are targeted by Nudgers has been anticipated by anyone else, but if it has, feel free to leave a link below.


P.S. I just saw that Gabriel Siles-Brügge, Associate Professor in Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick has just published a new paper on experts, affects, and the making of UK trade policy in the post-Brexit era.

Bound by Gravity or Living in a ‘Post Geography Trading World’? Expert Knowledge and Affective Spatial Imaginaries in the Construction of the UK’s Post-Brexit Trade Policy