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Calls for more behaviour expertise
The Lords Science and Technology Committee has questioned whether the UK government's mechanisms for receiving and evaluating social science advice are 'fit for purpose' and has called for the appointment of a Chief Social Scientist.
The recommendations come in a new report Behaviour Change, which outlines the findings from a year-long inquiry into the evidence for non-regulatory 'nudge-based' and regulatory interventions for changing people's behaviour. Nudges are premised on changing the environment and circumstances under which people make decisions, rather than on crude tax or reward measures. The principle was popularised in the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
The report also urges chief scientific advisers in government departments to liaise with leading behavioural scientists, especially since it was found that some departments currently have no behaviour change expertise. The Government Economic Service and the Government Social Research Service, which are currently responsible for disseminating social science advice and evidence to policy makers, were also criticised for being ineffectual.
The report concludes that there is not enough evidence showing how the science of persuasion and influence can be used in the real world to affect the behaviour of an entire population. Nudges and other behaviour change measures are unlikely to work in isolation, the report says. The government is urged to commission and fund more research into applied behaviour research. And specifically on the issue of obesity, the inquiry found the government's Public Health Responsibility Deal Network to be inadequate for dealing with the scale and seriousness of the problem. (The scheme involves the government working with businesses and other organisations to agree 'pledges for action' to improve public health.)
The Lords Science and Technology Committee chair, Baroness Neuberger, said: 'Changing the behaviour of a population is likely to take time, perhaps a generation or more, and politicians usually look for quick win solutions. The government needs to be braver about mixing and matching policy measures, using both incentives and disincentives to bring about change. They must also get much better at evaluating the measures they put in place.
In order to help people live healthier and happier lives, we need to understand much more about what sorts of policies will have an effect on how people behave. And the best way to do this is through research, proper evaluation of policies and the provision of well-informed and independent scientific advice.'
The British Psychological Society was among several organisations that submitted evidence to the inquiry. The Chartered Psychologist and BPS Fellow Professor Charles Abraham acted as specialist adviser. And several psychologists were also invited to attend hearings, including: Professor Theresa Marteau, Professor Susan Michie, Professor Marie Johnston, and Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh.
This story is from the latest issue of The Psychologist magazine.
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