Data surveillance is all around us, and it’s going to change our behaviour
“Increasing aspects of our lives are now recorded as digital data that are systematically stored, aggregated, analysed, and sold. Despite the promise of big data to improve our lives, all encompassing data surveillance constitutes a new form of power that poses a risk not only to our privacy, but to our free will.
A more worrying trend is the use of big data to manipulate human behaviour at scale by incentivising “appropriate” activities, and penalising “inappropriate” activities. In recent years, governments in the UK, US, and Australia have been experimenting with attempts to “correct” the behaviour of their citizens through “nudge units”.”
Nudge units: “In ways you don’t detect [corporations and governments are] subtly influencing your decisions, pushing you towards what it believes are your (or its) best interests, exploiting the biases and tics of the human brain uncovered by research into behavioural psychology. And it is trying this in many different ways on many different people, running constant trials of different unconscious pokes and prods, to work out which is the most effective, which improves the most lives, or saves the most money. Preferably, both.”
“In his new book Inside the Nudge Unit, published this week in Britain, Halpern explains his fascination with behavioural psychology.
”Our brains weren’t made for the day-to-day financial judgments that are the foundation of modern economies: from mortgages, to pensions, to the best buy in a supermarket. Our thinking and decisions are fused with emotion.”
There’s a window of opportunity for governments, Halpern believes: to exploit the gaps between perception, reason, emotion and reality, and push us the “right” way.
He gives me a recent example of BI’s work – they were looking at police recruitment, and how to get a wider ethnic mix.
Just before applicants did an online recruitment test, in an email sending the link, BI added a line saying “before you do this, take a moment to think about why joining the police is important to you and your community”.
There was no effect on white applicants. But the pass rate for black and minority ethnic applicants moved from 40 to 60 per cent.
”It entirely closes the gap,” Halpern says. “Absolutely amazing. We thought we had good grounds in the [scientific research] literature that such a prompt might make a difference, but the scale of the difference was extraordinary.
Halpern taught social psychology at Cambridge but spent six years in the Blair government’s strategy unit. An early think piece on behavioural policy-making was leaked to the media and caused a small storm – Blair publicly disowned it and that was that. Halpern returned to academia, but was lured back after similar ideas started propagating through the Obama administration, and Cameron was persuaded to give it a go.
Ministers tend not to like it – once, one snapped, “I didn’t spend a decade in opposition to come into government to run a pilot”, but the technique is rife in the digital commercial world, where companies like Amazon or Google try 20 different versions of a web page.
Governments and public services should do it too, Halpern says. His favourite example is Britain’s organ donor register. They tested eight alternative online messages prompting people to join, including a simple request, different pictures, statistics or conscience-tweaking statements like “if you needed an organ transplant would you have one? If so please help others”.
It’s not obvious which messages work best, even to an expert. The only way to find out is to test them. They were surprised to find that the picture (of a group of people) actually put people off, Halpern says.
In future they want to use demographic data to personalise nudges, Halpern says. On tax reminder notices, they had great success putting the phrase “most people pay their tax on time” at the top. But a stubborn top 5 per cent, with the biggest tax debts, saw this reminder and thought, “Well, I’m not most people”.
This whole approach raises ethical issues. Often you can’t tell people they’re being experimented on – it’s impractical, or ruins the experiment, or both.
”If we’re trying to find the best way of saying ‘don’t drop your litter’ with a sign saying ‘most people don’t drop litter’, are you supposed to have a sign before it saying ‘caution you are about to participate in a trial’?
”Where should we draw the line between effective communication and unacceptable ‘PsyOps’ or propaganda?”