Fear, shame and peer pressure to promote compliance with Covid-19 restrictions: Who were responsible for the communications?

Evidence shows that behavioural science has been infused into the communications of many government departments. Who was responsible for using it to promote compliance with Covid-19 restrictions?

What follows is an initial report of an ongoing research project investigating the UK Government’s use of behavioural science ‘nudges’ in their Covid communications strategy to promote compliance with restrictions and the subsequent vaccine rollout. (An academic journal article, drawing on information in this report, can be found here: https://ahpb.org/index.php/gary-sidley-article/). Future reports will cover the ethical questions associated with state-sponsored nudging. 


Since early 2020, the people of Western democracies have endured heightened levels of state-sponsored propaganda, involving a range of ‘non-consensual persuasion’ techniques intended to aggressively promote the official Covid narrative while suppressing alternative viewpoints. An important element of this campaign has been the deployment of behavioural science strategies – or ‘nudges’.  Throughout the Covid event, the UK Government, in keeping with many other countries, drew on these interventions to strengthen their public health communications and thereby increase compliance with the pandemic restrictions and subsequent vaccine rollout. These psychological methods of persuasion often operate below people’s conscious awareness and frequently rely on inflating emotional distress to change behaviour. As such, the state’s use of these techniques on its own citizens has evoked ethical concerns among both psychological specialists and the general public.

Attempts to initiate an open debate about the moral acceptability of a government deploying behavioural science methods to lever obedience with current edicts have, to date, been unsuccessful, with state-employed experts in positions of influence denying responsibility for the genesis of the more controversial (for example, fear-inflating) communications and/or displaying a reluctance to address the associated ethical questions. Consequently, it remains uncertain as to which individuals, or forums, within the government infrastructure determined the tone and content of the Covid communication strategy. Nor is it clear to what extent (if any) the stakeholders involved incorporated ethical considerations into the decision-making process.

Given this background, we have begun a 12-month research project that aims to answer the following questions:

  1. Which advertising companies and government officials were centrally involved in development of the videos, posters and other communications used to promote compliance with Covid restrictions and the vaccine rollout? 
  2. Which behaviour science experts provided guidance to the government officials and/or advertising personnel on how to most effectively incorporate nudge strategies into these Covid communications?
  3. How much behavioural science resource was at the disposal of the Government during the Covid event?
  4. What sources of ethical expertise (individuals and groups) were nominally available within the government infrastructure during the Covid era, and what advice did they offer?
  5. Did the way in which the Government infused their Covid communications with behavioural science strategies correspond to what would currently be regarded as ethically acceptable practice?
  6. What would constitute optimal ethical guidelines and/or processes to inform – and, if appropriate, constrain – the UK Government’s use of behavioural science strategies in the future? 

Further details about the project are provided in the research proposal and the subgoals and timelines documents.

This initial paper provides a description of progress to date. Following a brief overview of the nature and origins of behavioural science, the specific ethical concerns arising from the Government’s incorporation of nudge techniques into their Covid-19 messaging will be discussed. The evidence suggesting that behavioural science has been infused into the communications of many government departments will then be presented, with a focus on public health videos and advertisements produced during the Covid event. The concerted efforts to clarify the actors responsible for this nudge-informed output will be detailed, including an in-depth analysis of the work of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviour (SPI-B) and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). Finally, the anticipated next steps of the research programme will be documented.

The armoury of behavioural science is furnished with a wide range of strategies for influencing the actions of others.

The nature & origins of behavioural science strategies

The paradigm known as ‘behaviourism’ gained prominence over a century ago with the work f John B Watson who viewed the main goal of psychology to be, ‘the prediction and control of behaviour’. The behaviourist approach constituted a rejection of the previously dominant introspectionist movement (which studied subjectivity and inner consciousness) by its exclusive focus on observables: the environmental stimuli that make a particular behaviour more or less likely, the overt behaviour itself, and the consequences of that behaviour (referred to as reinforcement or punishment). Essentially, behaviourism asserts that all behaviour is learnt from the environment through a combination of classical conditioning (learning by association) and operant conditioning (learning by consequences). Over the years the theory has undergone some minor refinements – most notably the ‘radical behaviourism’ of BF Skinner – resulting in strategic regulation of environmental stimuli and reinforcement being the prominent approach to the psychological treatment of phobias and other clinical problems throughout the 1960s and 1970s (albeit less so today).

A current manifestation of the paradigm, behavioural science, similarly relies on a range of strategies – ‘nudges’ – to influence people’s behaviour by shaping a combination of the environmental triggers and the consequences of our actions. According to a Cabinet Office and Institute for Government ‘MINDSPACE’ report in 2010, nudges provide ‘low cost, low pain ways of “nudging” citizens … into new ways of acting by going with the grain of how we think and act.’  Exploiting the fact that human beings spend 99 per cent of their time on automatic pilot, making moment-by-moment decisions without conscious reflection, these techniques – often operating below the level of conscious awareness – can exert a powerful influence upon behaviour. 

In the same year as the publication of the MINDSPACE document, the ‘Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was conceived in the Prime Minister’s Office of David Cameron as ‘the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science to policy’. According to the BIT website, their team rapidly expanded from a seven-person unit working with the UK Government to a ‘social purpose company’ operating in many countries around the world. From 2014, BIT was collectively owned by the UK Government, Nesta (an innovations charity) and BIT’s own employees. In December 2021, BIT was wholly acquired by Nesta for £15.4 million.

Although the persuasion strategies of behavioural science had long been used in the UK by both the state and the private sector, the extent of their deployment gained impetus with the advent of BIT in 2010. Since its inception, BIT has been led by Professor David Halpern who has, until very recently, been the team’s chief executive. Professor Halpern and two other members of BIT also sat on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE that advised the Government on its Covid-19 communications strategy. (Most of the other members of SPI-B were prominent psychologists and behavioural scientists who have expertise in the deployment of nudge techniques.)

The armoury of behavioural science is furnished with a wide range of strategies for influencing the actions of others. The literature is peppered with various acronyms as aide-mémoires for the specific techniques, and discussion can sometimes be confusing because terms can overlap and a message or image can be illustrative of more than one nudge. The MINDSPACE report is an acronym for the following nine nudges:

MESSENGER: We are influenced by the source of the information
INCENTIVES: We employ predictable shortcuts, such as strongly avoiding losses
NORMS: We are strongly influenced by what others do
DEFAULTS: We ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options
SALIENCE: Our attention is drawn to what is novel & seems personally relevant
PRIMING: Our acts are often influenced by subconscious cues
AFFECT: Our emotions powerfully shape our actions
COMMITMENTS: We seek to be consistent with our public promises
EGO: We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves

Scrutiny of the definitions of these nudges as given in the MINDSPACE document, together with close inspection of the pandemic messaging deployed, suggests that all nine of these strategies were incorporated, to varying degrees, in the Government’s Covid-19 communications. For example, the ‘messenger’ nudge relies on the fact that the characteristics of the person communicating the message will significantly influence the degree to which the recipients take heed of the information conveyed; hence medical and scientific experts (alongside the trusted NHS logo) habitually appeared in the media throughout the pandemic to provide updates and advice. The ‘incentives’ nudge was evident in communications about potential fines for straying too far away from home in the midst of a national lockdown and – slightly more subtly – when vaccination of young people was linked to a speedier return to normal life. However, there are three nudges that have evoked the most attention and ethical concerns: ‘affect’, ‘ego’ and ‘norms’ (experienced by many as inflation of fear, shaming and peer pressure respectively). As the remainder of this report will focus heavily on these three tools of persuasion, a brief explanation of each of these strategies, together with some illustrative examples of how each was used during the Covid event, is given below:

AFFECT: Our feelings will significantly influence how we think and act. Sadness will spawn self-criticism and behavioural inertia, anger will encourage negative evaluations of others and a propensity to act aggressively, and fear will focus our attention onto potential dangers in our environment and make us inclined to avoid perceived threats. It was this latter element that was prominent during the Covid-19 communications campaign, presumably based on the premise that a frightened population is typically a compliant one. Examples of messaging during the pandemic that inflated fear included: non-contextualised death counts, displayed daily on the TV, purportedly keeping a running total of the number of people who had perished from Covid-19; recurrent images of acutely unwell patients in Intensive Care Units in Lombardy (Italy’s pandemic hotspot); reports of bodies littering the streets in Ecuador; the shock-and-awe presentation of Professors Whitty and Vallance (Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor, respectively) in 2020 with their speculative prediction of 50,000 new Covid cases per day; and scary slogans such as, ‘IF YOU GO OUT YOU CAN SPREAD IT. PEOPLE WILL DIE.’

EGO: Human beings strive to maintain a positive view of themselves and preserve a virtuous self-image. This inclination appears to have been exploited during the pandemic as evidenced by our political leaders and public health experts routinely implying that following the Covid restrictions was akin to being a good person. Examples included: slogans such as, ‘STAY HOME, PROTECT THE NHS, SAVE LIVES’ and ‘VACCINATIONS PROTECT US ALL’; the then Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, quipping ‘Don’t kill your gran’ to university students returning home for the summer break; Professor Whitty stating in a 2020 press conference that anyone who increased their own risk of exposure would ‘increase the risk of everyone’; and mask promotion adverts where actors said, ‘I wear a face covering to protect my mates.’ (A recent study concluded that the moralisation of non-compliant behaviour in this way can effectively increase adherence to pandemic restrictions.) 

NORMS: Awareness of social norms – the prevalent views and behaviour of our fellow citizens – can exert pressure on us to conform. We are strongly influenced by what others do; awareness of being in a deviant minority is a source of discomfort. The Government has repeatedly used normative pressure throughout the Covid event to gain the public’s compliance with restrictions. The most straightforward example is how, during interviews with the media, ministers often told us that the ‘vast majority have complied with the rules’ or that 90% of those eligible have already had the first dose of the Covid vaccine. However, normative pressure as exerted by these pronouncements is more effective in changing the behaviour of the deviant minority if there is a visible indicator of pro-social compliance rooted in communities. Mandatory masking admirably fulfilled this purpose by enabling people to instantly distinguish the rule breakers from the rule followers.

Ethical concerns

While the in-depth consideration of the ethical status of state-sponsored nudging will be the focus of the second half of this research project, it is appropriate to briefly mention here some of the concerns associated with the Government’s Covid-19 communications campaign. Four aspects of the behavioural-science-infused messaging are ethically problematic:

  1. The methods per se

Is it morally acceptable for the government of a Western liberal democracy to strategically inflict emotional discomfort upon its citizens in order to lever compliance with its edicts? The phenomenon of civil servants harnessing fear, shame and scapegoating to change minds can be construed as an ethically problematic practice that in some respects resembles the tactics used by authoritarian regimes, where the state inflicts pain on a subset of its population in an attempt to eliminate beliefs and behaviours they perceive to be deviant. 

Another ethical consideration associated with the methods arises from their unintended consequences. Elevated levels of fear may have discouraged people with non-Covid illnesses from attending hospital and is likely to have significantly contributed to the tens of thousands of non-Covid excess deaths witnessed during the Covid event. The loneliness of older people will have been exacerbated by the heightened levels of community anxiety, potentially leading to premature death. And it is plausible that the state-sponsored shaming and scapegoating of those deviating from the directives of the dominant Covid narrative will have been primarily responsible for the vilification of the unvaccinated minority.

  1. The absence of informed consent

The second source of ethical concern derives from the lack of any attempt to acquire the informed consent of the British people prior to the mass implementation of these psychological methods of persuasion. Obtaining informed consent of the recipient before administering any medical or psychological intervention has always been a cornerstone of ethical clinical practice. Professor David Halpern (the BIT Chief Executive and prominent member of SPI-B) explicitly recognised the significance of this issue. The previously-mentioned MINDSPACE document – of which Professor Halpern is a co-author – states that, ‘Policymakers wishing to use these tools … need the approval of the public to do so’ (p74). More recently, in Professor Halpern’s book, Inside the Nudge Unit, he is even more emphatic about the importance of consent: ‘If Governments … wish to use behavioural insights, they must seek and maintain the permission of the public.’ (p375)

  1. The contentious goals of the messaging campaign

The perceived legitimacy of using subconscious ‘nudges’ to influence people may also depend upon the behavioural goals that are being pursued. The imposition of lockdowns, community masking, school closures and other restrictions was a major deviation from long-established pandemic management measures; it is questionable whether the deployment of fear, shame, and peer pressure to achieve compliance with unprecedented and non-evidenced public health policies that infringe basic human rights and freedoms would have found favour with the British people. (The fulfilment of alternative goals – to reduce knife crime among young males, for example – might be expected to be more acceptable to the general population.)

  1. The lack of transparency

As many of the nudges employed impacted on their targets below their level of awareness, a further ethical question relates to the lack of transparency. This is in contrast to more democratically acceptable methods of government persuasion relying mainly on information provision and rational argument. The covert mode of action of many behavioural science strategies lends weight to the accusation that they are manipulative.

What have our research efforts revealed so far?

In the first two months of the project, a range of methods has been used to access relevant information, including: in-depth online searches using terms such as ‘behavioural science’, ‘nudges’, ‘ethics’, ‘Covid messaging’ and ‘Covid communications’; scrutiny of the ‘What do they know’ database of responses to historical Freedom-of-Information requests; inspection of the notes and minutes of government scientific and ethical advisory groups that were active during the Covid event; 28 original Freedom-of-Information requests to government departments; and an exploration of the documented outputs of potentially key politicians, civil servants and senior advertising executives. Based on these sources, our research efforts have revealed the following:

  1. The UK Government had spent over £400 million on Covid messaging by 2021

It is apparent from the previous section that the UK administration devoted substantial resources (time and money) to acquiring behavioural science expertise aimed at nudging ordinary people’s compliance with their Covid restrictions and vaccine rollout. But how much did the Government spend on Covid messaging as a whole?

According to the Cabinet Office, in April 2020 their department approved spending of £216.8 million for ‘Advertising, Marketing & Communications’ in relation to a ‘Covid campaign 2020/21’, with the bulk (£194 million) of it dedicated to Covid-related advertising between April and December 2020. However, a Freedom of Information (FOI) response from March 2022 indicates that – in actuality – the Cabinet Office spent far more: over £5 million in 2019/20, and £370 million in 2020/21. (The corresponding figures for Scotland were £1.3 million and £18.2 million respectively). Other government departments also made payments to the Cabinet Office in 2020/21 of £33.5 million for such campaigns.

During the Covid event, the Government became the nation’s largest advertiser. A range of advertising companies have benefited from this spending, but the two major recipients of state funding have been Manning Gottlieb and MullenLowe

Omnigov, a division of Manning Gottlieb, is tasked with media buying for the Government and the vast majority of the Covid advertising spend went through this channel, the company having received £174 million as early as December 2020. MullenLowe – the company centrally responsible for creating the controversial ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign – was the second major beneficiary, receiving £16 million in the period April to October 2020 and £40 million for the year August 2021/August 2022.  Tom Knox (executive partner at MullenLowe, and longest serving member of their Covid-response team) described this episode as the ‘biggest UK advertising campaign since the Second World War’.

  1. State-sponsored nudging is ubiquitous

Behavioural science has been involved in British policymaking for longer than in other nations, a factor that might account for its high prevalence and level of influence (Sanders et al. 2021). Indeed, it is reasonable to assert that the impact of behavioural science is now apparent in all aspects of government activity that involve communication with the populace. 

Senior players involved in the development of state-funded messaging concur with this premise. For example, Julia Bainbridge – a founder member of the Freuds agency, one of several advertising companies commissioned by the UK Government – recently stated, ‘Behavioural science is now mainstream and high profile, particularly in my field, which seeks to change people’s behaviour for their own, and the social good.’ In the same article, Bainbridge goes on to say, ‘Behavioural science is now being deployed, at the highest level to address “wicked” problems, from vaccine hesitancy to tobacco consumption, throughout the world.’

Sir Charles Walker, a Member of Parliament, condemned the size and impact of the nudge campaign during the Covid event. In a March 2023 article in the Telegraph newspaper he said, ‘What makes me so angry is the evils & the psychological warfare we deployed against young people and the population, all those behavioural psychologists. And there needs to be a reckoning.’ Professor James Rubin (a co-chair of the SPI-B group) also recognised – in more neutral terms – the ubiquity of behavioural science within the policymaking system when he told the Covid-19 Inquiry: ‘There was the Behavioural Insights Team. There were teams within the UK Health Security Agency, there was the Department of Health & Social Care communications team, the Cabinet Office communications team.’   

This high prevalence of nudgers within the UK Government has not emerged by chance; it has been a strategic goal. A 2018 document by Public Health England (a forerunner to the UK Health Security Agency) announced that, ‘The behavioural and social sciences are the future of public health.’ With a vision of creating a ‘strong and vibrant’ community of behavioural scientists, the organisation’s explicit priorities included aspirations to:

  • Make knowledge and skills from the behavioural and social sciences mainstream in all our organisations 
  • Embed behavioural and social science skills, tools and frameworks across sectors of the public health workforce.

One product of these endeavours has been the emergence of the Behavioural Science and Public Health Network, a community of academics and professionals with a shared interest in using behavioural science strategies to improve the health of the nation. 

Other elements of government have also strategically increased their behavioural science resources. Within Whitehall a group of civil servants, the Government Communication Service (GCS), is led by Chief Executive Simon Baugh in the Cabinet Office and boasts employing ‘over 7,000 professional communicators across the UK’. The service incorporates a ‘GCS Behavioural Science Team’ based in the Cabinet Office. In 2021, the GCS published a new guidance document titled ‘The Principles of Behaviour Change Communications’. In the foreword to the guidance, Alex Aiken (Executive Director of Government Communications) states:

 At the start of 2018, one of the eight challenges I set for communicators was for the profession to adopt behavioural science techniques to enhance the effectiveness of our campaigns. Coronavirus has made this challenge all the more urgent, and has demonstrated how communications is a powerful and flexible lever to create and sustain behaviour change.

Aiken goes on to celebrate how the GCS Behavioural Science Team has accelerated progress towards the ‘goal of embedding behavioural science expertise across the Government Communication profession’.

The content of the GCS behavioural science guidance relies heavily on the work of prominent British nudgers such as Professor Susan Michie and Professor Robert West (who were both members of SPI-B during the Covid event). The report claims that members of the GCS Behavioural Science Team can offer both ‘expert support to central government campaigns’ and behavioural science consultancy services across government, covering communications, policy and operations’. Furthermore, barriers to effective government communication can be overcome in ‘psychologically relevant ways’. 

A further indication of the high prevalence of behavioural science expertise within the government infrastructure derives from a head count of the number of such practitioners employed in each administrative department. Historical FOI requests revealed that, in 2019, the Department of Work & Pensions hosted 16 staff members in their ‘Behavioural Science’ team, while the Department of Revenue & Customs had 54 employees in their ‘Behavioural Research and Insights’ team. And a recent FOI to the Department of Transport found that, in 2022, they were employing the equivalent of six full-time behavioural scientists at a total annual cost of £299,000 per annum. 

As for the government departments most closely involved in Covid messaging – the Cabinet Office and those responsible for health and social care – FOI requests to establish the number of behavioural science personnel in each year of the Covid event were initially thwarted (see here and here) on the grounds that it would take too much time to locate the requested information and would thereby exceed the cost limit as specified in the Freedom of Information Act. The Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) also reported that, although they held the information, the data we were seeking was ‘not centrally held’. Subsequently, more specific FOI requests (asking about current levels of resource) were more successful. The DHSC, the Office of Health Improvement & Disparities, and the Cabinet Office each confirmed that they housed a small behavioural science team incorporating no more than five members. As for the UK Health Security Agency, they acknowledged the existence of a ‘Behavioural Science and Insights Unit’ within the department currently comprising 24 behavioural and social scientists, two business support professionals and three PhD students, and with an annual budget of £958,000.  

In addition to the in-house resource, the UK Government also entered into contractual arrangements with the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) during the period of the Covid event. Thus, as examples, the Cabinet Office allocated up to £4 million to BIT for a three-year contract (2019-2022) to provide ‘Behavioural Insights Consultancy & Research Services’ so as to furnish this heart of government with ‘frictionless access to behavioural insights to match central priorities’. Clearly, Covid communications would have been the priority during this time period. As for the DHSC, they paid BIT £1 million for a 13-month contract (1st March 2020 to 31st March 2021) for ‘Various work for Test, Trace, Contain and Enable agenda’. Considering this evidence, together with the previous description of the work of the GCS Behavioural Science Team (hosted by the Cabinet Office), it is reasonable to conclude a heavy behavioural science presence within these two key government departments throughout the Covid era.

A prominent UK behavioural scientist recently acknowledged the impact this intense nudging campaign has had on the British people. In a 2023 interview for the Telegraph, Professor David Halpern observed that people are now ‘drilled’ and rightly calibrated to accept further restrictions: ‘once you’ve practised something’ (lockdowns, mask wearing) ‘you can switch it back on … you’ve got the beginnings of a habit loop … we’ve practised the drill.’ 

Intriguingly, it seems that actions and communications that could nudge observers’  behaviour in a direction desirable to the administration are sometimes planned in advance. A 2019 report cited quotes from anonymous contingency planners to support the notion that the UK Government pre-emptively prepares responses to negative societal events in order to convey messages of support and empathy with the victims. Although, it is claimed, this strategy of ‘controlled spontaneity’ was hatched in anticipation of terrorist incidents at the 2012 London Olympic Games, these synthetically impromptu behavioural reactions and social media campaigns can easily be deployed to reinforce pandemic messaging underpinned by ego and normative pressure nudges. The ‘Clap for Carers’ ritual – when, for ten consecutive Thursday evenings in 2020, people ‘spontaneously’ stood on their doorsteps and applauded our healthcare staff – is a case in point. Furthermore, it is informative that a FOI request in June 2019, asking for copies of materials relating to the ‘controlled spontaneity’ initiative, was rebuffed; the Office for Security & Counter-Terrorism stated: ‘we neither confirm nor deny whether we hold the information’, absolving themselves from the requirement to disclose on the basis that it ‘would make the UK … more vulnerable to a national security threat.’    

  1. The affect, ego and normative pressure nudges were widely used in the Covid messaging

As already discussed, it is apparent that the Government invested heavily in order to ensure ‘frictionless access’ to behavioural science guidance during the Covid event. One important consequence of this outlay has been that much of the Covid messaging has been infused with affect, ego, and normative pressure nudges that typically translate into fear inflation, shaming, and scapegoating.  

In the midst of the pandemic – consciously or automatically – ministers and government scientists peppered their utterances with phrases and slogans that could be construed as harnessing the power of nudging to persuade the populace to follow their rules. Some have already been mentioned, but others included: ‘Protect yourselves, protect your loved ones’ (ego nudge); ‘If you go out you can spread it, people will die’  (affect & ego nudges); ‘Most people are following the rules’ (normative pressure nudge); ‘No one is safe until we are all safe’ (ego nudge); ‘We are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer’ (affect nudge); ‘ The people of this country will rise to the challenge’ (ego nudge); and ‘You should wear a mask to protect others’ (ego nudge). Even switching off all mainstream media did not guarantee escape from the messaging; a ride in your car risked being exposed to  scary roadside signage stating, ‘You are now entering a high-risk area.

Occasionally, a clear intent to deploy nudges on the British people has been evident. The disclosure of personal WhatsApp messages by the Telegraph newspaper revealed that, in December 2020, Matt Hancock (the then Health Secretary) expressed his desire to ‘Scare the pants’ off people via the imminent announcement of a new variant of the virus. Similarly, in January 2021, Simon Case (the then Cabinet Secretary) stated that the ‘fear factor would be vital in combating the latest Covid wave during the third lockdown’ and endorsed the value of ‘ramping up messagingthe fear/guilt factor vital’. Clearly, these powerful actors were not averse to inflicting emotional pain on UK citizens as a means of levering compliance with their instructions.  

Inspection of the website of the Local Government Association revealed that nudge-infused messaging was not restricted to the national arena. For instance, in an article titled ‘Encouraging vaccine uptake by younger people’, readers are advised to utilise all three of the most ethically-contentious behavioural science strategies. With the goal of encouraging more of the younger generation to accept Covid vaccination, one recommendation is that potential recipients are told that ‘most people are getting vaccinated, and that they approve doing soSince young people tend to be more susceptible to peer influence … social norms can be particularly effective when targeting this group.’ Another piece of advice for the would-be vaccinator is to deploy the ego nudge: ‘Emphasising the pro-social benefits of vaccination is particularly effective among young people’, notably with regard to ‘protecting others, especially those that are vulnerable’. And to inflate fear among this typically invulnerable cohort, the article states: ‘Since young people are less at risk of developing a lethal form of COVID-19, highlight the potential long-term consequences of the illness.

On the 21st January 2021 (around the same time as the Hancock/Case WhatsApp messages) YouGov announced the introduction of the new ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign. Described as ‘hard hitting’ and a ‘stark reminder to the public of the ongoing impact of Covid-19’, the public-messaging initiative involved a series of close-up images of acutely unwell patients – wearing surgical masks and ventilation masks – and a voice-over saying, ‘Look them in the eyes and tell them you are doing all you can to stop the spread of coronavirus.’ According to the YouGov publication, these powerful adverts represented a shift in tone from previous communications towards ‘encouraging people to take personal responsibility and consider the impact of their behaviour on others’ – a strategic change of direction that could be construed as adding guilt and shame (ego nudge) to the preceding reliance upon fear inflation. An FOI response from the Cabinet Office reported that ‘qualitative insight research’ had found this series of adverts to ‘be powerful, evocative, and authentic in how it represented the impact of the pandemic at that moment, and the consequences of people not staying at home.’ As revealed by a further FOI response, six-person panellists described the ‘Look them in the eyes’ videos as ‘gripping’, ‘unsettling’, ‘harrowing’, ‘arresting’ and ‘disrupting’.    

More detail regarding the aims and content of the ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign was revealed in an article on the website of MullenLowe, the company who created the adverts. Based on a study that, they believed, had shown that 20% of the population underestimated the risk of Covid-19, the creators strove to ‘make the risk real for those who were unsure or didn’t believe it’ by focusing on the people who had ‘experienced the very worst of the pandemic’. So in addition to strategically scaring and shaming their audience, this messaging targeted everyone with the goal of changing the attitude of what was construed as a complacent minority – an ethically questionable exercise in its own right. 

A Cabinet Office response to our FOI request in August 2023 confirmed that the ‘Look them in the eyes’ initiative was developed with the not-frightened-enough group in mind and was intended to encourage the public to take personal responsibility for their behaviour:

The focus on ‘Risk Sceptics’ requires a shift in gear … from ‘Authoritative Command’ (Phase 1a & b) to a more emotionally triggering ‘People to People’ approach (Phase 2).

Furthermore, the FOI response cited feedback received when the adverts were field tested that included the comment: 

It has strong potential to prompt reassessment of personal behaviour by applying social pressure from fellow human beings.

The inclusion of this comment in this Cabinet Office document indicates that those responsible for sanctioning the videos and posters were aware of the power of the materials to evoke normative pressure on their targets. Similarly, feedback obtained during the field testing drew attention to the guilt-evoking (ego nudge) potential of the campaign: ‘Some can struggle to buy into the emotional guilt trip.’ 

The fear-inflating qualities of the Covid adverts (including those used in the ‘Look them in the eyes’ initiative) were corroborated in a recent qualitative study. After an analysis of the imagery, language and colours incorporated into the posters and videos, the researchers concluded that ‘Government has used a combination of explicit and implicit fear-evoking semiotic interactions within their COVID-19 information campaigns to “nudge” compliance.’ 

Another media project underpinned by behavioural science nudges was the ‘All in, All together’ newspaper campaign that launched in April 2020. Over a three-month period, it involved hundreds of newspapers simultaneously publishing the same cover wrap. The front page of the advert read, ‘Stay at home for the NHS, your family, your neighbours, your nation, the world and life itself’, a headline informed by both the affect/fear inflation and ego/shaming nudges. The back page included a rainbow image – a symbol that had become associated with support for key workers during the Covid event – that could be detached and used as a poster to be displayed in people’s windows. Again, this facilitation of a collective show of virtue – just like the ‘clap for carers’ ritual – can be viewed as a powerful ego and normative pressure nudge; showing the rainbow both identified one as a good person and potentially conveyed to the non-displayers that they reside in a minority.        

  1. Mask mandates were likely imposed to strengthen nudges and promote general compliance 

Prior to 2020, and since, the bulk of the more robust, real-world evidence has supported one conclusion: the wearing of face masks by the general public in community settings achieves no meaningful reduction in the transmission rates of respiratory viruses. The most recent (January 2023) Cochrane review – the gold standard of evidential sources – reached the same verdict. In the first three months of the Covid event, the scientific experts and politicians were collectively echoing the masks-don’t-work message until, in May/June 2020, they all U-turned and pushed mask mandates. What could be the reason for this volte-face?

Multiple factors are likely to have swayed UK decision-makers to endorse face coverings, such as a desire to be seen to be ‘doing something’ or – based on the recent revelations from former Health Secretary Matt Hancock – the political whims of Dominic Cummings (former government advisor) and Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland). Additionally, a persuasive case can be made that a significant contributor to the U-turn was the recognition that community masking would enhance compliance with restrictions as a whole by strengthening the affect, ego, and normative pressure nudges.  

A mask acts as a reminder that danger is present and also reduces the likelihood that the habitual wearer will reach the conclusion that our communities are now safe enough to re-engage with in a normal way; as such, face coverings will increase and maintain fear. Masks will also strengthen the ego nudge, providing wearers with a stark and easily recognisable symbol of their virtue.  And normative pressure is enhanced when there is an instant visible reminder of who is, and who is not, following the rules; a role that masks effectively fulfil. 

While it is not possible to prove this ‘masks-as-a nudge-strengthener hypothesis’ beyond reasonable doubt, there are a number of observations that are consistent with it. 

Dr Gavin Morgan (a member of the SPI-B subgroup) told investigative journalist Laura Dodsworth in her book, A State of Fear, that his antipathy to face masks was nullified by other group members who liked them because they conveyed a message of ‘solidarity’. This theme, one clearly recognised by Morgan’s colleagues, indicates that the potential for masks to promote cohesion in a collective fight against the virus – a normative pressure nudge – had not escaped the notice of the behavioural science experts. 

Also, close scrutiny of the timeline surrounding the mask U-turn in late spring 2020 is revealing. As the chronology shows, within little more than a month, our ministers, senior scientists, and medical leaders flipped from a stance of repeatedly imploring us all not to wear a face covering in community settings to a coercive one of imposing mask mandates. Inspection of the minutes of contemporaneous meetings suggests that the propensity of masks to strengthen nudges may have been integral to the decision-making process.

As recorded in their minutes of 9th April 2020,  SAGE – the main Government advisory group during the Covid event – requested that NERVTAG (another collection of experts) produce a further paper on masks, ‘including any behavioural aspects’ associated with them, ‘drawing on SPI-B as necessary’. As can be seen in the responses of these two forums, both NERVTAG and SPI-B remained unconvinced about the net benefits of the routine wearing of face coverings by healthy people. Importantly, however, the SPI-B subgroup took the opportunity to promote face coverings as a way to ‘demonstrate that an individual is concerned about other people’s welfare and is enacting desired social norms.’ 

The game-changing pro-mask paper was published on the 21st April by ‘Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics’ (DELVE), another advisory group, which includes Daniel Kahneman, Professor of Psychology at Princeton University and world-renowned behavioural scientist, among its Steering Committee members. The DELVE paper endorses the benefits of ‘developing a critical mass of adherence and setting new norms around mask usebecause such norms act to inform observers that normative behaviour is both pragmatically prudent and morally proper.’ Recognising that face coverings can promote general compliance with other pandemic directives, the authors go on to highlight that ‘the visibility of masks can be expected to act as a reminder of the need for physical distance, increased hand washing, reduced face touching, and group solidarity.’ 

The Royal Society, a UK scientific academy and a staunch pro-restriction advocate throughout the Covid event, promoted DELVE’s policy-changing output on its own website on the 5th May, and followed it with its own strongly pro-mask paper that lauded the value of masks in conveying psychological messages that promote general compliance with restrictions. In particular, the Royal Society highlighted the ‘socio-behavioural factors’ associated with mask wearing and made specific reference to the ‘altruism’ inherent to protecting others.   

Clearly, the circumstantial evidence cited above is consistent with the premise that mask mandates were imposed for reasons other than their assumed effectiveness as a viral barrier.

  1. Key individuals potentially involved in the deployment of behavioural science strategies included Lee Cain, Conrad Bird, and David Halpern

Undoubtedly, a range of ministers and senior civil servants could have been influential during 2020 in enabling nudge techniques to underpin the Covid messaging campaign. Obvious candidates would include: Boris Johnson (Prime Minister), Matt Hancock (Health & Social Care Secretary), Michael Gove (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster), Simon Case (Cabinet Secretary), Dominic Cummings (Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister), Alex Aiken (Executive Director of Government Communication), Professor Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Officer) and Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Advisor). It is plausible to assume that one or more of these actors hold a degree of responsibility for the deployment of these strategies.

Lee Cain was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Director of Communications in the early months of the Covid event (he resigned in November 2020). Previously a journalist, and with experience of contributing to the Brexit/Leave campaign, Cain’s testimony at the Covid-19 Inquiry suggests he may have been a pivotal figure in the genesis of the initial pandemic messaging.

Cain’s statement for the Inquiry claimed that, along with other ‘political advisors’ and ‘one or two people from a digital creative agency’, he was responsible for the construction of the ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ campaign. During his interview, Cain celebrates this initiative, claiming that ‘94% of the public understood it and … the compliance rates show that it was very successful.’ He goes on to express the view that this mantra reduced Covid mortality, and that his project constituted ‘one of the most powerful public health campaigns in modern memory.’ 

In response to further questioning, Cain acknowledges that he and his small group of co-workers did not consult with the NHS regarding the content of his ‘Stay Home’ slogan. In keeping with the process used in the development of the ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign (described in section c), Cain also confirmed that there had been a reliance on their own band of expert communicators (rather than in-house resources such as SPI-B) during the production of the ‘Stay Home’ messaging project: 

We had a fast research loop that we would do via focus groups, via polling, things that we’d … used pretty readily in political campaigning that was incredibly effective … I would trust the judgement of the campaigners and the messaging people we used, which were some of the best in the world.

A focus on the interface between the Cabinet Office and the advertising companies who developed the nudge-infused messaging suggests two other individuals who may have played a significant role. Conrad Bird is Director of Campaigns & Marketing at the Covid-19 Hub and appears to have been a central player on the government side. In a November 2020 presentation titled ‘Lesson learnt to date’, Bird celebrates his use of ‘Embedded evaluators, behavioural insight specialists and decision scientists ensuring constant improvement.’ Similarly, in a September 2021 blog post, he states: ‘We’ve learned how to deploy behavioural insights from scientists to improve our major campaigns.’ These comments demonstrate Bird’s familiarity with nudging tools aimed at enhancing the power of his department’s communications. 

Bird recently described one of his greatest achievements as being ‘23 months of Covid-19 communications (including creating the “hands, face, space” slogan!)’. An August 2023 FOI response confirmed that Bird had led the commissioning team responsible for the controversial ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign.

Another senior player – this time on the advertising company side – is Paul Knight, the chief executive at Omnigov (the media-buying arm of Manning Gottlieb). In an interview Knight revealed that he undertook ‘weekly visits to the Cabinet Office’ and that one of his major challenges had been ‘focusing on how we are using insight to inform’. 

Undoubtedly, Bird and Knight (and many other civil servants and advertising personnel) were intimately involved in the development of the nudge-laden messaging. However, the guidance and supervision about how to incorporate behavioural science strategies most effectively into the Covid communications would, almost certainly, have derived from expert sources. The outputs of the specialist groups, SPI-B and BIT, would have been readily available to Cabinet Office officials and the creative professionals, and these will be analysed in the next section. But a couple of behavioural science experts – Professors Matthew Cripps and David Halpern – warrant mention in their own right.

Cripps is Director of the Covid-19 Behaviour Change Unit (CBU) and Director of Sustainable Healthcare, NHS England and NHS Improvement. The CBU has been involved in helping the UK to tackle the pandemic by strongly encouraging policymakers ‘to make sure that behavioural science is embedded into all elements of the national COVID-19 response.’ For example, the CBU contributed towards the production of an NHS England video titled ‘Because I Care’, a brief film aiming to promote social distancing in the healthcare workplace. The video theme is one of equating avoidance of contact with co-workers as akin to virtue (ego nudge) and – intriguingly – displays parallels with the materials used in the ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign.

Cripps also works closely with the University College London ‘Centre for Behaviour Change’, a hub of behavioural science expertise that draws heavily on the ‘Behavioural Change Wheel’, a systematic framework devised by Professors Susan Michie and Robert West to guide interventions. 

As the leader of the ‘Nudge Unit’, Halpern is one of the most prominent behavioural scientists in the UK. He has occupied the role of Chief Executive Officer of BIT from the group’s inception in 2010 until 2023 (his current title is ‘President and Founding Director’). As such, he has had regular access to the inner circle of Government. Throughout the Covid event, Halpern was a core member of both the main SAGE advisory committee and SPI-B. His curriculum vitae also includes the roles of Research Director of the Institute of Government and – from 2013-2022 – the What Works National Advisor. Given this history, together with the major contract that the Cabinet Office had with BIT between 2019 and 2022, Halpern could be viewed as the most likely person to warrant the label of the most influential behavioural scientist in the UK during the period of the Covid event.

Scrutiny of Halpern’s witness statement (May 2023) to the Covid-19 Inquiry provides further detail about his role in influencing policy, particularly in the early stages of the Covid event. In addition to his attendance at SAGE forums, Halpern describes how – on the 22nd February 2020 – he attended a ‘private breakfast seminar’ at the Royal Society of Medicine, and had ‘private discussions’ with the president of this institution, where he discussed ‘key points that … should be communicated to the public’ regarding ‘areas of uncertainty in aetiology & transmission of the virus’. From the start of March 2020, Halpern also participated in ‘several DHSC daily Covid meetings’. During this period his focus was on ‘“no regret” public health messaging’ promoting handwashing, increased awareness of Covid symptoms, and elbow bumps (as a substitute for handshakes); he – unsuccessfully – argued for a ‘WASH, BUMP, STAYKEEP COVID AWAY’ slogan. Around the same time, Halpern had discussions with the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, about the possibility of wristbands to identify those who had already had Covid, an intervention that would have (in a similar way to masks) perpetuated fear and alarm. 

As described in the previous section, the wearing of masks in community settings acts to strengthen the most ethically-contentious nudges – affect, ego and normative pressure – and it is clear from his witness statement that Halpern was a strong early advocate for this restriction. Thus, Halpern relates how he sent Professors Whitty and Vallance details of an Italian study that, purportedly, provided evidence on the issue of asymptomatic transmission – a key driver of the pro-mask narrative. Alongside this missive, Halpern describes how he was striving to create ‘habit loops’ along the lines of ‘whenever you go outdoors, you take your mask with you’.

Halpern’s recent media comments suggest that he is not averse to the deployment of the ethically questionable nudges if he believes the ends are desirable. In a January 2023 article in the Telegraph he describes how he deployed a normative pressure nudge on Boris Johnson in order to persuade the serving Prime Minister to wear a mask: ‘We did share with him a slide pack at one point. It had a series of images of pretty much every single world leader wearing a mask, and then a picture with him not.’ Halpern went on to explain that this subliminal prod was used to point out that ‘a normal thing for a world leader to do right now is wear a mask’. His acceptance of the use of normative pressure apparently extends to circumstances where it results in harassment of the non-compliant minority; in a more recent interview in the Telegraph – ‘Lockdown Files’ (Episode 4, 13 minutes, 30 seconds) – he says: 

Behaviour is contagious … I remember seeing some people nearly coming to blows on a train because everyone else was wearing masks & this person wasn’t. You might not be comfortable with that but it is social pressure in action.

With regard to fear inflation (an ‘affect’ nudge) Halpern is more ambivalent, albeit accepting of such a tactic in certain circumstances. He says, ‘Fear-based campaigns are generally not where you want to start unless you think people are really, really mis-calibrated.’ He cites the HIV era as an instance when fear was needed to ‘cut through in a way other things didn’t’. When asked directly (in the July 2023 Telegraph article) about the posters produced for the ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign, Halpern says:

They aren’t posters that we did; I can perfectly understand why they were developedit was aimed at the ‘superspreaders’ who were out & about thinking they were ‘invincible’ … for lots of people this would seem complete overkill.

There is insufficient evidence to confirm that Halpern was primarily responsible for infusing the Covid messaging campaign with ethically dubious nudges. Nonetheless, considering his high-level experience within the Government, together with these recent comments, it is reasonable to conclude that Halpern possessed both the gravitas and mindset to fulfil this role. And there is additional evidence that he had the opportunity to exert considerable influence at the height of the Covid era; a FOI request in March 2023 revealed that Halpern (and perhaps other senior members of BIT) met on an approximately fortnightly basis with Dominic Cummins in the period January to March 2020 – and it seems likely that further contact with the higher echelons of the Cabinet Office continued after this time.

  1. Expert groups – SPI-B and BIT – habitually promoted the nudges of concern

Throughout the Covid event, two collectives of behavioural and psychological specialists – the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – produced advisory documents aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of the Government’s pandemic communications. It is conceivable that selected aspects of these groups’ written outputs were used to inform civil servants and advertising companies charged with creating the Covid-19 messaging. To throw light on where responsibility might lie for the deployment of ethically questionable behavioural science techniques within the Covid communications, the 2020-2022 publications of SPI-B and BIT were inspected for advice that promoted deployment of affect, ego, and normative pressure nudges. 


As one of several subgroups of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – the Government’s main source of advice during the Covid event – SPI-B was convened on the 13th February 2020. Its membership was composed of experts in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and behavioural science; at least three of the subgroup participants were affiliated with BIT. (Four members of the group opted to remain anonymous.) 

A key element of SPI-B’s remit was to advise on ‘Strategies for behaviour change, to support control of and recovery from the epidemic’. At the start of the Covid era, the group was asked to ‘provide advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical or epidemiological experts.’ Meetings of SPI-B were not consistently minuted, but several ‘high-level’ summaries were published.

Undoubtedly, the subgroup’s most strident endorsement of fear inflation (affect nudge) was contained in a document published on the 22nd March 2020 titled ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’. Within the text are the following statements:

A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group.

The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.

At the Covid-19 Inquiry, Professor James Rubin (SPI-B co-chair) confirmed that Professor Susan Michie was the group member primarily responsible for compiling this paper. 

In April 2020, the SPI-B group produced another paper titled ‘Theory and evidence base for initial SPI-B recommendations for phased changes in activity restrictions’, that explored the key elements that predict adherence to public health advice. Drawing heavily on ‘Protection Motivation Theory’, the authors describe one important aspect promoting compliance with guidance as being that ‘perceptions of the risk of Covid-19 to self and others are high’, thereby drawing the attention of policymakers to the assumed benefit of maintaining high levels of fear in the target population.  

The premise that SPI-B supported the deployment of fear within the Government’s Covid-19 communications is given further credence by the subsequent comments of two of its members. Dr Gavin Morgan (an educational psychologist) is cited in Laura Dodsworth’s book, A State of Fear, as saying, ‘They went overboard with the scary message to get compliance. They were pushing at an open door because there was already fear.’ (Dodsworth, 2021, p91)

Another – this time anonymous – SPI-B participant echoed Morgan’s view: 

There were discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance and decisions were made about how to ramp up the fear. The way we have used fear is dystopian … The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been a weird experiment. Ultimately it backfired because people became too scared.

Dodsworth, 2021, p94

As for the ego nudge, where following the Covid-19 edicts is strategically implied to be synonymous with virtue, examples within the SPI-B summaries are:

Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’ (March 2020 document)
“Messaging needs to emphasise and explain the duty to protect others.”

Ways to maintain adherence to restrictions after vaccination’ (December 2020 document)
“[Vaccinated people] will be willing to continue to adhere to rules and guidance once a vaccine is available if they are made aware that this is still necessary to protect others.”

Social and behavioural impacts of lifting restrictions (February 2022 document)
Messaging should emphasise voluntary adherence as a contribution to collective wellbeing.

During her interview at the Covid-19 Inquiry, Professor Lucy Yardley (another SPI-B co-chair) endorsed a similar approach when she emphasised the importance of ‘messages drawing on protecting each other’.

Encouragement for government communicators to deploy norms, involving the harnessing of peer pressure to change the behaviour of a dissenting minority, was a common SPI-B recommendation as illustrated in the following examples:

Insights on self-isolation & household isolation (9 th March 2020 document)

Effective methods to encourage adherence to guidance and discourage presenteeism were discussed; these included:

  • Changing social norms and allowing others to express disapproval,
  • Emphasising high levels of adherence in the wider population.

Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures (22nd March 2020 document)

  • Social approval can be a powerful source of reward … members of the community can be encouraged to provide it to each other.
  • Social disapproval from one’s community can play an important role in preventing anti-social behaviour or discouraging failure to enact pro-social behaviour.

Theory and evidence base for initial SPI-B recommendations for phased changes in activity restrictions (April 2020 document)

  • Communities could play an active role in anticipating, reporting, stewarding and managing problems with overcrowding or inadequate social distancing.

How to increase adherence to Covid-19 preventative behaviours among young people (November 2020 document)

  • Communications should draw upon social norms of effective adherence by emphasising what other peers are doing (descriptive e.g. your peers are switching to socialising online) and approved perceptions of behaviours (injunctive e.g. your peers think you should start socialising online).
  • Communications should avoid giving visibility to non-adherence.

Ways to maintain adherence to restrictions after vaccination (December 2020 document)

  • Social pressures, including both family and community pressures, have been found to be strong motivators for people to adopt or reject recommended infection control behavioursNormative pressures beyond these social networks (e.g. from employers, mass media and the government) have been found to influence adherence to protective behaviours during COVID-19.

Social & behavioural impacts of lifting restrictions (February 2022 document

  • Government should consider how to encourage adherence to protective behaviours through broader social norms (as in many east Asian countries).

It is noteworthy that, in their evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry, both Rubin and Yardley (SPI-B co-chairs) expressed the view that their group’s outputs achieved insufficient influence on pandemic policy. Rubin, although saying, ‘I think the stuff we were writing had an impact … at an operational level’, goes on to claim that SPI-B’s advice and reports disappeared down a ‘black hole’. He believed that – by May/June 2020 – SPI-B was being ‘cut out of involvement in Government communication’ and that their advice ‘just wasn’t being seen in the output’. Yardley concurred, saying, ‘on the whole, the communications tended to go ahead with very little input from SPI-B, even though we were very happy to advise.’ 

Rubin’s further evidence to the Inquiry suggests that a key reason for their lack of impact was the fact that eight SPI-B members defected to ‘independent SAGE’ (a group openly critical of Government policy): ‘The decision in June 2020 of multiple participants of SPI-B to join a subgroup of independent SAGE took me by surprise and put us in an awkward position.’ In the same interview it was also revealed that Patrick Vallance (the Chief Scientific Officer) had described this mass defection as ‘an odd thing to do & may cause problems … totally inappropriate’, and that government departments were ‘very wary’ of putting anything to SPI-B because of ‘leaks or misuse’. 

Behavioural Insights TeamBIT

Throughout the Covid event, BIT was contractually committed to providing the Government with ‘frictionless access’ to behavioural science expertise. Not being part of the main SAGE infrastructure, the contributions of BIT employees were less visible than those of SPI-B. Nevertheless, the evidence demonstrates that they frequently provided advice to communicators about how to maximise the power of Covid messaging.

Such a pivotal role is acknowledged in an article on the BIT website where it is announced that, since February 2020, their personnel have been ‘advising governments and public bodies’ regarding Covid communications. More detail about the extent of BIT’s contribution to the Government’s pandemic response is provided in Professor Halpern’s witness statement to the Covid-19 Inquiry in which he describes how his team received ‘requests for input from multiple departments’ and from key actors such as Dominic Cummins and Matt Hancock. He also confirms that, during the Covid event, ‘BIT ran 57 online experiments, four field experiments, provided 41 policy notes, and were involved in eight longer projects’; during peak times, between 15 and 20 members of his team were ‘working on Covid’. 

Examination of BIT’s documented outputs during the Covid years provides evidence of their promotion of the nudges of concern.

In relation to the endorsement of the affect/fear inflation nudge, in December 2020 BIT and the NHS collaborated to produce a document (later redacted) titled ‘Optimising vaccination roll outthe dos & don’ts of messaging’. The advice given to front-line healthcare staff responsible for administering the vaccines included the suggestion to tell people over 65 years of age that they are ‘three times more likely to die if you get COVID’. This reliance on conveying relative risk, rather than absolute risk, would undoubtedly work to inflate the recipient’s perception of the level of danger posed by contracting Covid-19. Such misleading phrasing lends support to the expressed concerns of Simon Ruda – a former BIT director and founder member – who, in a January 2022 interview, said, ‘the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public.

Furthermore, in his Covid-19 Inquiry statement, Halpern says that, in February 2020, the team’s primary brief was to advise the Government on how to ‘communicate Covid-related messages so that the public recognised the severity of the virus’. Halpern goes on to detail how one aspect of this work involved a collaboration with the Cabinet Office to produce a television advert that incorporated visual graphics of ‘vapour permeating around the room’ – content that could reasonably fall into the category of fear inflation. 

Outputs of BIT also support the premise that they advocated for the use of the ego/virtue nudge in Covid messaging:

  • In the December 2020 documentOptimising vaccination …’ (mentioned above) front-line health staff are advised to tell young people that ‘normality can only return for you and others, with your vaccination’ and ‘The vaccine is not 100% effective, so if only your older relative has it you could still give them the virus if you are not vaccinated.
  • In a 2020 webinar on their website (around 35 minutes into the video) it is described how BIT has been working with NHS-X (a digital service aimed at improving patient care) to identify the most effective types of text messaging. One finding was that the impact of communications about staying at home during a pandemic was maximised if one ‘tapped the altruistic nature’ of social isolation.
  • In March 2021, BIT described a study in the US that tested a range of messages intended to increase vaccine uptake. The researchers found that ‘Helping loved ones’ was the most effective. Armed with this finding, they say that ‘Moving forward, we are working to get these results out to policymakers and other stakeholders who can translate our recommendations into real-world outreach.’ 

As for BIT experts recommending norms/peer pressure as a means of changing behaviour during the Covid event, examples include:

  • In a 2020 project where they were helping the NHS to design text messages to people who had been advised to quarantine at home, the BIT team recommended recipients be asked to contact several friends and relatives and inform them of their isolation. (Although badged as a ‘social commitment’ nudge, this action would also increase normative pressure on others to stay at home under the same circumstances.)
  • In a March 2020 article on their website, they described how they had nurtured ‘organisational social norms’ within private companies so as to make people stay at home when symptomatic; one specific aspiration was to construct a social milieu where being at work with a cough will be ‘perceived negatively’.

Importantly, it seems that BIT was also centrally involved in identifying a subgroup of the population who purportedly warranted a distinctive, more powerful, form of risk communication – a similar cohort to the one used to justify the scary and guilt-enhancing ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign (see section c, above). Thus, in his statement for the Covid-19 Inquiry, Halpern mentions that a part of BIT’s work was to identify the ‘superspreaders’, the one-in-ten who ‘required a different approach’.

As already argued (see section 4d), the collective wearing of masks in community settings can enhance compliance with pandemic restrictions as a whole by strengthening the affect, ego, and normative pressure nudges. It is clear from Halpern’s evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry, that BIT was strongly advocating for the imposition of face coverings in the weeks prior to the political U-turn on the issue in May/June 2020. Thus, Halpern states that, on the 31st March, BIT prepared an internal note on ‘Why the UK general public should use face masks’ that argued that ‘the UK’s position … at that time was wrong, and they should be considered as part of the strategy to unlock the UK.’ Furthermore, in June 2020, the ‘BIT arranged the testing of masks at Porton Down, and found that even cloth masks were effective’; Halpern believed these results to be so important that he ‘sent them directly to Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Simon Case’. Given that the Government mandated masks on public transport and in healthcare settings on the 15th June 2020, it is reasonable to conclude that BIT may hold a significant degree of responsibility for the imposition of this poorly-evidenced restriction, one that evokes fear, shame and scapegoating.   

Taking these examples as a whole, one can confidently conclude that the experts in both SPI-B and BIT often endorsed the use of affect, ego, and normative pressure nudges in their guidance about how behavioural science techniques could enhance the persuasive power of Covid messaging. 

  1. Prominent figures in SPI-B & BIT have denied responsibility for fear inflation

Despite the multiplicity of evidence suggesting the involvement of many actors in developing and promoting Covid messages that relied on ethically questionable nudges, there has – to date – been a reluctance to accept responsibility for these practices. 

When the SPI-B co-chair, Professor Ann John, appeared in front of the Government’s Science & Technology Committee on the 30th March 2022 she was challenged by MP Graham Stringer about the strategic decision to indiscriminately ramp up fear (as referenced in the SPI-B minutes of the 22nd March 2020). During her interview, Professor John claimed that her group advised against using scare tactics as a way of increasing compliance with Covid-19 restrictions, stating, ‘We never advised on upping the level of fear. I think it was presented as part of the evidence base … we absolutely advised that fear does not work.’ Earlier in the interview, John contradicts her group’s terms of reference by insisting that SPI-B was not trying to change people’s behaviour, but instead pursuing the altruistic motive of ‘ensuring that disproportionate and unintended impacts were not felt by different sectors of society.

A similarly-worded denial of responsibility for fear inflation was provided by Professor James Rubin (another SPI-B co-chair) in his testimony to the Covid-19 Inquiry. When asked directly about his group’s involvement in scaremongering, Rubin claims that they ‘argued against it on multiple occasions’, and also sent a series of papers to senior government officials in both the Cabinet Office and the DHSC advising against the use of fear as a means of promoting compliance. With regard to the paragraphs in the SPI-B minutes of the 22nd March 2020 describing the need to increase the ‘perceived level of personal threat’ by using ‘hard-hitting emotional messaging’, Rubin describes these statements as being about ‘complacency’ rather than about raising fears, as ‘substantial numbers of people did not seem to appreciate the genuine level of risk that they faced’. So, in essence, he believed his group was educating people rather than frightening them, and that the criticism directed at SPI-B was unfair and stemmed from a ‘misreading’ of their advice and a ‘glossing over of the context at the time’. 

Professor Lucy Yardly (another SPI-B co-chair), during her Inquiry interview, also denied culpability for fear inflation; when asked specifically about her reaction to Matt Hancock’s ‘Don’t kill your gran’ quip, Yardley cautioned against the use of such language, saying, ‘My instinct would probably not because it is trying to draw on fear and shame.’

A further emphatic denial of responsibility came from four core members of SPI-B (Professors Reicher, Michie, Drury, and West) in a March 2023 opinion piece in the British Medical Journal. In the article these behavioural science experts explicitly state that the pervasive fear mongering witnessed during the Covid event had nothing to do with them, instead suggesting that the politicians were culpable: ‘When Hancock & Case advocated scare tactics they were going against the scientific advice they had been given.’ Furthermore, they dismissed the incriminating SPI-B minutes of March 2020 – that referred to the need to increase the ‘level of personal threat’ and use ‘hard-hitting emotional messaging’ – as just being part of an overall review of possible options of persuasion. The authors did not explain why they had remained silent on the issue of fear inflation during the pandemic.

As for BIT, in January 2022, the author of this current document received an unsolicited personal email from BIT’s communication department. The unexpected email was a reaction to an open letter written by the current author to the British Psychological Society, raising ethical concerns about the state’s use of behavioural science. The missive from the BIT spokesperson claimed that ‘none of the examples you reference were actually our work or anything we worked on at all, and we categorically do not believe in using fear as a tactic.

Professor Halpern has denied responsibility for the posters used in the ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign. Furthermore, in his witness statement for the Covid-19 Inquiry, he laments what he believes to be false accusations directed at BIT: ‘Frustratinglygiven our internal advice, and that we didn’t have anything to do with campaigns such as “Stay Alert” (or “Look into her eyes”) BIT was later blamed for encouraging HMG to pursue a fear-based campaign.’

Intriguingly, embedded in this plethora of denials, there are indications of tensions between the various expert groups offering behavioural science advice – perhaps not surprising given their multiplicity (see section 4b). For instance,  Rubin, during his Covid-19 Inquiry interview, was at pains to deny that his SPI-B group was, in effect, another ‘Nudge Unit’: 

Instead of nudging, SPI-B’s work focused on providing support to people to help them to engage with the measures that were openly recommended by public health experts’ … SPI-B didn’t consider those (i.e. nudge) options, or rather it wasn’t a focus for us …  I can’t think of any actual examples where we did recommend them in our papers.

Perhaps in an attempt to suggest that his forum’s outputs conveyed the higher scientific framework within which other advisors  should operate, Rubin says, ‘SPI-B looked at the science of communication whereas these [other teams] were working on the operationalisation of that science.’ Halpern appears to be at odds with this hierarchical differentiation, as indicated by his blunt comments in his Inquiry witness statement, where he says that the SPI-B group was ‘prone to producing vague & not always well-evidenced papers that policymakers & SAGE were underwhelmed by … SPI-B members just stuck with the generalities of the existing behavioural literature … effective applied behavioural science cannot be a spectator sport.’ 

A potential contributor to this tension, and a reason for Rubin to try to distance his group from the ‘nudgers’, is provided by Sanders et al. (2021) in their examination of the public and media discourse about the Government’s deployment of behavioural science in early 2020. A key finding of this study  was that the term ‘nudge’ seems to ‘stir divisiveness’, and the expert groups were perceived differently: 

We found two distinct clusters of actors and concepts in the behavioural science to be received differentially by both the media and public: BIT, Dr. David Halpern and ‘nudge’ were viewed as embedded with the lockdown policy, coupled with negative perceptions; on the other hand, Prof. Susan Michie, Prof. Steven Reicher, and the SPI-B were perceived to be speaking out against these policies.

It is, however, important to emphasise that, in this initial stage of the Covid event, this ‘speaking out’ would primarily have been about urging longer and earlier lockdowns; all the Government’s behavioural science experts remained silent on the questionable ethics of resorting to encouraging fear, guilt and scapegoating as a means of promoting compliance with public health diktats.

If – at odds with many of their published outputs – the behavioural science experts in SPI-B and BIT were not centrally responsible for scaring, shaming and othering citizens into compliance with the Covid edicts, who else could be? Outside of the expert advisory groups, many people with behavioural science capability are employed in a range of government departments, so maybe some of these employees hold a degree of culpability. Or maybe the main commercial advertisers, MullenLowe and Manning Gotlieb, were given the autonomy to decide the tone and content of their posters and videos. (To date, these two companies have not responded to our requests for information on these issues, and the details of contractual arrangements between them and government representatives are often redacted.)

Information divulged during Professor Yardley’s Covid-19 Inquiry interview does suggest that an inner circle of government advisors, along with personnel from trusted advertising agencies, may have been disproportionately influential in shaping the communication campaigns. During her interview, Yardley refers to SPI-B members’ dissatisfaction with the Government’s ‘Stay Alert’ messaging and draws attention to an email response from a Cabinet Office behavioural scientist  (presumably a member of the previously mentioned Government Communication Service) that reads:

The messages in this instance are kept so elusive by a small group of mainly No 10 advisers — these are agencies that have won their political campaigns and are now supporting this one too. My team was never consulted either and as soon as I heard the message I flagged our concerns — only to be told it was too late now (and ‘it tested well’ which often means a shut down of discussion of any risks!) … I am so sorry that despite being the behavioural scientists inside the government communications service we don’t have a handle on this either. It’s so often partially political and in this case I was also told they wanted to keep it deliberately small so that there’s not too many cooks which is also a cultural issue.

One can credibly argue that the ultimate responsibility for the methods used in the Government’s Covid-19 communications strategy lies with the elected politicians and their senior advisors. Some clarification about their role in the development of the Covid messaging was provided by Conrad Bird (Director of Campaigns & Marketing at the Covid-19 Hub in the Cabinet Office). In response to our direct email, Bird – who led the Government’s commissioning team in regard to the ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign – disclosed that the creative brief to MullenLowe was ‘given orally by my team in response to government and scientific advice concerning the rise of the Covid Delta variant’. As indicated by an FOI response, a major source of this advice is likely to have been the team of behavioural scientists located in the Cabinet Office Government Communication Service. Bird also confirmed that the favoured version of the adverts was ‘signed-off by colleagues from Health, the Chief Medical Officer and responsible Ministers’; a subsequent FOI response confirmed that the high-ranking official ultimately responsible for this sign-off was Matt Hancock, the then Health Secretary.

The next steps

This initial report has detailed the progress made within the first four months of the research project. After a brief overview of the context of the research – namely, the Government’s deployment of ethically-questionable behavioural science strategies throughout the Covid event – this paper has described what we know to date about the following aspects of the nudge-infused Covid messaging campaign: the size of the behavioural science resource available within the Government infrastructure, and the amount of taxpayers’ money spent on it; the advertising companies centrally involved in developing the Covid messaging, together with the identification of the key actors (from both the Government and  the advertisers) engaged in the commissioning, construction and authorisation of the more contentious videos and posters; and the sources of expert behavioural science advice that may have shaped the tone and content of the messaging, with a particular focus on the outputs of SPI-B and BIT. 

The subsequent phases of the project will increasingly focus on the ethics of the state using often-covert methods of psychological persuasion on its own citizens, strategies that commonly achieve their impact via the calculated generation of emotional discomfort and the encouragement of othering and scapegoating. The next steps of the research project will, therefore, involve an in-depth analysis of the ethical issues arising from the Government using nudges on its own people. More specifically, it is anticipated that the project’s progression will involve:

a) Identification of the various potential sources of expert ethical advice to inform the Government’s decision making around Covid messaging.
b) Elucidating the details of any actual ethical guidance that was offered or accessible to the Government during the genesis of the Covid messaging strategy.
c) A critical review of the academic literature discussing the ethics of nudging, and the subsequent identification of what one might consider to be best practice.
d) A gap analysis to highlight any differences between ethical best practice in decision making around the state’s use of nudging and the reality of what happened during the Covid event.
e) The development and dissemination of a bespoke or modified set of ethical guidelines and/or processes to inform and constrain how the UK Government uses behavioural science in the future.


Former NHS consultant clinical psychologist. Writer, blogger and trainer. Author of Tales from the Madhouse. HART Group member.

Publisher’s note: The opinions and findings expressed in articles, reports and interviews on this website are not necessarily the opinions of PANDA, its directors or associates.

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