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Three items from today’s news that point to the importance of knowledge of psychology for policymakers:


1) Stella Rimington said of the UK Government’s anti-terrorism legislation:


“It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.”


2) Vince Cable said:


“It is becoming clear that for the foreseeable future there is a higher risk of deflation [in the UK economy] than inflation, which is why it is inevitable and sensible that the Bank of England should be moving towards expansion of credit and the money supply directly… “


3) The Guardian reported that:


“Cervical cancer specialists are putting a rise in demand for screening down to a “Jade Goody effect” after the reality television star revealed at the weekend that she was terminally ill with the disease.”


What I’m interested in are the psychological assumptions that underlie these examples and how they are being used by policymakers.


1*) Stella Rimington is worried about how the UK Government is scaring people into accepting intrusive laws. This is an example of policymakers playing on our irrational fears – we are far more likely to be the victims of road accidents than terrorism. But it also tells how the Government thinks of us – in this case, feeble and wanting protection at all costs. As well, it tells us how the Government thinks about ensuring our safety – not through engaging our diligence (our reporting suspicious activities etc.), or trusting communities to sort out their own problems.


2*) Vince Cable is worried about deflation. He thinks the Government should print more money so as to enable credit flows to thicken. When the money in circulation is cheap enough to borrow and there is enough of it, he believes we will surely start borrowing and spending again. This is economic policy based on the assumption we are all completely rational – that information about the price and plenitude of money will be enough to get us borrowing, lending and spending again.


3*) Jade Goody’s tragic illness has motivated many more women to go for cervical cancer check-ups (and from sections of society previously unaware of the dangers and the screening system).


What can we learn from all this?


1**) That in the case of terror legislation the Government treats us in an infantile way, scaring us into submission and not utilising our abilities to help keep our society safe. They overplay the risk to get what they want and they disenable our capacities to police our own affairs.


2**) In the case of impending deflation, Vince Cable’s suggested monetary intervention treats us as informed quasi-experts. But we are not. Most people don’t understand economic policy and where they do (in the case of some financial workers), they are not necessarily acting rationally – they are scared and fearful, rather than being made to feel scared and fearful. Policy ought to reflect this, and whilst pumping money into the economy might be one neccesary step towoards it, restoring a (rather nebulous) sense of public confidence should be the focus.


3**) With regard to the ‘Jade Goody effect’: here we see that on issues of health, emotional engagement through known public figures and accessible media is far more effective than giving people reams of information and expecting that to motivate them to change their behaviour.


What all this says is that in some cases the Government treats us as resilient rational types, to be ‘pushed’ through our own intrinsic motivation; in others, as irrational subjects to be ‘pulled’ through extrinsic factors that play on our emotional-instinctual attributes.


Nothing wrong with this ‘context specific’ approach to the psychology of policymaking. But it is clear that the Government very often gets it wrong in which cases to push and in which to pull.



So the moral of the story is that effective policymaking requires a better knowledge of psychology.



It’s already been noted that Barack Obama’s election seems to have had a positive affect on the educational achievements of African-American students. This affect stems in part from what social psychologists call self-image or self-expectation theory. The idea is that a lot of what we do is motivated by the kind of person we want to be, the kind of social groups we take ourselves to belong to, and the kind of person others think we are.


People will often not do something if it doesn’t chime with their values, or if they feel they will be judged to have behaved badly by people they respect, admire or simply identify with. They will try to make their actions cohere with a self-image and social identity that they project ahead of them.


Or conversely, if people find themselves doing something regularly, they will adjust their values to their behaviour in order to maintain coherence: if I find myself regularly reading trashy magazines, I may well adjust my prior attitude that reading them is a waste of my time. But when I make this adjustment it must fit with the overall coherence of my values and attitudes: I tell myself reading trashy magazines is an acceptable form of relaxation for a busy person like me, as long as it doesn’t take up too much time.


So we will often mimic others we take to share our values and attitudes. But we will also mimic those we take to be adept at adjusting their attitudes and values to their actual behaviour – we will trust them more because there is no dissonance between what they say and do. In short, we find a combination of a shared orientation on the world and personal integrity highly inspiring.


What is inspiring about Barack Obama so far is his presentation of himself as an intelligent, empathic, balanced, determined, elegant, patient, calm, virtuous person. But he has also shown himself to be skilled at adjusting his values and attitudes to the behaviour these uncertain times have forced upon him. He has tempered his ‘can-do’ self-confidence with the humility that austerity brings. But he hasn’t simply jettisoned the former – rather, just seen when and where it is appropriate. And he has found the words to express this adjustment in a way that the public can identify with.


I think it is important for leaders to possess this ability. For then we, the public, will identify with the image they project, and adopt it as our own. They can provide a lead on maintaining certain values and attitudes in uncharted waters, and, conversely, on what adjustments in those values and attitudes are required by the times. If they are successful, we internalise the image they project which helps us to motivate ourselves to change our behaviour for the better. In present times that means, for example, feeling good about saving more money, being more energy efficient, being more concerned for others around us. And one should never underestimate the power of such motivation.


But if Obama’s words become too dissonant with his behaviour, or vice versa, we will lose trust in him. So we are as much influencing him as he us.


Gordon Brown showed himself to capture the spirit of the times for a brief moment. But he seems to be a one-trick pony. Thus politics in the media age is not as anti-democratic as we might think: his apparent inability to adjust his behaviour to maintain his values and attitudes in uncertain times, as well as his apparent inability to adjust his values and attitudes to match behaviour that was forced upon him; all this causes a cognitive dissonance it seems many find uninspiring.