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

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.



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