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"There is nothing new under the sun", said a depressed Solomon. That's certainly true of government using psychology to influence their people, notwithstanding the excitement among policy makers around behavioural economics. An example is the good story about Frederick the Great's attempts to introduce the potato into Prussia in the 18th century, or the shift in public health during the 50s and 60s from "a culture of secrecy to a culture of communication".

"There is nothing new under the sun", said a depressed Solomon. That's certainly true of government using psychology to influence their people, notwithstanding the excitement among policy makers around behavioural economics. An example is the good story about Frederick the Great's attempts to introduce the potato into Prussia in the 18th century, or the shift in public health during the 50s and 60s from "a culture of secrecy to a culture of communication".

The other example that not too many people mention is propaganda. I'm not yet quite sure where government interest in behaviour change policy stops and propaganda begins. This is a question that arises in an article by Conrad Bird for the Foreign Office, when applying lessons from domestic policy to public diplomacy. He says:

Strategic communication has a key role to play in securing behaviour change. Although the examples used above are from the UK domestic policy context, the principles that underlie strategic communication can be applied universally. Where there are people, there is insight to be generated – all the more so if we are working with peoples of differing cultures, ethnicities and religions. And we will always need to work out how to segment our audiences so that we can craft and tailor compelling propositions.

One review of Bird's article picks up on the theme that the public diplomacy that Bird speaks of is really propaganda (apparently an old argument to diplomatic types) under a new name and is skeptical about how appropriate a strategy it is:

"If all this [behaviour change / strategic communication] is public diplomacy or is, at least, on the minds of some of those practicing it, then I would not like to be one of their targets"

The FCO response to the review is worth a look - and among the points it makes is that one distinction between behaviour change (or public diplomacy in this case) and propaganda is that the latter is one way and doesn't seek a dialogue with its target. But I'm not yet convinced that this distinction is upper-most in the minds of policy makers keen to experiment with the new knowledge of behavioural economics.

Where do you think "behaviour change" stops and propaganda begins?

On a related note, one piece of public health advice that looks uncannily like propaganda tried to put a face on AIDS - and ended up using an image of a mass-murderer. The campaign has attracted a lot of criticism, and the linked image is quite strong [link].

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