Anyone who has ever paid attention to politics for long should understand the depths to which cynical politicians will sink in order to manipulate the voting public and gather power to themselves.
The Obama White House, however, made it official about a year ago, and recently its Social and Behavioral Science Team, under the Office of Science and Technology Policy, issued its first report on some of the mind games the White House has been playing on you.
The modern name for this kind of manipulation of the public is “nudging,” and unlike, say, propaganda efforts that are usually out in the open, “nudging” efforts aim for subtlety. To that end, the inter-agency SBST has been operating several proof-of-concept type projects, according to Politico.
One such project aimed to get more recent high school graduates to show up at colleges where they had already been accepted. Every year, as many as 30 percent of grads who are accepted to college just don’t go, so the SBST experimented with sending targeted texts to select teens reminding to perform XYZ tasks before the college deadlines. Results: about 9 percent more students showed up the first day of college.
That sounds pretty good, right? Of benefit to society, one could say.
Another experiment was adding a line about honesty to financial reporting forms that are filled out by government vendors. That resulted in a $1.5 million increase in revenues taken in by the government in just one quarter.
Again, sounds good.
But the SBST has other projects in mind, particularly involving economics. An executive order issued by President Obama about a month ago established the SBST name and “directs federal agencies to identify programs in which applying behavioral science insights can yield substantial improvements; develop strategies for applying behavioral science insights to programs, and, where possible, for rigorously testing and evaluating the impact of these insights; recruit behavioral science experts to join the federal government; and strengthen agency relationships with the research community.”
Somewhat more muscular forms of “nudging,” however, include controlling the choices people have in order to control the choices they make. A frequently cited example would be automatically signing up drivers as organ donors unless they opt out, which usually results in more organ donors than you would get by simply making the program voluntary.
The SBST has 20 experiments planned in the next year, in retirement savings, higher education, “improving health outcomes” and school lunches. The SBST will also be veering into renewable energy and partnering with the Census Bureau, according to journalist Bridget Johnson.
One technique used in “nudging” American opinions is to expose people to statements such as “9 out of 10 people pay their taxes on time” to increase timely tax payments. Advertisers have done this for decades: “4 out of 5 dentists say …,” “9 out of 10 mothers choose …” etc.
Or, say, “97 percent of scientists say global warming is a dire threat”?
What about “4 out of 5 homeowners choose not to own a gun”?
You see where I’m going with this.
How easily will the work of this team veer from projects that at least on the surface are designed for a public good into machinations for getting any Administration’s policies, even heinously misguided ones, accepted by the public?
In most ways, the SBST work is just an extension of what government already does, trying to sway people, but it relies on mental parlor tricks rather than real leadership and open debate. Applied to policies such as illegal immigration, some of the implications could be downright sinister.
It’s all done under the pretense of “efficiency.” But how trustworthy is a government that feels it has to rely on psychological manipulation to get things done?