Martin Hickman lifts the lid on the secret Whitehall policy unit dreaming up psychological tricks to alter our behaviour
Shame, vanity, laziness and the desire to fit in are all to be used as tools of Government policy by ministers acting on the advice of a new psychology unit in Whitehall.
The first glimpse into the confidential work of the Cabinet Office's Behavioural Insight Team came on Tuesday when ministers suggested members of the public should be able to make small charitable donations when using cashpoints and their credit cards.
On Friday, the Cabinet Office again followed the unit's advice in proposing that learner drivers be opted in to an organ donation scheme when they apply for a licence, and also floated the idea of creating a lottery to encourage people to take tests to prove they have quit smoking.
These initiatives are examples of the application of mental techniques which, while seemingly paradoxical to the Coalition's goal of a smaller state, are likely to become a common feature of Government policy.
The public will have "social norms" heavily emphasised to them in an attempt to increase healthy eating, voluntary work and tax gathering. Appeals will be made to "egotism" in a bid to foster individual support for the Big Society, while much greater use will be made of default options to select benevolent outcomes for passive citizens – exemplified by the organ donation scheme.
A clue to the new approach came early in the life of the Coalition Government, in a sentence from its May agreement: "Our Government will be a much smarter one, shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past and finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves," it read.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, established the seven-strong unit in July, since when the Government has declined to divulge all its members and the full extent of its work. However, The Independent has learnt its guiding principles and some of the projects that have used its favoured techniques.
One experiment involved Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) secretly changing the wording of tens of thousands of tax letters, leading to the collection of an extra £200m in income tax.
Other ideas tried elsewhere that have been studied by the unit include reducing recidivism by changing public perception of ex-prisoners, and cutting health costs by encouraging relatives to look after family members in "patient hotels".
The unit draws inspiration from the Chicago University professor Richard H Thaler and his colleague Cass Sunstein, whose book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is required reading for Conservative frontbenchers.
Professor Thaler, who advises the UK team, suggests that instead of forcing people to behave more virtuously through legislation, governments can guide them in the right direction using psychology. Ministers should become, in his jargon, "choice architects", making virtuous choices more attractive than unvirtuous ones. In his books he quotes the example of automatically opting workers into company pensions to raise the amount saved for old age, which will come into force in the UK in 2012 having been enacted by Labour. Another is from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, where flies were etched on to urinals to give men something to aim at, reducing spillages in the gent's toilets.
Mr Cameron embraced nudge theory two years ago in a speech about "Broken Britain", but has subsequently placed more emphasis on his own idea of the Big Society, where individuals and charities play a much greater role ias the state shrinks.