Nudge Unit in the Thick of It: Stewart Pearson strikes again

I can understand and to a degree sympathise with the Tories’ desire to drag themselves into the 20th century. It must be absolutely ghastly for post-neanderthal British conservatives to have to deal on a daily basis with fruitcakes and nutters. And that’s just the party’s core supporters.

However, it beggars belief that Tory party leaders can allow the more barking mad among their policy wonks to hold sway over the Department of Work and Pensions with a pseudo-scientific psychometric test forced on benefits claimants, exposed as a sham by paranoid bloggers who see it as part of a “sinister psy-war” waged by government against the people of Britain. It is so ridiculous that even Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci would find it a little far-fetched.

Downing Street’s semi-commercial behavioural insights team, otherwise known as the “Nudge Unit”, is something straight out of The Thick of It, with Richard Thaler, a former advisor to Tony Blair, cast in the role of Stewart Pearson, the cynical Tory hippy who in the satirical TV series spins for the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship.

Take this for an example of Thaler’s Weltanschauung…

“People often make poor choices – and look back at them with bafflement! We do this because as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.”

As someone who has during his 48 years made no end of poor life choices, and looks back on them with varying degrees of both bafflement and resignation, I can understand where Thaler is coming from, essentially vacuous though the above statement is. But what I don’t understand is how Thaler manages to turn his profound outlook on the human condition into a psychometric test supposedly designed to identify personal strengths which contains such inane questions as…

“I never go out of my way to visit museums.”

“I have not created anything of beauty in the last year.”

The test ends with the following prescription…

“Use each of your strengths in a new way everyday [sic] for at least a week.”

Thaler’s “Nudge theory” is a idea born of behavioural economics and “libertarian paternalism” which states that governments can “find innovative ways of encouraging, enabling and supporting people to make better choices for themselves”. It is 21st century New Labour social democracy and call-me-dave-conservatism’s response to unfettered Thatcherite greed and total political bullshit.