Behaviour change, nudging and the nanny state

9 July 2018


Reported by Toby Jackson, NERC-funded CSaP policy intern (April-July 2018)

In his opening keynote at CSaP's 2018 annual conference, Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Dr Patrick Vallance, highlighted behavioural research as the most sought after expertise across all government departments.

Fittingly, the first session in this year's conference was chaired by Dr Helen Munn, Director of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and included world leading experts on behaviour change:Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Cambridge Behaviour and Health Research Unit; Dr James Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University College London; Harriet Wallace, Deputy Director of Air Quality and Industrial Emissions at Defra.

You can listen to the panel discussion here:

Professor Marteau began by emphasising that our environment has a strong influence on our behaviour, although we persist in thinking otherwise. Key aspects of our environment, such as the universal availability of meat and single use plastics, increase consumption of these products although they are highly damaging to our environment.

She reminded the audience of recent succesful policy interventions which had strong positive effects on our behaviour, such as the 5p plastic bag charge, the sugar levy and the removal of advertisements from cigarrette packages.

Professor Marteau also highlighted a number of conflicts within government departments, such as Defra's support for animal agriculture even though it contributes 51% of global greenhouse emissions, while trying to reduce emissions and improve air quality.

Finally she emphasised the tension between the creation of wealth and planetary health, which are often pulling in opposite directions.

Dr James Wilson introduced his key message, that "a state that neglects its obligations to public health is just as problematic as a 'nanny state'".

He used an important and current example, that of wood burning stoves, which are a key contributor to air pollution. Many people do not want to stop burning wood in their homes, and believe it is their right to choose. However, wood burning increases the risk of lung cancer and other diseases across the population, not just for the user. Dr Wilson emphasised that citizens have a right to public health, and the government must steer between being a nanny state and a neglectful state.

Harriet Wallace is dealing with the issue of wood burning stoves on a daily basis. She recalled her surprise when she first heard that wood burning stoves contribute 38% of particulate matter pollution in the UK, and said that "if we were surprised, probably others would be surprised too".

Indeed, surveys show that people believe transport to be the leading cause of air pollution, and wood burning stoves were not believed to be a significant contributor. She highlighted a few positive points - that efficient modern stoves are up to nine times less polluting that an open fire, and that the wood industry has been very active, working alongside Defra to promote responsible burning practices.

Questions from the audience focussed on the limits of the state and possible unintended consequences of the nanny state. What if people felt they were already living in a nanny state, so that if they are allowed to have an open fire in their home it can't be "too bad"? Or, if people believed they were being protected and were living in a safe environment, did they feel able to take more risks?

Finally, the tension between the creation of wealther and planetary health was revisited, with a number of examples such as the advertising of cars driving fast on empty roads, and questions about whether the goverment should really be so focussed on increasing GDP.

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau

Behaviour and Health Research Unit (BHRU), University of Cambridge

Dr Helen Munn

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

Harriet Wallace

Imperial College London

Professor James Wilson

University College London (UCL)