by Dr James Moreton Wakeley
Fear is our most powerful emotion. It triggers our deepest animal instincts and makes us act in irrational ways. We find ourselves fighting, fleeing, or hiding. We look only to our own safety, forget how to think, and become heedless of anything or anyone else. Fear is the ultimate master of the mind. Employing it as a form of influence, however softly, however subliminally, can profoundly change behaviour and cause lasting mental trauma. Enemies do it in times of war to undermine their foe’s morale and will to resist. It is the tactic used by totalitarian regimes throughout history to compel obedience.
And it is the tactic that the British government, for the past year, has consciously employed to turn us into the compliant subjects of lockdown.
Using such behavioural science to ‘nudge’ us into acting in certain ways is not new. As conceived by the Cameron government, harnessing ‘nudge theory’ to encourage people ‘to make better choices for themselves’ without resorting to the compulsion of law is not necessarily malign. Yet the ways in which behavioural science has been employed over the course of the past year demonstrates the deep truth of the old aphorism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) is the sub-committee of SAGE tasked with providing advice to the Government on how best to encourage obedience to its lockdown measures. In a meeting held on March 22nd 2020, it identified a number of psychological techniques for the Government to employ that mark a transition from the traditional tendency of public information campaigns to supply clear facts – expecting a rational reaction to them – to the use of subliminal manipulation. Alleging that a “substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened”, the meeting concluded that “the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging”. Appendix B to the meeting’s minutes lists a raft of specific methods to foster lockdown compliance, ranging from generating a sense of social approval for the Government’s measures, to using the media to promote a sense of personal threat and a responsibility for collective welfare.
Let us dwell on the implications of those words. They advocate a personalisation of risk – regardless of the fact that Covid is an extremely discriminatory disease, threatening the elderly above all – achieved through stoking a sense of threat by targeting the emotions. They therefore call for nothing short of a twisting of the truth, for conscious exaggeration, and for a rejection of fact-based argument. We have seen this willingness to lie in false claims about the sorts of people likely to be infected with Covid, the exaggeration in the “act like you’ve got it” line, and the rejection of fact-based argument in the tendency of the Government to put in place restrictions because they send a particular signal, rather than because they are scientifically justified. SPI-B’s March meeting wrote the manifesto of a campaign of fear, a campaign that has been consistently shaped by the methodology of behavioural science ever since.
The reach of this campaign has been unprecedented. In the wake of the announcement of the first lockdown, the Government became the largest advertiser in the country. It spent £184 million of taxpayers’ money in 2020 alone, launching visually-shocking poster campaigns alongside radio and television advertisements. The daily Downing Street briefings have also served to expose the British people to a daily threnody of doom, in which uncontextualised statistics and the recitation of messages of threat have served to amplify the effort to make the public feel afraid.
The Government is not the only prophet of fear. One of the most noticeable features of the Downing Street briefings has been the abject failure of journalists to interrogate the Government or its scientific advisers. Their ‘questions’ often seem to give ministers the chance to reiterate their call to abide by the lockdown measures rather than querying the need for them, or presenting ministers and state scientists with evidence that undermines their assessment of the situation. This wholly unusual degree of press subservience is not a coincidence.
Ofcom, the body responsible for setting broadcast standards, has all but compelled broadcasters to become conspirators in the campaign of fear. In guidance released on May 26th 2020, it asked broadcasters to “take particular care” when discussing “statements that seek to question or undermine the advice of public health bodies on the Coronavirus, or otherwise undermine people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources of information about the disease”. Ofcom may have stated that it does not advocate the banning of divergent views from the airways, but, in its threat to take action against broadcasters who stray from the script, the risks to broadcast journalists and editors were nonetheless clear. In its rulings against broadcasters that have given voice to views that the body deemed potentially causative of “public harm”, it is apparent that Ofcom has become willing to expand its previous understanding of the concept, thereby creating a further disincentive against broadcasting Covid heterodoxy.
These guidelines, together with the tendency of the political and media class to groupthink, have created a culture in which too many journalists accept the Government’s assertions as fact. It has led to lazy assumptions about the efficacy of lockdown as a policy, evident recently, for instance, in the belief of a member of the Telegraph‘s Global Health Security team that the new lockdown in the Czech Republic is responsible for a fall in cases that began a week before it was actually announced. More significantly, the media’s magnification of the Government’s messaging, together with dramatically morbid footage and the selective use of exceptional cases of Covid among the young – not to mention death data presented with misleading historical comparisons – has amounted to an additional offensive in the campaign of fear that has had profound and troubling implications.
These implications seem to have been sensed, at least to an extent, by the policy’s architects in SPI-B. When suggesting the use of the media “to increase the sense of personal threat”, SPI-B notes that there could be “negative spill-over effects”. The committee is silent on what these effects could be. Other psychologists and behavioural scientists could easily have told them.
Fear, stimulated by the perception of threat, causes an alarm reaction in the part of the brain that controls the emotions, the amygdala. This reaction shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex – responsible for rational reasoning – meaning that we act suddenly and intensively, without thinking things through. It makes evolutionary sense. It is far better to respond to a potential threat by running away, or shooting first, than it is to engage in a period of leisurely, dispassionate reflection on the actual nature of that threat.
Problems, however, are caused when the amygdala is over-stimulated. It evolved to cope with sudden moments of extreme danger, not with a psychological campaign of previously unknown reach and technological sophistication, dedicated to exacerbating actual risk and spreading fear. When emotion keeps overriding reason, the brain is knocked off balance. Irrational and ultimately self-harming behaviour becomes a habit increasingly harder to kick. The perception of risk spreads, contaminating responses to scenarios beyond the alleged actual danger. We become neurotic, unreasonable, and over-reactive.
This can cause panic attacks, depression and anxiety, even post-traumatic stress disorder. It can inculcate new phobias or obsessive, compulsive behaviour. In short, an over-exposure to fear damages who we are, leading to deleterious consequences for mental health and everything that can mean for our relationships, careers, and basic zest for life. The effects of fear on the brain are exacerbated when our usual pattern of life is disturbed and we are forced into social isolation, a scenario well known to increase the risk of mortality alongside damaging mental health in and of itself. Children are most vulnerable to these effects. Over-exposure to fear in the early years can inhibit brain development and cause lasting emotional trauma.
The mind is not alone in suffering harm. There is a close link between mental health and physical health. Beyond the unfortunate tendency of people suffering from depression to avoid looking after themselves – or those too afraid to venture out into a world they have been told is riddled with a deadly plague to get help – over-exposure to fear can cause the body to neglect functions like immune responses and cell generation. This can cause premature ageing, cardiovascular problems, and can even affect fertility. Mental anxiety also increases gastrointestinal malfunction. Being told to “act like you have the virus”, moreover, can even prompt a “perverse kind of reverse placebo effect”, in the words of behavioural scientist Patrick Fagan, that stimulates the symptoms of disease.
It is unsurprising, therefore, to learn that manufacturing and stoking fear to influence behaviour is recognised as deeply unethical. The Covid campaign of fear flies in the face of the British Psychological Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct, which is based in part on the values of respecting the patient and being honest with them. In January, 47 health professionals wrote to the British Psychological Society to express their concern at the way in which the Government has manipulated behavioural science to inculcate lockdown compliance. Other scientists and psychologists have written stinging polemics against the Government’s approach, grounded in the most cutting-edge research on the mind.
There is, however, tragically, now ample evidence of the impact of the campaign of fear that shows the concerns aren’t merely theoretical. The campaign of fear has caused nothing short of a wholly-avoidable physical and mental health crisis. In the first lockdown, over 6,000 people died at home from non-Covid diseases, being too scared to go to hospital. Visits to Accident & Emergency departments collapsed. Over 44,000 fewer people started cancer treatment than in the previous year, with 4.4 million fewer diagnostic tests being carried out: figures that cancer specialists like Professor Karol Sikora have linked to undue fear.
Demand for mental health support has sky-rocketed. An additional 27,000 adults sought support last year and it is now understood that one in six of 5-16 year olds have a mental health condition. The continuing and wholly unjustified face mask mandate in schools is likely to compound this, as well as leading to additional physical ailments. Overall, the Centre for Mental Health has warned that 20% of all adults and 15% of all children will need help dealing with conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder over the coming years.
Some truly shocking stories are to be found within statistics such as these. One grandmother from Gloucestershire took her own life, afraid that the minor cold she had contracted was Covid and fearful that she would give it to her family. I am sure that many of us have our own personal stories of friends and family who have become ever more anxious towards the world outside, or of once confident, go-getting colleagues for whom the world is now a much more forbidding place.
The campaign of fear must end now. This week, Recovery – a new movement founded to bring balance and reason to the lockdown debate – is launching a new campaign to bring greater attention to the Government’s deliberate use of fear and the campaign’s disastrous consequences. The British public deserve to know how dishonestly and abusively the Government has behaved. Those too scared to get treatment for conditions other than Covid, or scarred by a year of lockdown, need a voice. Once more people know how they have been manipulated, a more rational response to dealing with Covid may yet become possible, with more ears open to learning about the costs of lockdown and how there are other, better ways to deal with a pandemic.
As someone who stumbled across Recovery when trying to find ways to help end lockdown, I urge you to support the campaign. Please donate, share their message as widely as possible, and write to your Member of Parliament to get them to act now.
Let us be in no doubt about what the past year has seen. The Government has knowingly used fear to manipulate its people into behaving in a way it deems good for them. It is a policy suggested by advisers who seemed to have known what this could do to the brain, and who were also surely aware of the ethical questions such a policy raised. Assisted by a media that has been shaped into compliance, half-truths, exaggeration, and even lies have been deliberately employed to foster greater levels of obedience. This has had a deleterious impact on mental and physical health.
Of all of the tragedies of the past year, this has been the most avoidable. It asks questions not just of the ability of the state to deal with the pandemic in a measured, rational way, but also of the ethics of those responsible for it.
James Moreton Wakeley is a former parliamentary researcher with a PhD in History from Oxford.