independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Behavioural science mantra of ‘acting responsibly’ is failing and enabling corporate obstructionism.

In a recently published working paper: The i-frame and the s-frame: how focusing on the individual-level solutions has led behavioural public policy astray, co-authored by Nick Chater & George Loewenstein, both who had long subscribed to the influential line of thinking of behavioural science that many of society’s most pressing problems could be addressed cheaply and effectively at the level of individual, without modifying the system in which they operate, express a belief that this was a mistake. Their conclusion is not just based on the ‘disappointing’ results from such interventions, but more importantly, a belief that researchers advocating such individual-level solutions may have unwittingly helped promote the interests of corporations who oppose systemic change.

On the face of it, the musing of one or two academics, may not be earth shattering, until one reflects on the influence, and volume, Loewenstein’s work has had on public policy makers over the last two decades. For much of this period, Loewenstein, along with other renowned behavioural scientists, including Nobel Prize winner, Richard Thaler, and Cass Sunstein, who together wrote the seminal work ‘Nudge’, have led a movement that has encouraged governments to pursue individual-framed policy initiatives in preference to systemic policy developments. This approach has a foundation of theory that many societal problems can have relatively simple solutions, if only we can address individual-level human failings and foster greater personal responsibility.

Increasingly, in an expanding neo-liberal European landscape, the lure of individual fashioned interventions, rather than systemic change was, and is, very tempting for governments keen to retain popularity and avoid expending political capital on seemingly ‘unpopular’ public policy interventions. But, as the Chater/Loewenstein paper emphasises human progress has arisen through systemic changes, which have led to ‘spectacular improvements in the material dimensions of life’, and not through altering or nudging individual behaviour.

These battle lines are continuously drawn in the realm of public health alcohol policy, both nationally and internationally, as economic actors lobby governments to delay, or obstruct, evidence-based, systemic change. Consistently, the alcohol producers, and a plethora of surrogates, demand greater ‘personal responsibility’, better education, and frequently target human frailties as the principal source of alcohol misuse. By advancing such a ‘tempting’ narrative, government and policymakers are attracted by such ‘cheap, quick and politically uncontroversial’ initiatives, ever hopeful that small changes will make a big difference. But as Chater & Loewenstein outline, such approaches have been ‘disappointing, often yielding small or even null results’.

Much of this commercial playbook has been frequently deployed in Ireland, where for more than a decade, systemic changes to the alcohol market i.e., public controls on price, promotion and placement, have been obstructed by the alcohol industry and a variety of commercially reliant allies. Strands of government – permanent and political, and a range of public quangos are enthralled by the view that Ireland’s chronic alcohol related harms, which see four people die every day, is really something that could be resolved by an invisible prompt that encourages a certain desired behaviour in individuals. Better to shift the matrix of personal behaviour rather than pursue systemic actions that curbs the flow of market stimulation that sustains 2.9 million drinkers (20% who have an Alcohol Use Disorder: 578,000) and which recruits 50,000 children annually providing the alcohol industry with a  ‘lifetime of income from responsible drinking’.

This level of deliberate obfuscation to draw support away from the systemic changes required continues today. It has prevented major public policy measures, democratically enacted within the Public Health Alcohol Act, and evidenced by WHO policy actions, from being commenced. Public officeholders, captured by the signature ‘nudge’ concept of Sunstein and Thaler, now believe it is better that citizens are denied information on the risk of alcohol use rather than curb a profitable industry that stimulates such harm, who provide modest information on product and in advertising; better to stick with anodyne notice of ‘Drinkaware’ (an industry funded portal) and ‘Drink responsibly’.

This pattern is not unique to public health alcohol policy and is also evident in the public health challenges of obesity, tobacco and broader climate change issues, where, as Chater & Loewenstein believe, ‘the behaviour sciences are put in the proverbial driver’s seat’ framing the narrative in a particular manner and rooting solutions principally within individual action.  And while behaviour science and individual-level insights may have a role to informing public policy, it must not, whether deliberately or inadvertently, stifle the promotion of effective public policy interventions to address chronic issues that can be solved but which persist in society. As Chater and Loewenstein conclude: “we have been unwittingly accomplices to forces opposed to helping create a better society”.

 

Eunan McKinney, Head of Communications & Advocacy