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Radio review: Under the Influence, and Moving Pictures

17 December 2021


The philosopher James Garvey examined behavioural science, in Under the Influence (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week)

The philosopher James Garvey examined behavioural science, in Under the Influence (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week)

BACK in the 1980s, it was “Don’t die of ignorance,” and the image of a gravestone crashing to the ground. This year, a wrinkled, panicked face stared out at us, and the headline read “Look him in the eyes and tell him the risk isn’t real.” According to the psychologist Professor Chris Bonell, public-health messaging has come a long way since the ’80s. I wonder if he could look us in the eyes and tell us that.

Under the Influence (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) examined the part played by behavioural science in the management of public policy. The style of messaging may not have changed as much as Professor Bonell might have us believe, but what certainly has is the number of academics working in an area that was once the preserve of advertising gurus and spin doctors.

They now form committees to advise politicians — the Behavioural Insights Team and Scientific Pandemic Insights Group (SPI-B) — and subscribe to “nudge theory”: the strategy articulated by Cass Sunstein. Nudge theory tells us that people are encouraged to change their behaviour if they see others do the same. Thus, if they believe that others pay their taxes when they should, and don’t hold cheese-and-wine quiz nights when they shouldn’t, they will do the same.

The presenter, James Garvey, has some skin in this game, as he is himself part of the behavioural-science business; so he should be congratulated on giving an even-handed account of the field. What he failed to interrogate, however, was what happens when nudge moves to push, and then on to shove. An SPI-B paper of March 2020, quoted here, says that “a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened,” and concludes that the correct thing to do is to scare them.

One of the effects is being played out in the recent revelations about Downing Street parties. The policy-makers no longer believe their own rhetoric, and, to adapt an Aristotelian coinage, regard themselves as the unnudged nudgers.

From cheese and wine at Westminster to another unpalatable feast: that of Herod, as depicted by Rubens. In Moving Pictures (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) — and with the online aid of a high-resolution, zoomable reproduction — we were given a tour of the image, brushstroke by brushstroke; observe that all-important dash of white above Herod’s eyeball; and the extended pinkie as Herodias prepares delicately to prod John the Baptist’s severed head with her fork.

I have always secretly admired that connoisseur who, at a gallery, will stride up to a great canvas and pick out one small area to scrutinise, before retreating with a knowing smile. Now, courtesy of our guide, Cathy Fitzgerald, a team of commentators, and Google’s technology, we can all be that connoisseur. We might then impress our friends by pointing out the dog at the foot of the table, looking up at the smell of blood; or the bread and wine, stained with the same red tint; or the pageboy who stares out of the image, shaming the viewer for taking such delight in such vanities.

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