Responsibility and Communication Ethics in Times of ‘Crisis’
Dr Gary Sidley
Retired NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Throughout the Covid event the UK Government, in keeping with many other countries, drew on
behavioural-science interventions – often referred to as ‘nudges’ – to strengthen their publichealth communications, and thereby increase compliance with the pandemic restrictions and
subsequent vaccine roll-out. These psychological methods of persuasion often operate below
people’s conscious awareness, and frequently rely on inflating emotional discomfort to change
behaviour. In particular, the state’s often-covert deployment of fear inflation, guilt/shame and
peer pressure/scapegoating to strengthen the Covid communications strategy has evoked ethical
concerns. Focusing on the controversial ‘Look them in the eyes’ messaging campaign, this paper
presents a critical analysis that: (1) identifies the behavioural scientists, and other key actors,
responsible for the tone and content of the materials used in this campaign; (2) reveals the
rationales offered by the creators to justify the use of the emotionally disturbing advertisements;
and (3) confirms that the harrowing messages and videos were developed without any ethical
oversight. The implications of these finding for future state-funded public communications during
times of ‘crisis’ are discussed

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