The new frontier? The making of the psychological domain in development policy

Nudging is the flavour of the moment in public policy, with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet recently announcing they will follow NSW and establish a new high-level behavioural economics team in PM&C. But what are the risks, ethically and otherwise, of a focus on the psyche? And what can we learn from the experiences of international development practitioners in how we nudge our citizens at home? Elise Klein explores these questions, and more, in this new post.

Development policy makers and practitioners are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their ability to target ‘development’ interventions. The psyche, the mind, the subjectivity, cognition, mentality or what I am calling the psychological domain, is fast becoming an explicit frontier of development intervention focus.

The focus on the psychological domain or ‘subjectivity’ of actors, could signal an intent of policy makers to broaden the understanding of people in development projects as fuller beings, moving beyond the binary categories of deprivation level, gender, ethnicity, income group and so on. However, this focus could also be used as a way to instrumentalise and influence agents towards specific development goals. A deeper thinking about the political nature of psychological interventions is thus needed.

In 2015, the World Bank will release their annual World Development Report, titled,“Mind and Society”. These reports fashion trends in development policy thinking. The World Bank has explicitly articulated that the report’s aim is to help development professionals and policy makers to “look more deeply inside the economic actor, at the individual’s mental processes”. Perhaps telling indeed.

But more telling is how the Report demonstrates the instrumentality of targeting the psychological domain, specifically where “new policy ideas based on a richer view of decision-making can yield high economic returns”. Thus the hope in gaining a richer understanding of cognition, subjection and decision-making processes relating to poverty alleviation is in relation to “productivity, finance, health, children and climate change”.

Targeting the psychological domain of those deprived has long been a project of colonialism and imperialism. The haunting writings of Algerian born psychiatrist Franz Fanon remind us of how the psyche of colonial subjects were targeted as a sure way of reducing people to subjects of oppression, “A Negro behaves differently with a white man and with another Negro. That this self-division is a direct result of colonialist subjugation is beyond question.” Given the hegemony of the growth paradigm in development policy, we have to wonder if the new focus on the psychological domain is the next site targeted for continued exploitation and domination?

Perhaps we see an implicit focus of the psychological domain already emerging in late capitalist societies? Here are three examples.

Firstly, the subjective wellbeing and happiness movement in social policy has enjoyed much attention of late. On one level, it is indeed quite an achievement for policy to move away from incentivising productivity and towards people being happy. The caution with the happiness focus however, is that by focusing just on happiness, we miss the objective reality of people’s circumstances. Sure some poor people are happy, but if we just focus on this, we miss the injustice of their poverty.

At a national or international policy level, happiness risks overlooking and undervaluing the need to change the objective reality of structural oppression and deprivation. Or worse still, the focus on happiness actually becomes a strategy of policy to overlook structural injustice and oppression.

Similarly, some have convincingly argued that the rise of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as a public policy in late capitalist societies represents an initiative to numb people to their oppression and anxiety in the face of neoliberal advancement. Instead of situating the rise of depression and anxiety within the context of neoliberalism and its corresponding precarity, , our governments opt for policies that appease, pushing calming drugs or CBT. To address the root cause would be too hard – it would mean changing the system. Changing our psychologies becomes the easy option.

Secondly and relating to the point above, the focus on building self-efficacy and the belief in oneself is also becoming a key focus of policy. Yet there is only a small step between ‘believe in yourself and you will make change in your life’, and the neoliberal premise that, ‘we all need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’. The social darwinism characteristic of neoliberal thinking sees the individual responsible for her own change, voiding processes of power and structure oppression irrelevant to our agency.

Finally, the psychological focus in policy can play a role in the manipulation of aspirations and decision-making. We see this in the use of incentives and disincentives to change social norms, which can sometimes have necessary outcomes. For example, shaping people’s decision making to avoid smoking through higher prices, or to use violent and confronting ads so people will stop speeding on the road. Yet, policy is also used to shape the aspirations of marginalised actors that resist capitalism’s status quo. We see this for example through the use of conditionalities on government payments to indigenous Australians. In the past these payments were used to supplement the livelihoods to indigenous people who chose to focus their livelihoods in the traditional sector (and resisted complete immersion into capitalist Australia). However neoliberal governments have found the diversity of economic systems in Australia threatening, and now use these very payments to coerce people to be more fully emerged into the capitalist economy. The conditions now put on these payments such as getting a ‘real job’ or to be in training for capitalist employment, give little option for those aspiring towards hybridity. Especially when such resistance is hounded out through shaming and vilifying those resisting as welfare scroungers.

So now that the World Bank has made explicit that the psychological domain is the new site of the development intervention, we must proceed with absolute caution. The psychological domain is extremely crucial to studies of agency, personhood and social norms. On this level, having policy engage with such research is an achievement. Yet the instrumentalisation of such powerful knowledge can be exploited. We are forever haunted by the writings of Fanon as a reminder of the damage that can be done when policy has uncritically focused on the psychology of people.

Elise Klein is a research fellow at the Center for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. She has her doctorate in International Development from the University of Oxford and is the Founder of a community development organisation in Mali.

Note: This article was originally published at Column F []