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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Book Review

Neurogovernment. And how it ‘works’.    

A discussion of: 

Mark Whitehead, Rhys Jones, Rachel Lilley, Jessica Pykett, and Rachel Howell. ‘Neuroliberalism. Behavioural Government in the Twenty-First Century.’ Routledge: London and New York.

By Joram Feitsma Utrecht School of Governance (USG).

 According to influential institutions as the OECD, World Bank, and the European Commision, governments are increasingly basing their policies on how humans really behave: more like Homer Simpson than as a homo economicus. Governments are increasingly framed explicitly as behaviour changers, armed with behavioural scientific insights and methods. This has materialized in the global rise of a Behavioural Insights community. The governments of today by now inhabit so-called ‘Behavioural Insights Teams’, ‘Nudge-experts’, and ‘Behavioural Influencers’. Together, these Behavioural Insights proponents campaign for an behaviourally-informed policy process that is guided by ‘what works’.

In their recently published work ‘Neuroliberalism: Behavioural Government in the Twenty-First Century’, Mark Whitehead and four fellow political geographers also look at ‘what works’ in the field of behavioural policymaking – albeit in a very different way. They investigate how the new Behavioural Insights movement has been able to ‘work’ in a politico-strategic sense. Various essential questions are explored. How can the current turn to a behavioural scientific government be explained? How does this manifest itself in actual policy practices throughout the globe? What does this mean for the relation between state, corporations, and citizens? I will mention three aspects that make this book a worthy read:

First, ‘Neuroliberalism’ puts the Behavioural Insights movement in historical perspective. Via two routes – a history of ideas and practices – it is made visible how branched off the roots of Behavioural Insights are and how deep they go. This contextualising exercise is a valuable addition to the normal ‘what works’ studies on the effects and practical application of behavioural policies. Specifically, Whitehead and colleagues investigate the complex relationship between Behavioural Insights and neoliberalism. They argue that Behavioural Insights emerged as a reaction against neoliberalism, whose homo economicus assumptions and the free-market-practices derived from those assumptions have led to new socio-economic problems such as financial debt, unhealthy lifestyles, and climate disruption. Behavioural Insights reacts to these challenges by approaching them from a more realistic perspective on human behaviour – the homo psychologicus. Also, it offers a reinterpretation of the role of the state, in which the state facilitates the rationally bounded citizen through subtle environmental redesign (‘choice architecture’). However, Behavioural Insights is also an affirmation of neoliberalism as it places confidence in the ability of the free-market-system to secure equity and freedom for citizens. Behavioural Insights may discover neoliberal ‘behavioural market failures’ caused by bounded rationality, it remains loyal to the market economy as it tries to re-rationalize consumers into behaving like homo economicus ‘again’. Moreover, Behavioural Insights reshapes neoliberalism by infusing it with a fundamentally new knowledge base: the neuro-disciplines (among which behavioural economics, social psychology, cognitive psychology, neurology) which have a shared interest for the cognitive decision-making processes of the individual. In light of these observations, Whitehead and colleagues describe today’s Behavioural Insights as neuroliberalism: ‘the use of behavioural, psychological and neurological insights to deliberately shape and govern human conduct within free societies’. With this, Behavioural Insights has not only been given its politico-historical place, it has been appropriated as the start of a whole new post-neoliberal doctrine. Despite the epic feel to this move, it can be called into question whether it does not make too much of this movement – at least in its current stage of development. The impact of Behavioural Insights – for instance in terms of the number of designated specialists or produced policies that explicitly apply these insights – still appears somewhat marginal in light of the bigger institutional picture.

Accordingly, the book makes a nuanced political-philosophical analysis of Behavioural Insights, which starts with the observation an inherent tension. On the one hand, Behavioural Insights has a liberal desire to guarantee freedom and autonomy of citizens. On the other hand, it has a performance-oriented desire to realize government ends – which may require the restriction of certain liberties.  This classic dilemma between simultaneously wanting to steer ánd let loose has been given a new dimension in the present times as it is shaped by new developments within the behavioural sciences, which have been exhaustively appropriated as evidence that humans are only autonomous to a limited extent and would therefore benefit from a correcting role of government. Whitehead and colleagues then go on to show how neuroliberalism has produced a legitimizing narrative in answer to this dilemma by subtly redefining liberal ideas about freedom, autonomy, and the state-citizen relationship. In this narrative, John Stuart Mill’s classic liberal harm principle is stretched so as to include self-harm, autonomy is increasingly being framed from an instrumental perspective, and increasing emphasis is put on the, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, positive liberties of citizens. This also means a subtle devaluation of negative liberties of citizens and their possibilities to act from within a state-free zone. The analysis ends with a refreshing perspective that looks at the impact of institutional context on Behavioural Insights. It explores how factors such as institutional trust, performance legitimacy, and a consensus culture shape how Behavioural Insights practices are legitimized and how they shape the kind of social contracts between the state and citizens.

The core relevance of ‘Neuroliberalism’ may lie in its ability to look at Behavioural Insights from a broader, boundary-stretching perspective. We can see this in its deeper historical scene-setting work but also in its wider outlook on Behavioural Insights initiatives across the globe. Furthermore, there is also attention for Behavioural Insights practices that have emerged in the corporate domain. According to Whitehead and colleagues, this ‘corporate neuroliberalism’ indicates that the reach of neuroliberalism stretches beyond neuro-government in a strict sense, and points to a larger trend of blurring boundaries between the state, companies, and citizens. And lastly, the book has a multidisciplinary outlook. Although Behavioural Insights in and of itself already implies a cross-fertilization between various neurosciences, ‘Neuroliberalism’ links this movement to yet again new disciplines. Particularly interesting is the chapter that looks how Behavioural Insights links with the design sciences. Here it becomes clear how Behavioural Insights, with its strong orientation on redesigning immediate space, has fused with certain insights and methods from the design sciences. At the same time, the Behavioural Insights approached can be challenged and reconstructed from a design perspective. Social practice theory, for instance, approaches behaviour change from a much wider (i.e. historical, socio-cultural, economical, and institutional) angle that requires more than merely making technical readjustments of nearby ‘choice architectures’. If anything, the boundary-stretching work of the book helps to show that Behavioural Insights is not ‘one’ but consists of a diverse, fragmented, and contrasting set of practices.

What good is this for the (aspiring) behaviour expert? ‘Neuroliberalism’ does certainly not make behaviour change easier. It does not try to categorize and simply the diversity of Behavioural Insights practices. It neither lists which practices ‘do it right’, nor does it make clear-cut recommendations of ‘what works’. It does however show how Behavioural Insights ‘works’ in a politico-strategic sense. It brings a deeper historical understanding and sketches out interesting (alternative) directions – such as ‘collaborative nudging’ – for the field. In a time in which ‘what works’ dominates in both policy research and policy practice, this book therefore provides a refreshing reflection.




Joram Feitsma (1990) studied Public Administration and Philosophy in Utrecht and St. Louis. He is based at the Utrecht School of Governance (USG), where he conducts ethnographic research on the rise of behaviour experts in Dutch government.


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