GCHQ's cyberspooks had Nudge Unit envy – leak

Get 'em to a TED Talk, trickcyclist urged. They need neurobabble

As 10 Downing Street was establishing a Behavioural Insights Team, or "Nudge" unit, based on pop psychology, so too were the spooks at GCHQ.

Clearly not wishing to be left out of the behavioural craze sweeping the chattering classes and the thinkfluencers in the ad world, spooks thought they should be brought up to speed on the latest fads.

So they hired a psychology professor to investigate, The Intercept reports.

A leak from 2011 titled Behavioural Science Support for JTRIG's Effects and Online HUMINT Operations wanted to know how social psychology had been applied to "advertising and marketing" and criminology.

The 120-strong JTRIG – or the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group – looked at cybercrime, serious crime, terrorism and support for military operations.

Its jobs included discrediting regimes including Iran and Zimbabwe, and domestic threats such as the EDL. Interestingly, it also saw its role as providing support to the UK's climate change negotiators.

Online work included creating "spoof online resources", such as Facebook groups and YouTube channels, fake personas or fake messages from real people in order to discredit them, and even fake websites. Classic honeypot stuff, in other words.

However, the team was also curious about the pop psych beloved of waffle shops like the RSA and Radio 4, and which has been the staple of many a TED talk.

"Knowledge of concepts such as branding, product placement, sales promotions, niche marketing, crowd sourcing, herd behaviour, market segmentation, public relations and viral advertising/marketing may be particularly relevant for JTRIG's effects and online HUMINT operations," the document muses.

The author of the study did throw in a caution:

One important caveat to the psychological work on the above topics is that it has for the most part been based on limited samples of the human population (white, middle-class, American, male, students).

This lack of representativeness means that the theories and research findings may not be generalisable to to other populations.

Or even generalisable to females – more than 50 per cent of the population.

The issue of small sample size would eventually be recognised as a problem in neuroscience – as we reported here, most fMRI studies were completely worthless, despite the dramatic and colourful pictures of "your brain on..." (whatever a Harvard undergrad's brain was on that day).

But we rarely saw that caveat at the height of the mania for neuroscience-inspired pop psych, when the media couldn't give us enough fMRI-derived pseudoscience. Even as our chatterati was heralding the behavioural woo as "new discoveries in psychology", they either didn't know that the "brain science" on which it is founded was being conducted on tiny (typically fewer than 20 participants) studies.

Or perhaps the results were so sympatico with existing beliefs and prejudices, they didn't want to know. Take your pick.

The author of the GCHQ report is at Middlesex Uni. Not surprisingly, the spook paper doesn't appear on her publications page.

A witty study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience earlier this year found that adding totally irrelevant data purportedly drawn from brain experiments makes a theory sound more plausible. It certainly mesmerised our intelligentsia for a few years. ®

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