Is HMRC Psychologically Manipulating Radio Listeners?

As football’s transfer deadline drew to a close on 31 January so too did the deadline for filing a UK income tax return online for HMRC. I was listening to Talksport for news of the main transfer stories. But then an advert came on that rather surprised me. HMRC were advertising their 31 January deadline and reminding people that they faced an automatic £100 fine for missing the deadline. But surely this was some mistake; the advert was being put out at precisely 12am on 1 February.

This puzzled me. I began to wonder what HMRC could possibly hope to gain by putting the advert out at exactly the moment that the deadline passed. Clearly it wasn’t aimed at encouraging people who’d forgotten about it to go and file straight away. The deadline had passed. It also couldn’t be aimed at people who had no intention of filing. They had already made their choice and couldn’t change it anyway at this point. So who on earth could they have been aiming this advert at?

As far as I can see the only people who the advert could have been for are those people who genuinely forgot or didn’t know about the deadline but, rather than it being aimed at getting them to file their return, it was instead aimed at giving them a shock. An individual would have heard the advert, rushed to the computer, and then had the gut wrenching experience of realising that the deadline had just passed and they’d lost £100. Now why might this be useful to HMRC?

HMRC could be using conditioning on those who forgot to file on time. Giving them a psychological jolt could punish the undesired behaviour, making them more likely to file their next return on time. Certainly this kind of ‘nudge’ is what the Behavioural Insights Team, (BIT) introduced by David Cameron in 2010 to find ways to psychologically manipulate the UK general public using behavioural finance techniques, and known to be instructing HMRC, was set up to achieve.


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