Trade union grant for psychology research into the effect of a basic income
Psychologists Fenna Poletiek and Erik de Kwaadsteniet have received a grant from the FNV trade union to research people’s attitude to work if they receive a basic income. How do they plan to find answers?
The idea of a basic income has been around for some time already, but The Netherlands Trade Union Convention (FNV) has been seriously considering it for the past four years (see below). The question now is what the behavioural effects of a basic income would be. Cognitive psychologist Fenna Poletiek and social psychologist Erik de Kwaadsteniet are going to find an answer.
Personal price for work
In more scientific terms, their research project is about the subjective value of paid work and the personal price we are willing to pay for this. How would our attitude, behaviour and willingness to take risks change if unemployment were no longer a waiting room for new work but a lifestyle instead? How would it be if paid work were to increase but not decrease our quality of life? To find out more, the researchers will compare two scenarios: the existing benefits system and a system in which unemployed people receive an unconditional income that will meet their basic needs. The researchers will be using experiments rather than questionnaires alone.
The standard method used in research into society’s attitudes towards an intervention consists of a questionnaire. In this research project, this would mean asking test participants what they would do if the benefits system were replaced by a basic income. A drawback to this method is that it gets the participants to think about their own behaviour, and if they give socially desirable answers or lack the ability to imagine the fictional situation, their answers could be skewed. De Kwaadsteniet and Poletiek will therefore conduct experiments instead: in a game situation, they will compare the conditions of the benefits system with those of a basic income system.
Catching test participants redhanded
The test participants will be able to choose whether to do challenging or simple tasks on a computer that will increase their pay and may lose them their benefits. Or they can choose to earn less and retain a basic income. Will the people become choosier about work? And if so, how? Will they be willing to do boring tasks in the basic income condition? And what if these tasks earn them a lot of extra money? For how much extra money would they be willing to do these tasks? The experiments will catch the test participants’ behaviour ‘redhanded’ because they won’t have the opportunity to reflect as they would with a questionnaire.
With this kind of simulation experiment, the question is whether the results are representative of behaviour outside the lab. Research, says Poletiek, has shown that our reactions to intrinsic and material forms of reward appear to be fairly fundamental and are thus good predictors of how we act in play and natural situations.
What does my work really mean?
Poletiek believes the research is apt for these times: ‘If there is a useful legacy of this crisis, it may well be the return to the real. Real contacts, real health, real pleasure,’ she says. ‘This trend was already apparent before the virus outbreak, but it was marginal, in countermovements such as veganism, minimalism, flight shame, anti-consumerism, open access and theory-driven and replication research. The research that we are going to do is about real work.’ By this Poletiek means paid work, but then work where we have the opportunity to decide whether or not we want to do this: because it is meaningful or enjoyable or because it increases our financial options, for instance.
‘Now,’ says Poletiek, ‘in the solitude of isolation and yet still working, we are also struck by this notion of what the real meaning is of what we do for our salary. The corona crisis will leave a damaged labour market in its wake. How will we deal with mass unemployment? Chivvy everyone back to work? Or will we do something completely different? A job or real work?’
With a basic income, the relationship between employee and employer would be more reciprocal, says Poletiek, ‘Job seekers would decide whether they wanted to work and what work they wanted to do. The political discussion about a basic income swings back and forth between, on the one hand, the fear that people will turn their backs on the job market and will no longer want to do meaningless or low-paid work, and, on the other hand, the recognition that the basic income will deliver us from unemployment as we know it, including the psychological pressure of having to apply for jobs and the social stigma of being unemployed.’
FNV: basic income would help improve division of work and incomeFour years ago, FNV was an assignment by its members at a general meeting: they asked it to explore the options of a basic income as an alternative to the present benefits system, says Thom Bijenhof, policy officer at FNV. The main reason was numerous examples of unpaid work, such as people on benefits having to clean outdoor areas in the Municipality of The Hague after the budget for this work has been scrapped. The FNV rose to the challenge and also came up with a definition of a basic income: it is an income that everyone receives, is given unconditionally, is without restrictions on how it is spent and is a fixed sum that must be enough to meet people’s basic needs. Experiments that have been conducted with a basic income, including the recent one in Finland, do not meet these criteria, says Bijenhof. In the experiment in Finland, the participants were people who were on benefits and the amount they received was not enough to meet their basic needs.
The research that the Institute of Psychology has now been commissioned to do is one of a number of studies commissioned by the FNV. It is also looking at how a basic income could be funded and how it would affect how people spend their time. Time is money, so what would people do with that time? Study or provide more care for those in need? ‘Our aim is to devise a feasible model that is ready to pitch – also to government,’ says Bijenhof. ‘This fits well within our general goal: a better division of work, income and wealth.’
Text: Corine Hendriks/Fenna Poletiek
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