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How Social Psychology Can Help UBI Proponents and Other Policy Advocates

Insights from a conversation between Stanford social psychologists and advocates of universal basic income (UBI).

By M. Amedeo Tumolillo, Alana Conner, Ph.D., and Sarah Lyons-Padilla, Ph.D.

When considering universal basic income (UBI), three overlapping questions emerged at a meeting of nonprofit professionals and Stanford social psychologists:

  • How can policymakers align UBI with American cultural values?
  • How can policymakers package UBI so that politicians, voters, and recipients will accept it?
  • And how should researchers measure UBI’s effects?

Below are some of the answers discussed at the Oct. 30 research clinic hosted by Stanford SPARQ: Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions.

Work and "We"

UBI — defined by many as regular, unconditional payments to all residents — is a complex and contentious policy. Advocates argue that UBI could help the growing number of people facing technology-related job loss, income inequality, and other social ills. Yet detractors worry that UBI will undermine people’s work ethic, drain scarce funding, or create another fissure of unfairness in communities.

Hanging over arguments for or against the policy are American notions of work and identity. Even as technology threatens the job security of more and more people, would giving them so-called "money for nothing" ever be acceptable?

SPARQ research clinic attendees weren't so sure. Mainstream American culture has long revered the Protestant work ethic, which holds that hard work is a sign of moral goodness. By the same token, lacking a job is a sign of moral decay. By reducing the need to work, UBI could grind against long-cherished American values.

"People [at the clinic] felt that the Protestant work ethic was not something worth beating back against," said Cara Rose DeFabio, special initiatives director with the Economic Security Project. "It’s kind of an immobile morality."

One way UBI advocates can work around the Protestant work ethic, several clinic attendees suggested, is to redefine the meaning of “work” to include child-rearing, community service, and other activities not currently recognized as formal labor.

In addition to expanding the definition of work, UBI advocates could also alter the cultural conversation about what it means to be part of America. Could people think of their country as a corporation in which they all had shares? And if that corporation succeeded financially, shouldn't residents get compensation for their contributions? Clinic attendees pointed to Alaska for ideas; its residents receive $1,000 to $2,000 a year through a fund that shares the earnings derived from the state's natural resources. Similarly, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians shares its casino’s profits with each of the tribe's roughly 15,000 members.

"You can see that if you think of basic income like your constitutional right or something more foundational, you might behave differently than if you perceive it as a government handout," said Alex Nawar, basic income research manager with Y Combinator Research.

Five Policy Lessons From Social Psychology

1. Tailor the policy’s purpose and messaging for different audiences. SPARQ graduate affiliate Catherine Thomas' initial work on framing UBI suggests directions.

2. Explore how past activist campaigns targeted and changed public attitudes and behaviors, such as those concerning HIV/AIDS in the United States.

3. Evaluate not only the policy's effects on big social problems, but also its near-term results and barriers to implementation. Check out SPARQ faculty affiliate Rob MacCoun's causal-chain analysis tool for more details.

4. Measure behavioral changes, when possible. Regarding UBI, for example, consider tracking how much time recipients spend at work or how much money they invest in their own professional training.

5. To create and share knowledge more efficiently, coordinate research efforts across policy design, messaging, and evaluation.

Convincing Communication

A related question about UBI was, how can policy advocates “sell” it to voters, recipients, and policymakers?

Different descriptions of UBI produce different reactions to the policy, SPARQ graduate affiliate Catherine Thomas finds in her study of small cash transfers in Kenya. Thomas’ research shows that Kenyans respond more positively to UBI when the money is presented as a way for them to help others in their community. Framing it as aid to meet basic needs or as money for achieving individual goals doesn't fare as well. Thomas hypothesizes that Americans would respond better to a description tied to personal enrichment, a value that aligns with American individualism and independence.

"Social psychologists are well-equipped to help people define messaging strategies," she said, "and ensure people get a sense of meaning when they get UBI."

If UBI becomes a national partisan issue too quickly, that could put a stop to wider public education around the policy.
— Jim Pugh, Co-founder and Co-director / Universal Income Project

Within the U.S., noted SPARQ faculty affiliate Hazel Rose Markus, UBI framers will likely need to account for social class differences in attitudes toward money.

"In a lot of low-income communities, if you have money, and it is known that you have money, you have to share," Markus said. "It's not okay to keep it just for yourself."

SPARQ faculty affiliate Lee Ross added: "You have to look at what [a message] means, how it's understood, how it's construed by both the people who provide the benefit and the people who receive the benefit. You can't just look at the economic effects."

A person’s political ideology can also influence which messages she finds acceptable and which she finds distasteful, Thomas finds in additional research. Give conservatives only the details of a UBI policy, and they'll oppose it. But add the goal of financial freedom to the messaging, and they'll support it. Liberals don't need the extra information — they cheer for UBI regardless of how it's framed.

Thomas’ work reflects that of SPARQ faculty affiliate Robb Willer on moral reframing — or putting your arguments in terms of the values of the person whose opinion you're trying to change. Willer finds that conservatives more readily support policies that emphasize tradition, group loyalty, and respect for authority, while liberals more readily support policies that emphasize care and equality.

Clinic attendees similarly called out using the word social in descriptions of UBI. The "s-word" may evoke fears of socialism and communism, especially among older adults who lived through the Cold War era, Markus and other participants said.

Measuring Success and Failure

Between starting a UBI program and seeing upticks in peace, prosperity, and wellbeing, a whole lot can go wrong. Potential participants may miss the information. Even if they receive researchers' handy guides, they might not understand them. If they need to go somewhere to pick up the money, they may have trouble getting a ride.

And so researchers tasked with evaluating the effects of UBI should tread carefully, suggested SPARQ faculty affiliate Rob MacCoun. Trying to measure grand social shifts without assessing the hundreds of tiny steps along the way could doom the policy's political chances by making it appear to fail.

While advocates of universal basic income share many points of view about the theories behind the policy, they become more conflicted about how to implement it. And what time frame would work best? Right now? Or 25 years from now?
— Ryan Johnson, Executive Director / State Policy Advisors, and co-sponsor of the SPARQ UBI clinic

"It's not that you can't include the big question,” said MacCoun, a social psychologist and experienced public policy analyst. “But if you make the study about the big question, you're leading with your chin. You're just asking to be knocked out."

Looking at each step along the causal chain from policy implementation to social effects gives researchers a chance to figure out where things went well and where they went awry. Even if "you get a null result on your most distal outcome measures, you can at least diagnose it," MacCoun said. And, citing Karl Weick, MacCoun pointed out that there's nothing wrong with more modest studies that achieve "small wins." Those approaches could make it harder for politicians to dismiss a potentially promising program before it has a chance to prove itself.

"But if you come in with an early failure," he said, "you may be out of the game."

Clinic participants from the Jain Family Institute are using this guidance — and MacCoun's simulation of a causal chain — to inform their pilot study proposal for the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. They also noted suggestions from SPARQ faculty affiliate Carol Dweck to look at whether UBI recipients spent money on their own education or training. Compared to opinion or attitude surveys, these behavioral measurements would more clearly indicate whether the UBI payments empowered people economically.

Other observations of people’s actions — "fingerprints in their behavior," MacCoun said — can give an idea of UBI's effects without the hazards of self-report surveys.

Given the low public opinion of the tech industry, [tech's] embrace of UBI could threaten the policy's wider adoption. People may see people like Mark Zuckerberg not as authentic do-gooders, but as cynical titans of the internet trying protect their profits and power with payouts.
— Cara Rose DeFabio, Special Initiatives Director / Economic Security Project

Markus echoed Dweck and MacCoun's endorsement of behavioral measures: "Maybe participants missed the bus, or forgot their lunch — that could introduce a lot of variation" in how they are experiencing UBI in the moment. An additional source of behavioral measures, she suggested, is administrative data, such as when people come into work, miss work, and take time off for health reasons.

Another possible measure of UBI’s effects is its impacts on broader communities, noted Ross.

"Feeling part of the community, and having the community signal to you that you're part of the community," he said, "is vital” to wellbeing.

Politicians, pundits, and proponents of UBI will be debating the policy over the next few years. Hillary Clinton already seriously considered including UBI in her 2016 presidential platform. Organizations that want to move UBI even closer to an everyday reality still have a long way to go, but social psychologists can help guide the way.