Psychologists Help Better Understand Current UBI Debate

Interview with Joachim Hüffmeier, Professor in Industrial/Organizational Psychology

Soomi Lee

It should be no surprise that opinions toward UBI differ considerably. We each have our own assumptions about the proper relationship between money and work, and different things that motivate us to work. As such, psychology is a key element in UBI discourse.

It is rare to find an academic paper in the field of psychology that explicitly addresses UBI. I recently came across and read “The Basic Income: Initiating the Needed Discussion in Industrial, Work, and Organizational Psychology” by Joachim Hüffmeier and Hannes Zacher (2021), published in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. The paper is a “focal paper,” in which the authors create an avenue for discussion and debate among organizational psychology researchers on a specific topic. To my knowledge, it is one of the first papers to undertake a serious discussion among industrial and organizational psychologists.

I requested an interview with the corresponding author, Professor Joachim Hüffmeier at the Technical University of Dortmund, to hear his perspectives on where discussions stand in his field. We met online on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. 

Soomi Lee: I was very happy when I discovered your paper. It is surprisingly rare to find discussions on UBI from a psychology perspective.  

Joachim Hüffmeier: Yes. When we started the paper, there was no UBI discussion paper in the field of industrial and organizational psychology. It took quite some time for us to publish this paper, for about 15 months or so, and when our paper was accepted, there was another person who published a paper on psychological contracts and UBI. That’s the only other paper in psychology I’m aware of. In industrial and organizational psychology, I believe we were the first to do so. 

Soomi Lee: That is exciting. For people who are not familiar with your field, would you please give us what you study and how it relates to UBI?

Joachim Hüffmeier: Absolutely. A UBI has economic, social, and political aspects, but it’s very psychological because it touches many psychological questions that have been studied for decades. The first line of research asks people to imagine, if you won the lottery and wouldn’t be forced to work ever again for financial reasons, then what would you do? This type of study goes back to the 1950s. Second, psychology studies factors that motivate us to work beyond making money. This tradition goes back to the 1930s. In the third line of tradition, psychologists are concerned about how work is designed to foster productive work and to keep people healthy. 

If you take these three lines of inquiry, it is obvious that the introduction of a UBI would be a psychological question at the core of work and organizational psychology. So, I thought it is strange that very few have ever written about it.

Soomi Lee: Yes, I agree. The idea of a UBI as a public policy has been around at least since the 1960s when a lot of policy actions were taken in the U.S. Around that time, 1,200 economists signed a letter to Congress to introduce a guaranteed income. But the field of psychology has been quiet. Why do you think the field of psychology has not been actively engaged?

Joachim Hüffmeier: The main reason is our research methodology, mainly because we are into neat laboratory experiments in the field of work and organizational psychology. I think there was a perceived misfit between the topic and the methodology we normally apply to study or research questions. I think you can study it empirically from a psychology point of view.

Soomi Lee: What motivated you to write this paper? 

Joachim Hüffmeier: One of my lines of research is inward motivation. I’m studying what keeps people motivated to work such as sources and circumstances that people are motivated to do paid work. But I am not satisfied with the way organizational psychology exclusively looks at individual factors. I think it’s important to study factors at the macro level. Those are not genuinely psychological issues, but you can’t, from my point of view, ignore those factors. For instance, how does a trade union membership affect my health? Nobody in psychology is interested in this type of question, but I think you shouldn’t neglect those middle and macro-level factors because otherwise, you won’t understand what keeps people motivated and why.

During my sabbatical leave, I read Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy by Van Parijs and Vanderborght from front to end. The book is thorough and well researched with full references and sources. I thought, however, I could contribute to the UBI discussion because this book could use more psychological research.

Soomi Lee: You and your co-author have encouraged and stimulated your colleagues in organizational psychology to think about UBI. It is a great paper for them to start because you summarized major debates over UBI, why organizational psychology has been silent about the topic, and how it can advance the knowledge and fill the gap in the discussion. Would you provide us with a brief overview of your paper?

Joachim Hüffmeier: In the paper, we provide some basics necessary for our colleagues to push a UBI research agenda. We present as many facts as possible so that the debate can be evidence-based instead of emotional. Then we explain why psychology has been silent for so long. Then we delineate the advantages and disadvantages of introducing a UBI from a psychological perspective. Some of them have not been covered in the previous UBI debate, but we try to answer some of the major questions from a psychology perspective by differentiating arguments that have enough empirical evidence from speculations at this point.  

Soomi: What is your next step to push the discussion further in your field?

As a next step, we will conduct empirical studies to find out which attributes of UBI make it attractive and threatening. We will run experiments where we tweak the arguments for and against UBI and see which arguments have the most impact on people’s perceptions of the feasibility and the attractiveness of UBI. 

Quite often, you see ridiculous objections against UBI from a psychological point of view. For example, people say they would continue to work with a UBI, but nobody else would. Typically, people see themselves in a more positive light than the average person in their community or the population. There are many arguments like this, and I would like to probe central objections for and against UBI and how they have an impact on people’s minds in a debate. 

Soomi Lee: How have your colleagues in your field responded to the paper so far? 

Joachim Hüffmeier: I was astonished by the responses. The paper is published in a debate journal where you send a target manuscript, and your colleagues can submit peer-reviewed comments. Then this target paper is published together with those comments. We thought it was a form worth trying. I was stunned by the comments because commentators agreed on our assessments. They said the paper can be used as a springboard for further discussions and new ideas. 

Soomi Lee: What’s your position on UBI?

Joachim Hüffmeier: I’m extremely motivated by the idea of UBI. I would like to see it becoming a reality here. In the world around us, so many people are unhappy with what they do at work. Many people become sick because of what they do at work. Many people are constantly oppressed by what they do at work. We need to change when we work, the way we are organized, the way we go about our work. We should be looking for alternatives to give people choices, to give them freedom. It would be great to have a social security system where you don’t have to apply, for people don’t experience shame that triggers negative emotions. I would like to see people living happy, productive, and satisfied lives. And less suffering. 

Soomi Lee: Thank you for your time, Joachim. 

 

Full paper access:  Joachim Hüffmeier and Hannes Zacher. 2021. “The Basic Income: Initiating the Needed Discussion in Industrial, Work, and Organizational Psychology.” Industrial and Organizational Psychology 14(4): 531-562. 

To see their colleagues’ comments and responses to Hüffmeier and Zacher’s paper, see here. Joachim graciously agreed to share his contact information for any questions. His email address is joachim.hueffmeier@tu-dortmund.de.

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