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Psychologists call for research into Universal Basic Income

Society member Sophie Ellis reports from the launch of a paper by Psychologists for Social Change.

09 May 2017

Universal Basic Income (or UBI) is described as ‘a regular, non-means tested guaranteed income delivered to every citizen of, and beyond, working age’. At a time of increasing political divide over economic strategy and evidence that austerity policies have had an adverse effect on people’s mental wellbeing, Dr Vanessa Griffin launched a new briefing paper by saying there had never been a more important time for psychologists to contribute to finding meaningful solutions that acknowledge the importance of psychological, as well as fiscal, health.

The group started in 2014, when members of the London Community Psychology Network came together to address growing concerns about austerity policies. This lead to a number of meetings in London, and a workshop at the British Psychological Society Community Psychology Section Festival.

In a previous paper the group (then named Psychologists Against Austerity) argued that there were five markers of a psychologically healthy society: agency, security, connection, meaning, and trust. The new launch presented evidence drawn from studies of people’s employment and unemployment experiences, which suggested the introduction of UBI would increase wellbeing in all five areas. The suggested positive impacts of UBI included a reduction in stress through increased control over employment choices, improved mental health arising from a less punitive approach to employment difficulties, increased economic freedom for women, more time to invest in personal relationships, better performance at work achieved through less attentional preoccupation with scarcity, and greater community cohesion through increased time to invest in civic participation.

The paper also explores the potential negative effects of a UBI policy. The wellbeing of those without full citizenship may suffer if they were excluded from the policy, which could be more likely given research on ingroup/outgroup tensions. The gender effect may be opposite to what is expected if women retreat into the home, which could negatively affect psychological health. The reduction of the link between employment and identity may trigger short-term adjustment issues in some. Finally, prevailing cultural values such as materialism may have unforeseen effects on how people make use of UBI.

The briefing acknowledged that UBI needs multi-disciplinary consideration, as there would be considerable economic, social and political impacts as well as psychological. The issue of how UBI would be paid for was addressed, and the mainly positive economic impact of trials in Canada, India and Kenya were also discussed; trials are due to start shortly in Scotland and Finland. However, the paper was clear about the need for psychologists to offer their unique contribution as part of multi-disciplinary research collaborations, for example, with economists.

The paper is clearly set against a backdrop of the rise of approaches such as community psychology and positive psychology, which centre on understanding the psychological processes which promote happiness and wellbeing. These are complex, often debated constructs, but nevertheless there is a tangible commitment from psychologists to actively improve human existence, as well as combating distress.

So how can our diverse and talented membership contribute? Political opinions on UBI will certainly differ, perhaps even be polarised. However, what unites us is a common commitment to methodological rigour and evidence-based decision making. The main outcome from the launch was agreement that further trials of UBI need to incorporate psychological research. Suggestions were many and varied, from understanding the psychological impact on specific groups (e.g. elderly vs young), to changing patterns of social relating, to the responses of employers. Dr Griffin specifically encouraged any postgraduate students/researchers to consider a research strand that could usefully explore an aspect of psychological impacts of UBI.

What is clear is that whether individuals favour UBI or not, our discipline has a unique opportunity to use our expertise to contribute to a happier society and call for policymakers to make informed use of the outcomes. For me, a secondary implicit message from the launch is that every individual member of the Society can contribute something to this goal, whether research, discussion, reflection or lobbying. This can be at team, institutional, local or national levels. As a discipline, we are both smaller and bigger than we imagine.    


If you would like to read more about the UK campaign for UBI see

Read the full briefing paper here:

If you would like to contact Psychologists for Social Change see their Facebook and Twitter accounts or visit the website

Dr Griffin welcomes any feedback on the paper, on: [email protected]