Cognitive Load and Basic Income
Economic insecurity is dragging us all down
Being poor really takes a toll on people. There’s the malnutrition, of course; and the fact that cheap stuff costs more in the long run; and the reduced access to education. On top of all that, there’s the toll it takes on mental resources. The cognitive load associated with scrabbling to make ends meet is colossal: people have to spend much of their time putting mental energy into ensuring they (and those they care for) have the basic essentials of survival. The more you have to worry about, the less headspace you have left over for actively making things better.
It is unsurprising, then, although not necessarily obvious, that people in poverty will perform worse on intelligence tests, and make worse decisions — which they are then blamed for. More unequal societies mean even more cognitive load, as more people find themselves wanting. Tests show that the ability to strategise and to weigh up options recovers quite quickly once people escape from the insecurity of acute poverty. The jury is still out on whether this works the other way round: it’s not clear that lack of ability is any bar to accumulating great wealth and power.
With this background, the conditionality built into many social security systems seems doubly unhelpful. Placing conditions on the support people receive makes it insecure; the more we fear that we might fall outside the conditions and lose the support, the less we can trust it. It doesn’t make our worries go away, so our mental resources keep getting siphoned off rather than being spent on things like improving our situations and the lives of those around us.
To take a few UK examples, systems like Job Seekers’ Allowance compound the insecurity by setting up a whole series of hoops for claimants to jump through, leaving them not just anxious about losing benefits, but also having to pile scarce resources into largely pointless tasks outside of their control. Working Tax Credits were an amazing achievement in terms of maximising cognitive demand while minimising the level of security provided: the application process is long, slow and bureaucratic, while the amount you’re going to get from it (if anything) appears almost totally impossible to predict. Universal Credit, the Tories’ successor to these and other benefits, manages to combine the worst aspects of several different systems at once, providing an exhausting system which provides almost no sense of security, and regularly leaves people in abject poverty through no fault of their own.
I like the phrase ‘social security’, because to me it suggest the idea that providing people with security is a good thing, both because it’s a basic human need and also because it’s better for society if everyone is secure. There is ample evidence for these propositions, but no existing social security system seems designed to maximise security. There are three main ways they could do that: prevent poverty; reduce inequality; and provide stability.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) seems uniquely well-suited to all three. An unconditional income sufficient to prevent poverty seems entirely feasible in many places, while conditional benefits always exclude people who really need help, and by withdrawing them as income increases, the poorest people often have the highest effective tax rates. UBI has the potential to reduce inequality directly through a steady transfer of wealth from richer people to poorer people, but even more importantly it increases the power of workers by ensuring they have the option to say no, and the resources to improve their position. Perhaps the starkest gain of all is in the stability that UBI provides: freed from having to fret about benefits, evidence suggests that people spend more time on learning, more time on caring, more time on volunteering. Anxiety and stress are hugely reduced.
People start to trust each other more. Partly, this is because people just have less to fear when they are more secure; it’s easier to take a chance on people if you don’t have so much to lose. Partly, it turns out that cognitive load directly causes people to trust each other less. Partly, conditionality on benefits is a manifestation of distrust, and people trust less when they are trusted less. There is a widespread assumption that lots of people will do nothing at all if they have that option, but research tends to suggest instead that most people like to be quite busy, and usually find constructive things to do if they get the chance.
Certainly in my own experience, almost everyone has things they could do with spending more time and energy on — from learning new skills and running businesses, to community projects and environmental action. Many people don’t have the time and resources to look after their mental and physical health. The ability to take a break, or at least dial back on existing commitments, is the ability to take stock, recharge and strategise. We all need that sometimes, and too often we can’t get it. Our economy is not set up to provide what people need in order to thrive, but to channel their energy towards the pursuit of profits. This is a choice we have collectively made — although we may have been too busy to notice we were making it.
It is not just poverty that saps cognitive abilities. Insecurity hits people who are already overloaded especially hard, including ethnic minorities and especially immigrants who have to deal with racism and other societal disadvantages; women, who disproportionately take on emotional labour and other tasks neglected by men; and disabled people, who often need to put in a lot more work just to get by, and whose ability to get things done is always hampered by the way society is set up. I have found that at least among the autistic community, many people have immense talents and drive that are wasted through cognitive overload and a lack of appropriate support. It is in the nature of society that burdens are shared — be it with family, community or people in caring professions — so insecurity makes more work for everyone.
If we are going mitigate climate change, and learn how to live with the waves of technology currently transforming society, we will need to free up a lot of people’s capacity just to stand a chance of doing all the work we need to get done. Engaging sensibly with democracy takes time; making environmentally responsible decisions takes energy. Right now, masses of people are held down by poverty, inequality and insecurity. Universal Basic Income might not be a panacea, but it looks to have the potential to unlock a tremendous store of human potential, at a time when we urgently need it.