Human materialism as support for universal basic income
by David Atkins
More evidence that human beings are at heart fiercely competitive and more than a little greedy:
All work and no play may just be a result of "mindless accumulation".On one hand, this fact of human nature is part of the reason communism fails. No matter how much we have, we tend to always want more, even if it's more than we need or can even use. And we usually want to have more than our neighbor.
So say scholars behind research, published in the journal Psychological Science in June, that shows a deeply rooted instinct to earn more than can possibly be consumed, even when this imbalance makes us unhappy.
Given how many people struggle to make ends meet, this may seem a frivolous problem. Nonetheless, the researchers note that productivity rates have risen, which theoretically lets many people be just as comfortable as previous generations while working less. Yet they choose not to.
To explore the powerful lure of material accumulation, the researchers constructed an experiment in two phases. In the first phase, subjects sat for five minutes in front of a computer wearing a headset, and had the choice of listening to pleasant music or to obnoxious-sounding white noise.
They were told they could earn pieces of chocolate when they listened to the white noise a certain number of times. Some participants had to listen fewer times to get each piece of chocolate, making them "high earners"; some had to listen more times, making them "low earners".
All were told that there would be a second phase to the experiment, also lasting five minutes, in which they could eat the chocolate they earned. But they were told they would forfeit any chocolate they couldn't consume, and they were asked how much they expected to be able to eat.
On average, people in the high-earner group predicted that they could consume 3.75 chocolates.
But when it came time to "earn" chocolates, they accumulated well beyond their estimate. On average, they listened to enough white noise to earn 10.74 chocolates. Then they actually ate less than half of that amount.
In other words, they subjected themselves to harsh noise to earn more than they could consume, or predicted they could consume.
"We introduce the concept of 'mindless accumulation'," said one of the paper's authors, Christopher Hsee, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "It's a waste of effort," he added, "But once people are in action, they can't stop."
But the flip side of that conservative capitalist coin is that if people are provided a universal basic income, they're still going to want to do sometimes unpleasant work in order to accumulate more than their neighbor. It also puts a dent in the myth that government largesse creates dependency. Fundamentally, people want to have more things even if it means pointless work.
We're materialistic creatures with a decent work ethic. We don't need to be made miserable by conservative economics in order to reinforce that.