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  • Author or Editor: Elliott Johnson x
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This paper represents a collaboration between a policy researcher and a behavioural scientist who studies cooperation. Our goal was to develop a shared understanding of one particular policy topic, the reforms to the UK system of disability benefits initiated during the last term of the New Labour Government and accelerated under the Conservative-led administrations since 2010. These reforms introduced much stronger focus on conditionality and assessment, aiming to reduce the cost of the benefit by identifying and removing ‘cheaters’ or ‘undeserving’ recipients from the system. The reforms have failed by even their own stated goals. Here, we seek to understand why they seemed appealing and intuitively likely to succeed. We argue that humans are vigilant cooperators, sensitive to cues of need in others, but also highly susceptible to the idea that others are cheating. This vigilance is particularly marked where they lack a reassuring stream of direct personal evidence to the contrary. The vigilance of human cooperative psychology makes ideas of greater conditionality and punishment easy for politicians to conceive of and sell. However, set against this, there are principles that can be used and successfully appealed to in advocating greater generosity in welfare systems. These include the fundamental social similarity of recipients and non-recipients, and the idea that resources are not generated individually but represent the common windfall of a whole group.

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In the context of the UK Government’s ‘prevention agenda’, Laura Webber and colleagues have called for a ‘health in all policies’ approach. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a system of cash transfers to citizens. Recent research suggests it could significantly benefit population health, including via reducing stress. However, a Finnish trial of a policy with similarities to UBI has influenced debate. This was reported as a failure due to a policy objective of reducing unemployment, despite demonstrating significant benefits to well-being.

Aims and objectives:

In this piece, we seek to advance the debate about the cost-benefit of UBI by identifying knowledge gaps and proposing a means of designing effective trials.


We review UBI trial design and findings in comparison with social gradient in health literature and biopsychosocial theory to identify knowledge gaps.


We highlight a need to refocus UBI trials on improved health, including via reduced stress, to provide policy makers the means of producing accurate cost-benefit analysis. Previous trials have either not reflected likely UBI policy or failed to measure impacts that enable accurate analysis. We contend that interdisciplinary work is required to establish trials that observe factors known to drive the social health gradient. Finally, we argue that statistical modelling is needed to extrapolate shorter-term findings to long-term population-level outcomes.

Discussion and conclusions:

Resource allocation by Government and/or major funders is required to produce evidence that enables accurate analysis of UBI. Such trials would provide a platform for interdisciplinary work resulting in joined-up evidence and policy.

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