Does fear drive economic progress?

What the philosophy of emotion contributes to the Universal Basic Income debate

When stockbroker Peter Hargreaves donated £3.2 million to the campaign, he explained his enthusiasm for Brexit as follows: “It would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had… We will get out there and we will become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.” Intel co-founder Andrew Grove similarly argued in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive, that fear is essential for our political economy to function, spurring the pace of productivity and progress.

Claims of this kind are often heard and used to argue against the introduction of a Universal Basic Income—the welfare reform initiative that would replace our current means-tested benefit systems (and their unwieldy administration) with an unconditional, automatic payment to each member of the political community. There is a diverse range of models of a UBI, some more plausible than others, but the general idea is still pretty straightforward, something like: from cradle to grave, each individual receives a monthly income from the state, regardless of any income earned by other means (with the exclusion of health and disability benefits).

Critics shudder at the thought of a UBI—it would be dire for our economic progress. The argument goes that if everyone knew their income was taken care of, they would not be sufficiently motivated to work hard, innovate, create, or contribute.

A UBI may offer freedom from precarity, but would that freedom help or hinder economic progress?

What’s interesting, though, is the language of fear is also used to argue in favour of a UBI. The argument here goes that that it’s precisely when people are afraid that productive well-being, creativity, and innovation wane.

Can either of these arguments deliver what its proponents want? A UBI may offer freedom from precarity, but would that freedom help or hinder economic progress?

To begin to answer this, we can look at the empirical and theoretical research we have on fear. The philosophy of emotion aims to articulate what emotions are, and what they can do. Some of the inconsistencies in the political rhetoric for and against a UBI can be cleared up by considering three things we know from the philosophy of emotion, and in particular the philosophy of fear.

Firstly, emotions can function as sources of information, and fear focusses our attention on the immediate context. Fear can tell us something about reality, in particular by capturing and sustaining our attention to what’s immediately relevant in our environment. The fact that fear directs our focus to such objects has clear prudential benefits from an evolutionary perspective.

When we’re talking about workplace fear though—fear of leaving a painful or exploitative job, fear of reporting harassment or other unsafe working conditions—what can be troubling is when this attention to the immediate threat can also blind us.

In relation to economic progress, fear prioritises short-term solutions over comprehensive and long-term solutions.

The philosophy of fear shows us that when people are afraid, they demonstrate a cognitive bias that favours narrow rather than broad attention and information-processing strategies: for example, judging images to be more similar when they exhibit more superficial connections rather than inclusive, associative connections. In relation to economic progress, fear prioritises short-term solutions over comprehensive and long-term solutions.

Secondly, fear limits creativity. More worrying for the “insecurity-is-fantastic” argument is the evidence we have about how creativity responds to fear.

When we’re afraid, we perform much worse in imaginative problem-solving and creativity in general. Participants experiencing positive or pleasant emotions are found to come up with, for example, a wider and more creative range of uses for everyday objects, and longer lists of associated words to neutral words than those experiencing painful emotions. What’s worse, when fear-inducing words or images are used in the experiment—spiders are a frequent example—these numbers drop even more.

We also know that different emotions are more (or less) useful for certain kinds of problem-solving. Happiness, for example, facilitates a problem-solving strategy useful in creative tasks in which one must think flexibly, intuitively, or expansively. Sadness seems to be better for problems being solved more slowly, with particular attention to detail, and through deliberate and more focussed strategies.

Fear and sadness are different, though: they are constituted by different beliefs, and take different objects as their targets. So, while fearsome situations attract and sustain attention to the source of a threat, that attention may also limit our abilities to be successful in creative problem-solving to mitigate it. If part of what we want from economic progress is The Next Big Thing, or innovative solutions to longstanding problems, we ought to be wary: fear casts a narrower net of ideas.

Thirdly, fear and risk-assessment don’t mix well. Research in the cognitive science of fear consistently demonstrates that fear makes negative, painful, or harmful outcomes appear more likely to occur than they actually are. Fear also tends to lead us to regard information about high-risk events as more reliable than information about low-risk events.

The thing is, we are already not very good at calculating odds, statistics, and probabilities (compared to other cognitive tasks, like using our imagination). When we’re afraid, we’re even worse.

It can be argued that not all risk-assessment is probabilistic in nature. Recent research in the epistemology of risk suggests scope for attending to possibilities as well as probabilities: options that might be statistically unlikely but easy to imagine (think of the dodgy road where you nearly always get hit by a car). But fear isn’t very helpful here either, to the extent that it limits creative thinking and therefore our ability to imagine possible-yet-unprecedented risks and outcomes.

So when we think about the prospect of a new technology, or when the fear of failure is high because the stakes (losing our job, not being about to pay rent, the stigma of unemployment) are also high, two things might happen: we might over-evaluate the probability of failure and not take the risk; or we might focus on the wrong thing, as our ability to think creatively about the possibilities has become restricted by fear.

Meaningful progress must allow for diverse possibilities, and fear constricts possibilities across the board.

Taking these three facets of the emotion into consideration, would freedom from the fear that comes with economic precarity help or hinder progress?

The philosophy of fear demonstrates that insecurity isn’t, actually, all that great for innovation. Meaningful progress must allow for diverse possibilities, and fear constricts possibilities across the board: from information-gathering, to imagining and generating new possibilities, to evaluating the risks of those possibilities.

The connection between security and innovation, whether being secure makes us more or less innovative, is mediated by emotions that allow for creative, “all-things-considered”, and long-term systems and solutions. This means we need to assess more carefully what it is we want from progress and who is able to contribute to it.

A key part of what a UBI offers is mitigation of everyday fears to do with the security of basic goods. This would allow each member of our society the freedom of thought to entertain and share a richer and more vibrant dialogue of ideas. And that would be fantastic.


If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

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Emily Holbert 20 December 2021

very interesting info! Thanks!

ida sanka 2 September 2021

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Jeff Thorsen 19 August 2021

The economy is influenced by many factors. I think that not only fear affects economic progress but also unemployment. I wrote an essay on this topic. After visiting the website link I found out how unemployment affects many areas of life. Therefore, economic progress depends on many factors.

Janet Locane 12 August 2021

It's very interesting! Thanks!