The psychology of decent wages

| Written by Andre DP Encarnacion

An evening transaction at Bheng's Sari-Sari Store, Barangay Pansol, Quezon City. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)
An evening transaction at Bheng’s Sari-Sari Store, Barangay Pansol, Quezon City. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


What does it mean to be able to live a “decent life”? Is it getting paid a certain salary? Does money even sufficiently capture its meaning?

These are just some of the questions that have continually run through the mind of Jose Antonio “Ton” Clemente recently. Since his PhD training at the University of Macau, Clemente has become a firm believer that psychologists like him could play a role in solving issues like social inequality in the country. And as a freshly minted PhD in 2017, he decided that he would focus his energies on seeing if he could work towards realizing that possibility.

But can Social Psychology, as he believes, really offer something positive to the social justice conversation beyond what tried-and-tested factors like wages and prices provide?

This 2018, with help from his friends, Clemente seems to be zeroing in on his answer. As the only UP-based author in a soon-to-be-released study, he and his colleagues have found that the freedom people have to pursue goals that they value, given a certain income level, can have significant effects on their overall well-being. Experts like Clemente call these beliefs “perceived capabilities,” and they could soon redefine how we understand concepts like ‘fair pay’ in our country in the years to come.


A dismal topic

With its ungarnished view of the human factors underlying social inequality, even Clemente admits that the Social Psychology of Social Class was one topic even he hesitated to tackle.

“I was very much a showbiz person,” admits Clemente, who was better known for his work on values and interpersonal relationships. “Early on, I was not very comfortable with topics that were sad or bleak, because these topics make you have to face reality.”


Dr. Jose Antonio Clemente in the office. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)
Dr. Jose Antonio Clemente in the office. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


Apprenticing abroad under Prof. Allan Bernardo for his PhD, however, Clemente felt he could hide no longer. Being part of a laboratory that dealt with the psychology of social inequality eventually opened him up to new ideas and new goals. After exposure to critical texts in the field as well as to the plight of Filipino migrants in Macau, Clemente ultimately decided to bring this relevant approach back home. “I just got older, and it was time to face more difficult conversations.”

And it was back home where Clemente got introduced to his current approach and his present co-authors. At the 2017 summer school of the Asian Association for Social Psychology, Clemente joined Ateneo’s Mendiola Teng-Calleja and Ma. Ligaya Menguito to study under the humanitarian work psychologist, Stuart Carr, and find how “capabilities” could be used to understand social phenomena like wages. But what exactly are capabilities?

Clemente describes capabilities as the freedom of individuals to pursue goals that they value. These goals can be tangible or intangible (e.g. a nice house, good social relationships). Thus, pursuing them involves a balance of personal agency and freedom from social constraints.

As psychologists, the trio naturally studied a person’s subjective perception of his/her capabilities and how these might predict performance, depending on monthly income. “We argue that this emphasizes the value of interpretations,” Clemente says. “The government can define the poverty line or the middle class at a certain income level. But as an individual, you still have your own perspective on it—maybe I don’t personally feel that poor or wealthy despite my category. And that’s the subjective element we want to put forward, that the way a person sees these material things is crucial in predicting outcomes.”


Magandang Buhay

To determine what Filipinos actually value in life, Clemente and his group utilized dimensions from a study in 2000 by UP psychologist Lynna Marie SyCip and her colleagues that directly asked people that question. Using a combination of focus groups and a nationwide survey, SyCip identified 11 indicators of magandang buhay or “the good life” according to Filipinos. These ranged from physical health to being able to practice one’s religion and spiritual life.


Eleven domains of magandang-buhay: 'The eleven domains of Magandang Buhay. (Infographic by Peter Vallejos, UP MPRO)
Eleven domains of magandang-buhay: ‘The eleven domains of Magandang Buhay. (Infographic by Peter Drapeza, UP MPRO)


Clemente’s group used these indicators to find the discrepancy between what people valued and their perceived attainability. They asked 500 middle- and lower-income Filipinos to rate the importance of each “good life’”indicator; then they subtracted from these scores separate ratings of how achievable participants thought these domains were, given their present incomes. These resulting differences resulted in what they called “capability gaps.”

For this study, the group wanted to see if capability gaps could predict so-called organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs), or prosocial actions at work that go beyond contracted tasks. These behaviors, they thought, could be viewed as both wellness and job performance indicators. And as the group predicted, the less monthly income participants received and the greater the gap was between what they found important and their ability to pursue them, the less prosocial behaviors they tended to display at work.

What did surprise Clemente, however, were other findings that made less intuitive sense. While middle- income Filipinos performed more OCBs in general than their lower income counterparts, the group found stranger results in the domains of: a) housing, b) social relationships, and c) religion.

Specifically, when the housing gap grew large (i.e. people were less confident of attaining good housing when they rated it as important), the group found that lower-income participants began to perform significantly less OCBs than middle income participants.
Curiously, this trend reversed in the domains of social relationships and religion. For the latter two, when capability gaps grew larger, the more prosocial acts were performed by lower income participants compared to middle income ones.

While even Clemente thinks his explanations of these are tentative, he goes out on a limb nonetheless: “I think this emphasizes the importance of housing, and how some people might really be struggling to get a house of their own or to pay rent. Also, if social relationships or religion are important to me and I can’t achieve them, I devote extra effort in the workplace. Because that’s where the gaps created in my relationships due to my income are filled. That’s where I will nurture relationships,” he continues. These, he says, run counter to the more middle-class tendency to keep professional and personal domains relatively distinct.



Having modeled how Psychology can leave its mark on the wage discussion, he and the group, together with graduate student Donald Jay Bertulfo, are preparing to release a paper in 2019 which utilizes capabilities and the magandang buhay framework to calculate a living wage that, at P885 per day, independently approximates the figures pegged by the IBON Foundation and other concerned groups.


A busy day for a street sweeper in Katipunan, Quezon City. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)
A busy day for a street sweeper in Katipunan, Quezon City. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)


“It’s an economic concept,” Clemente says of the living wage, “But we are also arguing that it is important psychologically.” While other approaches primarily center on one’s ability to afford enough food for subsistence, he believes Social Psychology can help shift the discussion from merely eating and surviving to leading a decent life, which is the essence of a living wage.

“It is not just about buying food. Because what if food is not as important as religion, or knowledge, or social relationships? What we are saying is that it is an accumulation,” he argues.

Is the group asking too much? Clemente certainly doesn’t think so. “The amount isn’t a lot, but people would feel that they are living a decent life. And isn’t that an achievement? They’re not just surviving but thriving.”