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Avoiding Last Place: Some Things We Don't Outgrow

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People near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder often oppose policies that help those below them, according to a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The phenomenon is called "last-place aversion."

Ilyana Kuziemko, one of the authors of the paper and an economics professor at Princeton University, tells NPR's Laura Sullivan that last-place aversion is what it sounds like.

"It's the basic human need to avoid feeling like we ourselves are in last place," she says. "Or maybe, put a bit more negatively, it's our need to feel like there's at least one person we can feel superior to or look down on."

Kuziemko says it's similar to the childhood fear of being picked last in gym class. That feeling, she says, "probably doesn't go away just because we grow up."

She's had the idea in mind for a while. Kuziemko found last-place aversion throughout U.S. history, including during the era of Jim Crow laws. One study she found argues that Jim Crow was more important to poorer Southern whites than it was to the wealthier plantation class.

"The way I thought about it was, [these institutions] were really important for relatively poor whites so they could have permanently — and sort of officially — a group they could always look down on," Kuziemko says.

The National Bureau of Economic Research's study enlisted student and community volunteers. Each participant was given a unique amount of money that differed from the next person by $1. Then, everyone was given an additional $2. They were not allowed to keep the $2; they could only give it to the person just above them or the person just below them in wealth.

Kuziemko says in this scenario, most people gave to the person with less money, since they would not have gained or lost money either way.

The behavior was different, however, lower in the distribution. The second-to-last person gave his $2 to the richer person "almost half the time," she says. If he gave his $2 to the one person in the room with less money, he would also become the poorest person in the group — in last place.

The researchers believe this happened "because it's so painful to have that one person below you jump over you."

Outside the laboratory, Kuziemko says, last-place aversion shows through in opinions about minimum wage. The researchers found that most people making relatively low wages believe the minimum wage should be increased.

"But there was a real spike downward in support for increasing the minimum wage among people who were making just above it," she says. "There could be any number of things going on, but this is certainly consistent with their not wanting just the couple people below them who are still making the minimum wage to have the same wage that they do."

Kuziemko has seen the paper interpreted in different ways, including on what she called "right-leaning blogs," which say it shows a lack of support for redistribution of wealth.

"[But] I think that another way of looking at it might be recognizing that there is a lot of status anxiety, specifically for people who are sort of lower in the distribution and to be sensitive to that," she says, "and maybe not being so sensitive to that undercuts support for redistribution among people who rationally, we think, should be supporting it."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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