The Paradox of Last Place

We all (well, maybe not all) remember those dreaded gym classes when it was time for teams to be picked. If you weren’t an athlete (nope), popular (nope), or good-looking (nope), you were going to be among the last ones selected. And you were just hoping you would not be THE last one selected.

While most of us associate such a situation to our days of youth, recent research from psychologists at Yale, Columbia, and Harvard suggests this aversion to last place might continue to affect behavior throughout our lives. And the implications extend well beyond playground humiliation.

Their research notes that it is well-documented that when faced with the option to give money to those who have more or those who have less, people tend to give to those with less, which is good to hear.

However, despite this finding, scholars have long puzzled over the fact that low-income individuals frequently oppose redistributive policies that would be in their economic interest—raising the income tax in higher brackets, for instance.

The Ivy League researchers hypothesized that individuals exhibit a particular aversion to being in last place. Last-place aversion, as they call it, “suggests that low-income individuals might oppose redistribution because they fear it might differentially help a ‘last-place’ group to whom they can currently feel superior.”

They designed a couple of interesting experiments to test their hypothesis.

In one such experiment, participants are randomly assigned a dollar amount, with each player separated by a single dollar. (So a round with six players has the distribution: $1, $2, $3, $4, $5, and $6.) Participants are then shown the distribution and asked whether they would like to give $2 to the player in the position above or below. The outcome is predictable—people give to those with less—except that “the subject in second-to-last-place gives the money to the person above her between one-half and one-fourth of the time.” As their theory would suggest, the penultimate group wants to avoid slipping into last.

The researchers then conducted a survey of low-wage workers. Starting at the federal minimum, or “last-place,” wage ($7.25/hour), the survey divides participants into $1 incremental segments. Participants are then asked if they favor an increase in the minimum wage. In agreement with the results of past surveys, which have demonstrated majority support, roughly 80 percent of the survey participants advocate a higher wage. “The striking exception,” explain the authors, “is the relative lack of support among those making just above the current minimum (between $7.26 and $8.25).” Consistent with the lab results and last-place aversion, those nearest the bottom are least inclined to give to those at the bottom.

Such results could also help explain some consumer behaviors, such as the tendency to buy the second cheapest wine on the wine list, avoiding the last place wine.

It’s an interesting insight, but unfortunately, it doesn’t do anything to alleviate the embarrassment of being the last person picked in gym class 50 years ago.

It also reminds me of the saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” That may be true for most people, but if you are on the next to the lowest rung of something, comparing yourself to the person below you may be your only source of joy…

image from Living Above the Laundry Pile

43 thoughts on “The Paradox of Last Place

  1. This is very interesting, Jim, especially what you say about raising tax. I am not adverse to paying tax as a concept and I am in the top tax bracket. If the money is used correctly and appropriately, that is fine. There also needs to be a concept of fairness. People who are paying the taxes should also benefit form its usage. The UK has struck this balance well in my opinion. Everyone benefits from free schooling and free healthcare. If the tax money is mismanaged and misused and everything is in such a shoddy state that tax payers have to pay privately for everything, the paying of taxes starts to feel unfair and that is when you get problems including resentment and bad feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. you make some great points, Robbie. I don’t have a problem paying taxes and I hope that the tax dollars are being used wisely.

      I’ve become very socialist-like over the past few years, and so I have little problem with the extremely wealthy paying a significant amount in taxes.

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  2. Now that you mention it, except for airline tickets when there is a range of options I almost never buy the cheapest available even when that option meets my needs. I usually opt for something in the middle. Maybe I’m being manipulated by clever marketing. Regarding gym class, your classmates were not good judges of talent. As an accomplished juggler your eye-hand coordination makes you an excellent candidate for any team.

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    1. I am sure I am easy pickings for advertisers; I rarely go with the lowest priced item either.

      And as for my classmates ability to judge talent, most sports didn’t need a 98-pound weakling who could juggle… )

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a joke I know, but I have to comment about the 98-pound weakling. I think we sometimes let ourselves be defined by others. In high school I went out for the freshman basketball team. At the first meeting we filled out 3×5 cards with weight and height. I put down 100 lbs and 5′ 1.” I was “Trumping” up the stats by several pounds and a couple of inches. I was by far the smallest person there. It seemed so hopeless that I quit.

        Still I had above average eye-hand coordination and decent athletic ability although you wouldn’t think so by looking at me. I wish I could say I made a Jordan like recovery, but I lost interest in making the team. Interest and desire, I think, is more important than ability in athletics and academics.

        So that is a long-winded way of saying if your classmates had offered encouragement instead of making you feel inferior through last place aversion (if that’s what happened) I think they would have had a great teammate.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. thanks for sharing that story! I think it also helped Jordan that he had a growth spurt somewhere in there…

        And I agree about the importance of interest and desire…

        I may not have been very good at the typical gym class games, but I was a swimmer, and had some decent success with that sport all through college…

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  3. Interesting post! I have always been against the teampicking by students (instead of the teachers). I don’t think that it helps in anyway, that we can choose one instead of another. At least, not in team-dividing..

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  4. human nature is so interesting, I never fail to be amazed by an analysis of our habits and reasons. as for the teams, the one and only time my oldest daughter’s entire middle school softball year that her team won, was when she was absent.

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  5. Another great post, Jim! I have never really considered the thought process of why and how we pick things. This all sounds reasonable and believable when compared to our own experiences and insights. Again, you start my day by helping me learn something new. It is all down hill from here…😁

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  6. I was averse to make a comment here, as it appears I will be the last commentator. But hopefully someone else will come along with a comment. That would give me a little joy today.

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  7. I was a higher rate tax payer when I was still working but am now in the standard bracket, as a humble pensioner. I agree that the wealthiest should pay most tax but they usually spend enough on clever accountants to avoid that. My real problem is that, now I’m back down near last place, I really begrudge the way the government wastes so much of what they collect from us, even more than I did before!

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  8. I was never sporty at school..Believe or not I could be found in the science lab but was picked for quizzes never sport…That came later in life but little did those who didn’t pick me know I would be one to complete a marathon and they wouldn’t…I do get some sort of satisfaction from that…haha.. but do blame the sports mistress …she didn’t inspire me…

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      1. They certainly do, Jim but I suppose like any profession there are good and bad and I do think teachers are more interactive now with students than when I was at school although I did have some great teachers so maybe it comes down to individual personalities ….

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tandy. I think in some situations it’s ok to have kids pick their own teams, but I think in most situations it’s better for the teacher or coach to do so, in advance.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Fascinating discussion about human behavior. There is a certain stigma attached to being unsuccessful. Consider the NFL’s Buffalo Bills who are the only team to play in four consecutive Super Bowls. While this is quite an achievement, this is sometimes forgotten because they lost all four games.

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