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