Finally, a behavioral study that explains the eternal conundrum posed by the Republican Party: why do people vote against their own economic self-interest?
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.”
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.”
I find this fascinating. Status anxiety seems to describe most conservatives I know really, really well. They’re always calling out liberals for being “elitists” and “limousine liberals” who are “out of touch with real America” and all that. Seems like status anxiety is what’s behind conservative ressentiment, the desperate conservative need for cultural relevance and, as Julian Sanchez wrote,
…this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.
This explains why class warfare and identity politics are such compelling arguments, especially as income disparity increases.
Or, you know, maybe the folks on the next-to-last rung of the economic ladder are just really opposed to redistribution of wealth on principle — even at their own expense.
An example of how last-place aversion worked its way into our social fabric was the Jim Crow South:
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.
Fascinating, especially when one remembers that minorities, Muslim and immigrants remain important punching bags for the conservative base today. It seems the Republican Party wants nothing more than to create a permanent underclass.
It seems that at its core, the debate is between those who place a premium on the community versus those who value the individual. Back when I studied evolutionary biology, so long ago that we dissected a Stegosaurus in class, we learned that contrary to popular belief, humans are not the only species to exhibit altruistic behavior. The example used was adopting orphans: humans do it all the time, but from an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t make sense. Evolution is the competition to pass on an individual’s genetic material; by using your own energy and resources to raise to sexual maturity someone else’s offspring, you’re ensuring the survival of genes that are not yours. From an evolutionary perspective, that orphan should be put out on an ice floe.
Of course, we don’t do that, but neither do many species of animals. It’s not unusual for females to care for orphaned or abandoned offspring they’re not related to. Evolutionary behaviorists theorize this ensures the survival of the species as a whole, not just the individual.
Altruism strengthens the entire species, but of course so does individualism — a successful species needs both. The challenge is to find that balance between the two, which I guess is what our politics is supposed to be about. Doesn’t seem to be working right now though, does it?
Last-place aversion is an interesting idea, though, and it certainly explains why so many Teanuts are happy to give tax cuts to millionaires and corporations but don’t want to extend unemployment benefits to their neighbors.