Friday, October 14, 2011

THIS is What's the Matter With Kansas

Even Scientific American is paying attention to #OWS. In a recent article subtitled "The surprising psychology of the Occupy Wall Street protests", we read that the phenomenon the rest of us know as "crabs in a barrel" has been identified by Princeton researchers as the "last place aversion" paradox. In other words, if you're near the bottom, you don't want to see someone poorer than you get a break if it means they will catch up to you economically. They explain:
Our recent research suggests that, far from being surprised that many working-class individuals would oppose (income) redistribution, we might actually expect their opposition to rise during times of turmoil – despite the fact that redistribution appears to be in their economic interest. Our work suggests that people exhibit a fundamental loathing for being near or in last place – what we call “last place aversion.” This fear can lead people near the bottom of the income distribution to oppose redistribution because it might allow people at the very bottom to catch up with them or even leapfrog past them.
Bolding is mine. That's the key takeaway: that the sense of security and self-worth of the people close to the bottom is so fragile that having no one left to look down on is the ultimate insufferable indignity. This really isn't new news. It was always the chief motivater of poor Southern whites who persecuted blacks during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. Taken to its ultimate deadly conclusion, it distracts the downtrodden from their true enemies--those who keep them on an economic knife edge--and makes them accessories to campaigns of genocide.

The authors end with this:
We’ve also found evidence of last place aversion in laboratory experiments. In one, we created an artificial income distribution by endowing individuals with different sums of money and showing them their “rank”– with each rank separated by $1. We then gave them an additional $2, which they had to give to either the person directly below or directly above them in the distribution. In this income distribution, of course, giving $2 to the person below you means he will jump ahead of you in rank. In our experiments, most people still give to the person below them – after all, the alternative is to give $2 to a person who already has more money than you. People in second-to-last place, however, who would fall to last place when giving the money to the person below them, are the least likely to do so: so strong is their desire to avoid last place that they choose to give the money to a wealthier person (the person above them) nearly half the time. If Americans behave like people in our experiments, then it could be challenging to unite those in the bottom of the income distribution to support redistribution.
Again, the bolding is mine. It really brings into focus the habit amongst the American working class of giving passes to the wealthy while seeking to stick it to the poor, doesn't it?

You can read the study by the authors here.

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