When The Chips Are Down: It’s All About #1

I’m just going to quote this whole MR post:


Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available.  Other surveys have shown similar results.

…the change is not driven by wealthy white Republicans reacting against President Obama’s agenda: the drop is if anything slightly larger among minorities, and Americans who self-identify as having below average income show the same decrease in support for redistribution as wealthier Americans.

Here is more.  The researchers, Ilyana Kuziemko and Michael I. Norton, attribute this to “last place aversion,” namely the desire to always have someone below you in the income pecking order:

Which group was the most opposed [to an increase in the minimum wage]? Those making just above the minimum wage, between $7.26 and $8.25.

For the pointer I thank The Browser.


Here’s my comment on MR:

Maybe people automatically think that “the poor” is an unemployed person (ie somebody else, most people have jobs). When times are good, you probably don’t mind risking a tax increase for the sake of supporting a cause that signals your magnanimity.

When the ship is sinking, though, @#$@ the women and children, I need to watch out for #1.

My theory of political discourse is that people affiliate with causes when they perceive it to be relatively costless for them to do so. You can yammer on about the poor all you like; actually, you can yammer on about ANYTHING you like, but as soon as shit gets real, the decision-making process changes rapidly.

Talk is cheap: this is why prediction markets are the best way of figuring out what people really think.


Following a comment exchange below, please be sure to take the title to be a bit of artistic license (ie not, strictly speaking, true).

3 thoughts on “When The Chips Are Down: It’s All About #1

  1. I 100% agree with your thing on decision making being different in reality from how people SAY they will make decisions – but it’s an odd point to draw given that this post is about a poll. A poll is definitely still just “talk” – so not sure it’s making the point you’re making.

    I think people are too complicated to sum it up as “they affiliate where they perceive it to be relatively costless to themselves.” Often when the chips are REALLY down (e.g., post Earthquake in Japan, Nazis invade Poland etc.) people undertake things that have tremendous personal cost to themselves in order to contribute to the greater good. There’s a great article on this that I can’t find … but suffice it to say that the theory of “look out for #1” is not something that actually predicts behavior in our most stressful situations.

  2. Agreed that my point breaks down with mortal threats or physical disasters. Likewise, I’d say that if the lower income person is a friend of family member, the propensity to sacrifice for that person’s benefit is unchanged. In fact, the worse the situation, the more like you are to band together. Common struggle brings out the best in people, in the communitarian sense.

    My intent is to put my finger on a completely different mental model of social assistance from those two cases. I think that most people are more happy to support such assistance when they perceive the personal (financial) risk to be low or non-existent. I say that the perceived cost is what changes in a recession, assuming the survey results are valid which, as you point out, isn’t guaranteed.

  3. I think to say that we undertake things that have a great personal cost for the greater good is an oversimplification. If you look at child psychology for instance. Young boys and girls are placed in a room with a screaming child. The vast majority of young boys seek an exit form the room, and become upset. Young girls on the other hand, caress and try to settle the child. It isn’t that the young boys didn’t care , the opposite is actually true. They were unable to cope with the intensity of emotion and had to remove themselves from the situation.

    This analogy is not to state an argument of gender. Simply that, some ‘people undertake things that have tremendous personal cost to themselves in order to contribute to the greater good’ simply because this is how they react to a screaming baby. Their actions make them feel better, not the baby.

    The outcome of these conditions, usually comes down to pragmatic decision making of one’s own inner child. It seems that historically the tragedies mentioned above have come to be such events because of the INACTION of most of the world. Too horrified to face what is happening, we’d much rather leave the room

    I have had the distinct pleasure in seeing both of these coping styles in some very tragic situations, and can comment that when the situation is grim and the struggle unimaginable, the collective more often than not falls apart and its members disband. Often leaving one or two people to face disaster.


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