You’ve researched exclusivity—how it explains both the marketing of luxury goods and the creation of exclusionary policies. How are those things related?

The basic premise behind both is that people like things that others want but can’t have—and by extension, knowing there are people worse off than you can make you feel good about your own status. Where this applies to anti-immigrant sentiment and nationalism is that some of the reason people with a low place in society support such policies is they think, “I know that there are immigrants who want to come to this country, but the fact that they can’t do it makes me kind of happy.” In our research, my coauthor, London School of Economics’s Kristóf Madarász, and I call this superiority seeking. For example, the people most opposed to minimum-wage hikes are those earning just above minimum wage.

In follow-up research, we have data showing that fairly recent immigrants are against allowing new immigrants, which is consistent with the idea that they’re happy that they’ve made it here, and part of why they’re happy is that there are people back home, and elsewhere, who want what they have and can’t get it. They want to keep it that way.

Isn’t it a huge leap from Prada handbags to immigration?

Our model can capture anything that’s excludable, as in: “I derive utility from being able to exclude somebody from something.” It doesn’t work for something like a local public park, to which, at least theoretically, everyone has access. But it works when you’re talking about Prada handbags—or about access to a country, or about many kinds of private goods.

How did you become interested in this?

I read The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer, a political scientist who looks at Scott Walker’s election as Wisconsin governor. Walker generated all this resentment against teachers and a broad swath of society, and the race was really about exclusion. Kristóf has been thinking about this issue a lot too, and we haven’t even scratched the surface.

What is next on the agenda?

Resentment (which comes from someone else having something I want and can’t have) has even larger implications. The sort of extreme and sometimes violent rhetoric and behavior we’re seeing in society may be driven by politicians and other influencers generating the idea for people that they used to have something, now somebody else has it, and what are they going to do about it? You see this framing come up time and time again in the speeches of nationalists and populists. And given the cultural landscape we are finding ourselves in, the tactic seems to be effective. As a social scientist, I think it’s important that we better understand the psychology behind resentment and social exclusion.

Alex Imas is Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics and Vasilou Faculty Scholar at Chicago Booth.

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