Prizes for poker tournaments usually increase extremely steeply as the number of players left decreases. The difference in prize amounts between first and second place is usually equal to the amount for second prize itself.
Accordingly, it is definitely strategically very much to your advantage to aim at winning first place: one first place win can often "pay for" a number of finishes out of the money; indeed, in the largest multi-table tournaments, first place is often hundreds of times the size of the entry fee. One first place finish can pay for hundreds of subsequent entries.
To this end, playing "scared" and merely trying to finish in the money without regard to finishing first is not generally a financially sound strategy.