Zero Sum Thinking

One of the more enlightening ways to understand how humans come to rationalize specific beliefs about the world is by analyzing the phenomena of zero sum thinking. Simply put, zero sum thinking is when an individual thinks that a given situation is like a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

The name “zero-sum” comes from the fact that when you add the total gains of the participants with the total losses the result is always zero. One example of a zero sum game is the simple game of Odds and Evens. In this game, one player is assigned odds and the other evens. The two players then quickly and simultaneously thrust a fist toward each other extending their finger(s) indicating one or two. If the sum total is 2 (1+1) or 4 (2+2), evens wins. If the sum total is 3 (2 +1 or 1+2), odds wins. The game is straightforward with a clear winner and loser.

In contrast, a non zero-sum game like Prisoner’s dilemma permits both players the additional outcomes of winning or losing together. Unlike Odds and Evens, where you can only win 5 points or lose 5 points (arbitrary number), The Prisoners Dilemma has a spectrum of outcomes ranging from 0-3 years in prison for each person and potentially 4 years of prison collectively. I’ve created the following payoff matrices to highlight the differences between these two games:

The prisoner’s dilemma game (non zero-sum thinking) is often used as a model for many real world situations. Likewise, zero-sum thinking too can be applied to real world scenarios albeit in different contexts. Problems arise however when both types of thinking get applied to the same situation. This clash of thinking is in fact a clash of world views- each side thinking that their version of the ‘game’ is correct. Let’s take a look at some zero-sum thinking in the real world:

  1. Wealth Inequality – The rich get rich at the expense of the poor.
  2. Immigration – More resources for immigrants means less resources for non-immigrants.
  3. Relationships – Loving more than one person at a time means loving each person less.
  4. Skill Set – Having more skills means having less aptitude (Jack of all trades, master of none).
  5. Piracy – Every pirated download is a lost sale (See my Ethics of Piracy article).
  6. Cliques – Stronger membership in one group is weaker membership in another.

The problem with zero sum thinking is not that these ideas are outright false (indeed, there is some truth in these ideas), but rather it’s that these ideas aren’t necessarily true. The nature of zero sum thinking is viewing the game through the lens of strict competition, when in reality a winning path that benefits everybody is available. Whether we actually choose cooperation is another question entirely, but it’s important that we know cooperation is an option. Perhaps this isn’t the case for every scenario, but it’s true far more often then we’d like to imagine.

Zero-sum thinking is certainly a legacy of human evolution. In environments where resources like mates, status, and food were perpetually scarce, it’s unsurprising that our experiences could generate this kind of psychological adaption though fierce, but successful competition. As mentioned in my Understanding a Science of Morality article, this knowledge is crucial for helping understand human behavior and ultimately developing a better society.

Needless to say, our evolutionary roots and its influences still has many of us thinking reality is a simple game of winners and losers with no other options available. Nevertheless, as the world advances through the expansions of our technologies and wealth, the path of cooperation will reveal itself to be a light on a hill pointing us towards a bright future.


1 Comment

  1. Thank you. Well-put. Brought back a forgotten memory of one of my parents saying to my distraught little sister that love is not like a pie–there is always more to go around.

    But I think zero-sum is not inherently evolutionary. Cooperation in various forms is as common as competition, from colonies of bacteria up to insects on to many mammals. One biologist has put it (controversially) that while groups compete with each other, the individual organisms in those groups cooperate.

    Thanks again.


    Liked by 1 person

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