Zero Sum Thinking

One of the more enlightening ways to think about how humans rationalize their beliefs is through the lens of zero sum thinking. Zero sum thinking is when an individual thinks that a given real world 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 are incomplete. The nature of zero sum thinking is viewing the game through the lens of strict competition despite an alternative path available that can benefit all participants. Whether it’s actually possibly for all participants to choose this path is another question entirely, but it’s important that we know that this is an option. Perhaps there are some things in this world that are doomed to be zero sum, but I believe it’s far less true then we often 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. 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 the path of cooperation will be the only reliable way forward.

One thought on “Zero Sum Thinking

  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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