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.

The Division of Labor: Wealth and Ignorance

One of the main characteristics of a capitalist economy is the division of labor. The division of labor allows for greater efficiency in production by compartmentalizing tasks and having individual workers specialize in a single domain. Perhaps the best example that illustrates this was Henry Ford and his revolutionary advances for the automobile industry.

Prior to Ford, cars were primarily produced by skilled workmen. These workmen not only had to have strong mechanical skills, but also extensive knowledge in engineering, physics and material science. In many cases, these craftsmen were capable of building an entire car by themselves. Indeed, car making was an intellectual artform and each piece was a luxury reserved for the rich.

Then Ford came along and began building cars via assembly line. Ford hired large numbers of unskilled workers, many of whom had never even seen a car in their life, and gave each individual a few simple instructions. Suddenly, these workers had become “car makers.”


The division of labor allowed these workers to know just enough in order to do their job without ever needing to fully understand the process. Amazingly, not only was this method more efficient than the cars made by the skilled workmen, but it was cheaper and faster too. Thanks to Ford, car prices dropped dramatically and became so commonplace that even the unskilled workers he had hired could afford them.

Whether he recognized it or not, Ford had expanded on the knowledge and progress from the Enlightenment and Industrial revolution from the 17th and 18th centuries. The following excerpt from A Treatise of Human Nature highlights this:

“When every individual person labors a-part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labor being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability en creases: And by mutual succor we are less expos’d to fortune and accidents. ’Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.” – David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

150 years before Ford, David Hume recognized the exponential possibilities that human collaboration had for transforming societies. Today, these “conjunction of forces” are represented in the form of large corporations. This rapid advancement in efficiency is one of capitalism’s greatest qualities- creating vast amounts of wealth through expansive production.

Nevertheless, despite the enormous benefits that the division of labor can provide to society, it is not without its faults. Karl Marx most notably criticized the division of labor with his theory of alienation and how humans become a “cog in a system of machines.” Adam Smith also criticized the division of labor for its harmful effects to democracy in The Wealth of Nations:

“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” – Adam Smith, V.1.178

Smith pointed out that the division of labor breeds ignorance because it encourages citizens to a very narrow focus of awareness. Citizen’s need to know how to do their specialized jobs and that’s it. There’s no need in viewing the bigger picture- the inter-connectivity of society, politics and rational discourse. These compartmental underpinnings explain people like Ben Carson: someone who is a brilliant neurosurgeon, but also a young earth creationist with dozens of delusional and irrational beliefs. Or as Bill Maher describes them, “Smart-Stupid people.”

The truth is that democracy only works well with equally informed citizens- and capitalism, by its very nature of making production extremely efficient, undermines this by destroying the intellectual curiosity that democracy requires. In this way, America has been able to both excel and fall behind at the same time. We are a nation of wealth and ignorance.

Smith suggests that “unless government takes some pains to prevent it,” that this is the path we are doomed to follow. The election of Donald Trump would suggest that the government has failed in this regard and will continue to do so in the near future.

I am, however, optimistic. The Internet has made it easier than ever before to learn and explore ideas outside ones expertise. Automation has and will continue to take over jobs that are simplistic and repetitive. We are a nation of wealth and ignorance, but perhaps one day we can become a nation of wealth and reason.

Philosophers Worth Listening To

Sam Harris @SamHarrisOrg

Sam Harris is a philosopher, author and neuroscientist. Sam’s values of discovering truth and having a rational mindset is something I’ve always admired and have tried to follow in my own life. His ability to discuss controversial issues in objectively is something I think everyone can aspire to. I recommend Sam’s Waking Up Podcast in addition to his books.

Science Can Answer Moral Questions

The God Debate II: Harris vs. Craig

Sam Harris – It Is Always Now

Alain de Botton @alaindebotton

Alain is a Swiss-born, British-based philosopher that runs the popular web series The School of Life. He covers a variety of topics including: psychotherapy, relationships, literature, art, economics, and my favorite- the ideas of past philosophers. Alain offers something for everyone and I highly recommend checking out his videos in addition to his books.

PHILOSOPHY – Nietzsche

Being A Good Listener

Stay in – or Leave – a Relationship?

Maria Popova @BrainPicker


Maria is a writer and philosopher known for her popular blog BrainPickings. Her writings focus on culture, history, books, philosophy and eclectic subjects from around the internet. I’ve been reading her blog for the last two years and I’m always consistently thrilled to read the new articles she publishes. I highly recommend following Maria on Twitter for some funny banter and checking out some of her articles.

The Science of Stress

An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety

Famous Advice on Writing