The politics of zero-sum thinking

Although pure zero-sum situations (one person’s gains are exactly balanced by another person’s losses) are actually rare, many people perceive non–zero-sum situations as zero-sum. The tendency to see life as zero-sum exacerbates political conflicts. This is the idea discussed on a paper by Shai Davidai and Martino Ongis.

Zero-sum thinking is associated with various adverse consequences. Negotiators who assume that their interests are opposed to their counterparts’ interests frequently overlook possibilities for mutually beneficial agreements, discredit advantageous offers proposed by the other side, and consequently fail to reach “win-win” resolutions. Employees who view success as zero-sum (such that every person’s accomplishments come at their co-workers’ expense) are more likely to act selfishly and less likely to help their colleagues. More generally, zero-sum thinking reduces interpersonal trust and increases people’s feeling that they are being taken advantage of and that the social system is illegitimate and unjust.

Davidai, Shai, and Martino Ongis. ‘The Politics of Zero-Sum Thinking: The Relationship between Political Ideology and the Belief That Life Is a Zero-Sum Game’. Science Advances, vol. 5, no. 12, Dec. 2019, p. eaay3761., doi:10.1126/sciadv.aay3761.

In six studies, they examine the relationship between political ideology and the belief that life is zero-sum.

The tendency to see life as zero-sum exacerbates political conflicts. Six studies (N = 3223) examine the relationship between political ideology and zero-sum thinking: the belief that one party’s gains can only be obtained at the expense of another party’s losses. We find that both liberals and conservatives view life as zero-sum when it benefits them to do so. Whereas conservatives exhibit zero-sum thinking when the status quo is challenged, liberals do so when the status quo is being upheld. Consequently, conservatives view social inequalities—where the status quo is frequently challenged—as zero-sum, but liberals view economic inequalities—where the status quo has remained relatively unchallenged in past decades—as such. Overall, these findings suggest potentially important ideological differences in perceptions of conflict—differences that are likely to have implications for understanding political divides in the United States and the difficulty of reaching bipartisan legislation.

They think their research offers insight into how ideology is related to people’s interpretation of the world and may further our understanding of partisan divides in the United States.

Although liberals and conservatives often agree on many economic and social goals, they tend to disagree on how to best achieve them. For example, people across the political spectrum share similar views regarding what an ideal society would look like in terms of economic inequality and social mobility (36, 37) but disagree on how to create such a society.

Cultural differences may also influence zero-sum thinking. The relationship between ideology and zero-sum thinking about the distribution of wealth varies considerably between countries.

Unfortunately the chart does not offer enough insight about, for example, the situation in Spain, where there seem to be a slightly negative correlation between ideology (left-right) and zero sum thinking (“People can only get rich at the expense of others” versus “Wealth can grow so there’s enough for everyone.”)

I am sure I am not objective, but my feeling is that in Spanish politics negative sum thinking is prevalent: If we both have something, even when it is a nonrival good, then that something is worth a lot less… I’ve seen it once and again in the corporate world, and every day in the news and local politics. It is the mindset you may find in some Goya’s paintings and the old Aesop fable:

Two neighbours came before Jupiter and prayed him to grant their hearts’ desire. Now the one was full of avarice, and the other eaten up with envy. So to punish them both, Jupiter granted that each might have whatever he wished for himself, but only on condition that his neighbour had twice as much. The Avaricious man prayed to have a room full of gold.

No sooner said than done; but all his joy was turned to grief when he found that his neighbour had two rooms full of the precious metal. Then came the turn of the Envious man, who could not bear to think that his neighbour had any joy at all. So he prayed that he might have one of his own eyes put out, by which means his companion would become totally blind. Vices are their own punishment.

Aesop, Avaricious and Envious

If Jupiter granted me a single desire, I would ask a primer in Game Theory for Spanish politicians.


Featured Image: Francisco de Goya, Fight with Cudgels (Duelo a garrotazos)

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