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How a Zero-Sum View of the World may be Hurting our Economies, our Democracies and our Health

by Patricia Andrews Fearon & David Good

Back in 2004, game designer Matt Leacock and his wife had a problem. As much as they enjoyed playing games together, many of the games they played required ruthless strategies that started having negative consequences in their relationship even after the games ended. To solve this problem, Leacock decided to design a game that would require cooperation rather than competition in order to be successful. And the perfect premise for a game that demands skillful cooperation? A pandemic.

In the board game, “Pandemic,” which was first published in 2008, players are assigned various roles, all of which have their own part to play in reducing the spread of infection and finding a cure in order to save lives--not unlike our current reality.

To be successful against a global pandemic like COVID-19, both in terms of our physical, mental and economic health, requires massive coordination of scientists, healthcare workers, businesses, policymakers, and everyday citizens doing their part to stem the spread, allocate key resources and services effectively, find treatments and cures, and cover the costs.

This becomes even more challenging when we are facing risks in new, uncharted waters. Uncertainty and lack of structural assurances can cause us to lean even more heavily into our default assumptions, our deeper implicit narratives about how the world works in order to guide our behavior. In our research we investigate one such implicit assumption: the belief that life is like a zero-sum game.

When one views the world through a zero-sum lens, that is, assuming that in order for one person or group to win another has to lose, dominance, not cooperation, becomes the primary goal. A rising tide may lift all ships, but not if those ships are hellbound and determined to sink one another. And while COVID-19 has laid bare how zero-sum thinking can sabotage even our most existential collective goals, a pandemic is not so dissimilar to many of our other pressing global challenges. Climate change, global economic development, and protection of the democratic process all hinge upon our ability to muster cooperation and collective action, and all are hindered by zero-sum thinking.

For example, earlier research by Różycka-Tran, Boski, and Wojciszke (2015) has shown country- level associations between generalized zero-sum beliefs and economic growth, democratic functioning, and well-being. In our own recent research, funded by Rebuilding Macroeconomics, we find that a zero-sum mindset predicts lower income over time, heightened perceptions of hostility, support for aggression against political outgroups, lower commitment to fair democratic process, and increased willingness to use violence to achieve political goals.

Underpinning all of these adverse outcomes are deficits in public trust. We find that a zero-sum mindset leads to lower trust across a broad array of domains such as lower trust in science, lower trust in businesses, and even lower trust in family, friends, and neighbors. We also find that this effect of zero-sum mindset on trust extends to behavioral measures of trust in the classic “trust game” experimental paradigms and is born out in longitudinal measures of changes in trust since the onset of the pandemic.

When we lose sight of the interdependence of our success, and instead get trapped in seeing other people, groups and nations as rivals instead of partners, we sacrifice our broader institutional and physical health for the sake of smaller, short-term advantages, thus dissolving the trust we will need to navigate these global challenges effectively.

Różycka-Tran, J., Boski, P., & Wojciszke, B. (2015). Belief in a Zero-Sum Game as a Social Axiom: A 37-Nation Study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 46(4), 525–548.

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