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Does Social Cooperation Affect Macroeconomic Performance? Research Project

Zero-Sum Mindset & Its Discontents

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Principal Investigator: David Good

Dr David Good is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. His research interests include: interdisciplinary design, which focuses on supporting research collaborations between researchers in the Arts Humanities & Social Sciences and those in Technology & Science disciplines centred on the design of novel devices and products; development and assessment of professional skills and abilities, which studies of the factors which contribute to the development of entrepreneurial skills and abilities; and integrative complexity thinking which is focused on a series of interventions targeted at those who hold extreme ideological position, and enables them to develop a more nuanced and complex view of the world around them and their values, and to have greater control of their affective responses.

Co-Investigator: Patricia Andrews Fearon (Researcher in Social Psychology, University of Cambridge).

Project Summary

Across a wide range of pressing global challenges from political polarization, to pandemics, and economic development, there is an underlying psychological feature that presents a barrier to progress: zero-sum thinking. In a zero-sum game, gains for one party are earned at the expense of another in a context of fixed scarcity and antagonism.


Perceiving the relationship between individuals, groups, economies and social issues as if they were a zero-sum hinders the cooperation that has been so often a cornerstone to success. Yet, surprisingly little research has examined the psychological processes that underpin zero-sum thinking, and the consequences of this mindset across domains and situations.


Our research investigates how a zero-sum mindset, that is, a generalized view of the world as zero-sum can undermine the trust and cooperation that are foundational to a successful society.Given the scarcity of research on zero-sum thinking, the support of the Social Macroeconomics research hub has helped us lay the foundations of what we believe to be a far-reaching and important research agenda. We have begun with the most basic of questions about zero-sum mindset: What is it? How does it work? Which then naturally leads to further questions. What are its consequences? Where does it come from? Can zero-sum mindsets be changed? To answer these questions, we have designed and implemented nearly a dozen studies and sampled over 4000 unique participants in four countries.


Altogether, our research suggests that a zero-sum mindset leads to lower economic growth, lower commitment to democracy, and increased social polarization through the erosion of trust. Through a zero-sum lens of the world, other groups and people are inevitably rivals rather than partners who are perceived as hostile rather than trustworthy. Using both self-report and behavioral measures of trust we found that a zero-sum mindset predicted heightened perception of hostility, lower trust across a broad range of interpersonal and institutional relationships, and systematic underestimation of potential benefits of trust which then led to lower behavioral trust in classic “trust game” paradigms.


In our first investigation of possible interventions, we find that a zero-sum mindset is quite stable over time, and observed only very modest effects using online interventions. One’s implicit beliefs about how the world works is likely shaped by myriad forces of culture, personality, and personal experiences, and therefore, may require broader, more prolonged efforts to alter. Yet this research also suggests that our ability to advance human flourishing will depend upon cultivating a vision of the world in which growth and success are fueled by our interdependence.



Rebuilding Macroeconomic Annual Conference 2019

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