Does Social Cooperation Affect Macroeconomic Performance? Research Project

Zero-Sum Mindset & Its Discontents

Scroll Down

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

Cooperation and collaboration between individuals and between groups can be a major factor in enabling prosperity for all those involved. Underpinning this must be a willingness to trust other parties, and to be able to recognise the mutual benefits which result. There are many psychological factors which are important for the creation of stable relationships of this type.

One factor which has received comparatively little attention in this regard is the role played by the beliefs people hold about the essential nature of relations between groups and individuals. More specifically, the extent to which people think of those relations as zero-sum. These essential beliefs, or mindsets, can not only powerfully shape one’s perception of the situation and their economic strategies and behaviors, but also one’s sense of identity.

Psychological research has demonstrated that our identity has its roots in the ways in which we see ourselves as members of a social group or category, and that we understand these groups by comparing them one to another. The results of social comparison can be quite benign in that it enables a sense of belonging and fellow feeling. But it can result in quite pernicious outcomes. Its worst form is at the heart of social and racial prejudice where groups and individuals seek to enhance their own standing by denigrating and even violently attacking the members of other groups.

These negative outcomes often follow from a belief that other groups are profiting unfairly from various activities, and that all groups are involved in a competition for a fixed and limited resource. This may happen even though those involved have no easy way of understanding the true extent of a resource, nor how it might be increased through collaboration. The result is a focus on seeing every engagement as a zero-sum competition, and a tendency to only see one’s own community as doing well if another community is suffering.

The idea that we would be better off in a case where others do even better through collaboration becomes an anathema. In the extent to which zero-sum thinking of this type pervades a community, and becomes an established, self-perpetuating mindset, there are good grounds for believing that there will be serious consequences for social and economic well-being.

We will investigate the prevalence, nature and structure of zero-sum thinking over several geographical locations to examine how this mindset influences the choices individuals make.

The link between this mindset and other social, political and economic factors will be explored, and the locations where the survey will be conducted will be chosen in conjunction with other projects within the research Hub.

After the survey work, further studies will be initiated to understand what steps can be taken to change zero-sum mindsets in individuals and in the population as a whole, thus guiding policy which is seeking to improve social and economic well-being.


Rebuilding Macroeconomic Annual Conference 2019


Results will be published here when available.

Get our latest updates

Get the latest updates, news and event dates mailed straight to your inbox

Follow us on social media

  • Twitter
  • YouTube

2 Dean Trench Street, Smith Square London, SW1P 3HE United Kingdom                                    Contact UsPrivacy Policy | Terms Of Use

© National Institute of Economic and Social Research 2019