Conservatives and liberals see the world as zero-sum — when it suits them

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February 7, 2020

New research in Science Advances breaks down the policy issues on which political conservatives and liberals think in zero-sum terms — a black-and-white view of the world where there are only winners and losers.

Conservatives think zero-sum when it comes to policies that touch on social change, like immigration reform, according to the paper, “The politics of zero-sum thinking: The relationship between political ideology and the belief that life is a zero-sum game.”

Liberals, on the other hand, think zero-sum when it comes to economic inequality, like overall wealth being concentrated in fewer hands. In the U.S., national elected leaders at opposite ends of the political spectrum have been known to push zero-sum narratives.

“We argue that both liberals and conservatives view life as zero-sum when it benefits them to do so,” the authors write.

All in

A zero-sum situation happens when one party gains and another party experiences a commensurate loss. Consider a poker hand. Joe and Maya each bet $10. Maya wins the hand. Her $10 gain is Joe’s $10 loss. Add Maya’s win with Joe’s loss, and the sum is zero.

“It’s this seesaw view of the world where we can’t all be winning,” says Columbia Business School assistant professor Shai Davidai, who wrote the paper with Martino Ongis of the New School for Social Research.

In real life, zero-sum thinking is not so much about an equal and opposite reaction, where Maya’s gain is perfectly balanced by Joe’s loss.

Racism, for example, can’t be quantified like dollars and cents. Yet research suggests white people sometimes see racism as zero-sum. A May 2011 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science surveyed a nationally representative sample of 417 Americans, roughly equal numbers white and black, and found:

“White respondents were more likely to see decreases in bias against Blacks as related to increases in bias against Whites — consistent with a zero-sum view of racism among Whites — whereas Blacks were less likely to see the two as linked.”

The more things change …

The new paper looks at results from six surveys with a total of more than 3,200 participants. The largest group participated in the World Values Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted semiyearly around the world by an international consortium of social scientists. Each of the remaining surveys had roughly 200 to 300 U.S. residents the authors recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) an online labor market researchers commonly use to recruit study participants.

The authors used World Values Survey responses from 2010 to 2014 from 2,128 Americans on their political ideology and tendency to think of economic issues as zero-sum. Conservatives tended see wealth distribution as less zero-sum — “wealth can grow so there’s enough for everyone” — while liberals tended to see wealth as more zero-sum — “people can only get rich at the expense of others,” according to the paper.

“This observation, however, flies in the face of research showing that conservatives are more prone, not less prone, to zero-sum thinking,” the authors write.

The MTurk surveys further explore economic and social situations in which liberals and conservatives exhibit zero-sum thinking. Those surveys, the authors explain, provide evidence that liberals think in zero-sum terms on issues where the status quo is being maintained, while conservatives think zero-sum when the status quo is challenged.

Take rising income inequality — a status quo condition that’s been maintained for decades. Since the 1980s, a smaller share of households have steadily come to control a larger share of the country’s wealth, according to landmark research from Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

This zero-sum outlook is reflected in the national political debate. Liberal politicians establish an us-versus-them rhetorical framework when they talk about rising income inequality:

“We must tell the economic elite who have hoarded income growth in America: No, you can no longer have it all.” — Bernie Sanders, December 2019.

Conservatives think in zero-sum terms on policies that would re-stitch the country’s social fabric — a challenge to the status quo. For example, conservatives tend to think immigrants gaining more wealth would come at the expense of U.S.-born citizens, the authors find. National conservative leaders similarly push this narrative:

“Newcomers compete for jobs against the most vulnerable Americans and put pressure on our social safety net and generous welfare programs.” — Donald Trump, May 2019.

The trouble is that a combative stance makes it nearly impossible for parties affected by a policy or issue to find common ground, according to Davidai.

“Zero-sum rhetoric blinds us to solutions,” he says. “It’s much easier to say, ‘It’s us versus them,’ than thinking, ‘It’s us and them.’ The issue is many of the problems that are really pressing in the U.S. and the world — climate change, inequality — all of those issues affect everyone but they require broad support from different people and different groups.”

In the authors’ final survey, they explore a counter to the zero-sum hypothesis: Maybe liberals are simply more inclined to side with historically marginalized groups. They randomly assigned nearly 200 participants eight questions that boil down to one of two worldviews — one zero-sum, the other not — then asked if they agreed or disagreed:

  • Since the 1960s, educational, political and economic opportunities for black people have come at the expense of white political power, economic gain and education.
  • Black political, educational and economic opportunity has expanded at no one’s loss.

Participants aligned by political ideology in the zero-sum scenario — very conservative participants were more likely to think black progress has come at the expense of whites, not so for liberals — but responses didn’t correlate to ideology when black political and social progress was not presented as zero-sum.

“Rather than gravitating toward any frame that implicitly or explicitly sides with Black Americans, liberal participants seemed to uniquely reject zero-sum statements that depicted progress toward racial equality as coming at the expense of White people,” the authors write.

Zero-sum? Bad outcomes

Situations that are truly zero-sum often involve personal choice or are limited to a few participants. A boxing match or a chess game, for example, are zero-sum encounters. There’s a winner and a loser. Media consumption is another zero-sum situation. Reading a newspaper for an hour means an hour less spent watching cable news or scrolling Twitter.

Politics can also be zero-sum, explains Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, in a December 2018 paper in European Political Science. A vote for one candidate means another candidate loses that vote. An interest group with legislative clout gains influence at the expense of other interests.

But research suggests that applying zero-sum thinking to intricate situations that aren’t zero-sum — like business negotiations, workplace interactions and international trade — can lead to bad outcomes.

Employees fall into zero-sum thinking during economic downturns, finds an August 2017 paper in the Academy of Management Journal that looks at nearly 60,000 responses from the World Values Survey spanning 1995 to 2012 across 51 countries, including the U.S., supplemented with smaller surveys the authors conducted of workers across a range of sectors.

Economic crises put economic instability front-and-center in the minds of workers. A sense of loss of control might make employees less likely, for example, to start new projects, according to the paper. When employees stop working together, it’s a reaction that’s “likely more economically consequential than the reactions exhibited by less central actors, such as bank customers,” the authors write.

International trade is another area where national leaders have, in recent years, deployed zero-sum rhetoric. President Trump frames international trade as analogous to a transaction between himself and China’s President Xi Jinping, argues John Odell, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Southern California, in a January 2019 paper in Negotiation Journal.

“I have a great relationship with the President of China, President Xi,” Trump said in September 2018. “But it’s got to be a two-way street. It — for 25 years and longer, it was not. And trillions and trillions of dollars was taken out of the United States for the benefit of China. We just can’t have that. We have to make it fair.”

But negotiating trade between countries little resembles negotiations between individuals, according to Odell. Imports and exports course into and out of America from nations around the world. Tighten one of the bigger trade valves and that can affect prices at home.

“Washington can reduce goods imports from China,” Odell writes. “But as long as Americans continue to demand more than they produce, goods will flow in from different foreign countries at higher cost. The result will be lower American living standards and little change in the external deficit.”

It’s true, too, that international trade can hurt individual workers in certain regions, particularly regions that don’t produce many exports, according to Dartmouth economist Nina Pavcnik in a March 2019 paper in Survival: Global Politics and Strategy.

“International trade is widely presumed to make households in developing countries better off,” Pavcnik writes. She continues: “However, it is important to remember that international trade generates winners and losers (at least in relative terms) within all countries.”

Economic theory says workers will move to where the jobs are. Yet as Pavcnik points out: “Moving is costly and may entail giving up informal insurance such as the help and support of family and friends.”

How and when national leaders apply zero-sum thinking can have consequences that hit beyond the financial ledger. For example, zero-sum thinking was a core rhetorical credo of National Socialism, says Somin, who has also written about zero-sum thinking in the popular press.

“You see numerous examples where zero-sum thinking has led to oppression and mass murder,” he says. “The Holocaust was the result of a kind of zero-sum thinking. Those who advocated the Holocaust said, ‘The only way Germans can prosper and succeed is if you get rid of the Jews.’”

Darwin for the win

Emory University economist Paul Rubin and others have suggested that zero-sum thinking is a byproduct of human evolution and early culture. Imagine a skilled hunter some 12,000 years ago refusing to share meat with an unskilled hunter. There’s a clear loser in that scenario because there’s no corner butcher for the unskilled hunter to swing by instead.

But human brains evolved to understand complex systems, like language, to communicate subtle wants and needs. So why do binary outcomes sometimes seem intuitive when talking about big economic and social issues? There might have been no evolutionary reason for humans not to think in zero-sum terms.

Writing in the Southern Economic Journal in July 2003, Rubin suggests, “the fact that we understand only simple models without specific instructions is evidence that there was no benefit from evolving a structure for more complex models.”

Because zero-sum thinking might be evolutionarily hardwired in our brains, people might not recognize they’re using zero-sum arguments.

“It’s intuitive to think in the very short term that more for some people necessarily means less for others,” Somin says, adding that it’s easy for people to “accept fallacies — like, there’s a fixed number of jobs so if I get a job there’s fewer jobs for everyone else.”

If people think they would lose if certain policies or rhetoric are advanced, no matter whether the situation is truly zero-sum or not, the fact remains that the thought of losing hurts.

“A bias in favor of the status quo can be justified if the disadvantages of any change will be experienced more keenly than its advantages,” wrote the late Stanford psychologist Amos Tversky and Nobel Prize-winning Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman in a November 1991 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

As Tversky and Kahneman succinctly put it elsewhere in the paper: “Losses loom larger than corresponding gains.” Or, as retired Brooklyn-then-Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully once said: “Losing feels worse than winning feels good.”


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Citation: Davidai, Shai; Ongis, Martino. "The politics of zero-sum thinking: The relationship between political ideology and the belief that life is a zero-sum game," Science Advances, December 2019. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aay3761.