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Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The psychology of asymmetric zero-sum beliefs

Roberts, R., & Davidai, S. (2022).
Journal of Personality and 
Social Psychology, 123(3), 559–575.


Zero-sum beliefs reflect the perception that one party’s gains are necessarily offset by another party’s losses. Although zero-sum relationships are, from a strictly theoretical perspective, symmetrical, we find evidence for asymmetrical zero-sum beliefs: The belief that others gain at one’s own expense, but not vice versa. Across various contexts (international relations, interpersonal negotiations, political partisanship, organizational hierarchies) and research designs (within- and between-participant), we find that people are more prone to believe that others’ success comes at their own expense than they are to believe that their own success comes at others’ expense. Moreover, we find that people exhibit asymmetric zero-sum beliefs only when thinking about how their own party relates to other parties but not when thinking about how other parties relate to each other. Finally, we find that this effect is moderated by how threatened people feel by others’ success and that reassuring people about their party’s strengths eliminates asymmetric zero-sum beliefs. We discuss the theoretical contributions of our findings to research on interpersonal and intergroup zero-sum beliefs and their implications for understanding when and why people view life as zero-sum.

General Discussion

Why do Americans believe that when China gains the U.S. loses but that when the U.S. gains, the whole world—including China— gains as well? Why do both Republicans and Democrats believe that the opposing party only benefits its own voters but that their own party’s success benefits all voters regardless of political affiliation?  And, why do negotiators so commonly believe that the other side is “out to get them” but that they themselves are merely trying to get the best possible deal that benefits all parties involved? In seven studies, we found robust and consistent evidence for asymmetric zero-sum beliefs.  Although situations involving two or more parties are either zero-sum or not, we found that people are ready to view them as both zero-sum and non-zero-sum, believing that other parties succeed at their expense, but that their own party does not succeed at others’ expense. Moreover, we found that people exhibit asymmetric zero-sum beliefs when considering how their party relates to other parties but not when considering how other parties relate to each other. Finally, both correlational and causal evidence found that feeling threatened led to asymmetric zero-sum beliefs. The more participants felt threatened by an opposing country, political party, or work colleague, the more they viewed the other party’s gains as coming at their expense. In contrast, feeling threatened did not affect beliefs regarding how much one’s
own gains come at others’ expense.