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Thursday, June 22, 2023

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.

From the Discussion Section

Beyond documenting a novel asymmetry in beliefs about one’s own and others’ gains and losses, our findings make several important theoretical contributions to the literature on zero-sum beliefs. First, research on zero-sum beliefs has mostly focused on what specific groups believe about others’ gains within threatening intergroup contexts (e.g., White Americans’ attitudes about Black Americans’ gains, men’s attitudes about women’s gains) or on what negotiators believe about their counterparts’ gains within the context of a negotiation (which is typically rife with threat; e.g., Sinaceur et al., 2011; White et al., 2004). In doing so, research has examined zero-sum beliefs from only one perspective: how threatened parties view outgroup gains. Yet, as shown, those who feel most threatened are also most likely to exhibit zero-sum beliefs. By only examining the beliefs of those who feel threatened by others within the specific contexts in which they feel most threatened, the literature may have painted an incomplete picture of zero-sum beliefs that overlooks the possibility of asymmetrical beliefs. Our research expands this work by examining zero-sum beliefs in both threatening and nonthreatening contexts and by examining beliefs about one’s own and others’ gains, revealing that feeling.

I use the research on zero-sum thinking in couples counseling frequently, to help the couple to develop a more cooperative mindset. This means that they need to be willing to work together to find solutions that benefit both of them. When couples can learn to cooperate, they are more likely to resolve conflict in a healthy way.