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Friday, June 30, 2023

The psychology of zero-sum beliefs

Davidai, S., Tepper, S.J. 
Nat Rev Psychol (2023). 


People often hold zero-sum beliefs (subjective beliefs that, independent of the actual distribution of resources, one party’s gains are inevitably accrued at other parties’ expense) about interpersonal, intergroup and international relations. In this Review, we synthesize social, cognitive, evolutionary and organizational psychology research on zero-sum beliefs. In doing so, we examine when, why and how such beliefs emerge and what their consequences are for individuals, groups and society.  Although zero-sum beliefs have been mostly conceptualized as an individual difference and a generalized mindset, their emergence and expression are sensitive to cognitive, motivational and contextual forces. Specifically, we identify three broad psychological channels that elicit zero-sum beliefs: intrapersonal and situational forces that elicit threat, generate real or imagined resource scarcity, and inhibit deliberation. This systematic study of zero-sum beliefs advances our understanding of how these beliefs arise, how they influence people’s behaviour and, we hope, how they can be mitigated.

From the Summary and Future Directions section

We have suggested that zero-sum beliefs are influenced by threat, a sense of resource scarcity and lack of deliberation. Although each of these three channels can separately lead to zero-sum beliefs, simultaneously activating more than one channel might be especially potent. For instance, focusing on losses (versus gains) is both threatening and heightens a sense of resource scarcity. Consequently, focusing on losses might be especially likely to foster zero-sum beliefs. Similarly, insufficient deliberation on the long-term and dynamic effects of international trade might foster a view of domestic currency as scarce, prompting the belief that trade is zero-sum. Thus, any factor that simultaneously affects the threat that people experience, their perceptions of resource scarcity, and their level of deliberation is more likely to result in zero-sum beliefs, and attenuating zero-sum beliefs requires an exploration of all the different factors that lead to these experiences in the first place. For instance, increasing deliberation reduces zero-sum beliefs about negotiations by increasing people’s accountability, perspective taking or consideration of mutually beneficial issues. Future research could manipulate deliberation in other contexts to examine its causal effect on zero-sum beliefs. Indeed, because people express more moderate beliefs after deliberating policy details, prompting participants to deliberate about social issues (for example, asking them to explain the process by which one group’s outcomes influence another group’s outcomes) might reduce zero-sum beliefs. More generally, research could examine long-term and scalable solutions for reducing zero-sum beliefs, focusing on interventions that simultaneously reduce threat, mitigate views of resource scarcity and increase deliberation.  For instance, as formal training in economics is associated with lower zero-sum beliefs, researchers could examine whether teaching people basic economic principles reduces zero-sum beliefs across various domains. Similarly, because higher socioeconomic status is negatively associated with zero-sum beliefs, creating a sense of abundance might counter the belief that life is zero-sum.