In game theory, zero sum games are a mathematical representation of an interaction in which the amount of advantage won by one is paid by the loss by the other. The total gains and losses of participants add up to the sum of zero. I gain C only by you losing C . This is represented algebraically as : C-C = O.
A Defined and Unchangeable Benefit
Zero sum games can be understood by picturing the cutting of a pie when the pie represents the total benefit. Equality requires the pie be cut precisely in equal pieces. If a larger piece is given to one, the amount of advantage must be subtracted from another. The size of the pie remains constant. We cannot enlarge the pie with skilled negotiation. Time is a zero sum value. We must take resources from one activity to give it to another. Cal Newport in his fascinating book Deep Work explains, “if you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game” (2016, location 2,245).
The limited resource creates competition and conflict rather than cooperation.
Zero Sum Thinking
Zero sum thinking is an all or nothing mindset. While some of life’s encounters are all or nothing, most are interconnected with many costs and benefits. Creative solutions, healthy cooperation, and long term benefits are lost through rigid all-or-nothing evaluations.
Cooperation and Conflict
Zero Sum thinkers are narcissistic bullies that evaluate success based on competitive evaluations where gains only count when achieved at another’s expense. “This is schadenfreude, gloating, where their pain is your gain. It’s problematic when non–zero sum games are viewed as zero-sum (winner-take-all)” warns Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant (2018).
In a contract we may get more out of a contract through deception, stealing profits from the “partner.” However, these blatant gains often cost future negotiations. Short term benefits trump long term growth. The long term growth is never actualized nor easily calculated therefore is not perceived as a loss.
Tit-for Tat Strategies
In game theory research, Tit for Tat strategies (mimicking the action of an opponent after cooperating in the first round) always performed better than strategies that sought highest personal benefit with each interaction.
Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, explains that, “tit-for-tat strategy is to be nice on the first round of interaction; but after that, do to your partner whatever your partner did to you on the previous round. Tit for Tat takes us way beyond kin altruism. It opens the possibility of forming cooperative relationships with strangers.”
Haidt believes that vengeance and gratitude are emotional constructs that support Tit-for Tat strategies. He wrote that “vengeance and gratitude are moral sentiments that amplify and enforce tit for tat.” he continues, “vengeful and grateful feelings appear to have evolved precisely because they are such useful tools for helping individuals create cooperative relationships, thereby reaping the gains from non-zero-sum games” (2006).
A lovely example of cooperation that triumphantly exceeds selfish acts of competitiveness is the fable of the blind man carrying the physically disabled. Each man benefitting from the strength of the other. The sum of their joint actions surpasses individual efforts.
Life is much like this.
The gifts of others thou hast not,Christian Fürchtegott Gellert
While others want what thou hast got;
And from this imperfection springs
The good that social virtue brings.
Solving Zero Sum Choices with Complexity
Life is more complex and a simple single interaction game. We have multiple interactions with a limited number of people. Each new interaction draws upon wisdom learned from the last. We even wisely predict behavior probabilities from observing how another person interacts with others. If they are honest and kind with others, I can expect they will be honest and kind with me.
Our actions, therefore, are not zero sum games. An act of kindness may draw from a well of immediate resources (time, energy, and self interest) but the kindness improves our future. We should measure wins and losses against much more complex consequences.
We may not see our deficits or know how acts of kindness will playout but cooperation does bless our lives. Steven Pinker wrote, “the world presents us with non-zero-sum games in which it is better for both parties to act unselfishly than for both to act selfishly (better not to shove and not to be shoved than to shove and be shoved)” (2003). We get so tied up in harming the other that we subsequently harm ourselves. Two warring parties often would secure a larger share by equally splitting the resources than spending great sums money fighting for a larger share. In our litigious society the lawyers get rich and the warring parties both lose.
Robert Axelrod in his classic book Evolution of Cooperation wrote, “but most of life is not zero-sum. Generally, both sides can do well, or both can do poorly. Mutual cooperation is often possible, but not always achieved.” He continues, “so in a non-zero-sum world you do not have to do better than the other player to do well for yourself” (2006). We often both do better with cooperation.
Zero Sum Games and Intimate Relationships
Zero sum games destroy intimate relationships. The intense focus on single acts as evidence of love or hate destroys trust, transforming every word and act into a critical event. We strangle love and smother joy in these high intensity drama relationships.
John Gottman, the William Mifflin Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, explains, “in a zero-sum game each partner sees his or her own interests as preeminent: the interests of the partner do not count at all. The very notion of trust is directly opposed to the notion of the zero-sum game” (2011).
Selfishness and Zero Sum Games
In zero sum games, every transaction is evaluated on whether or not the action serves our best interest. If it doesn’t, our partner is judged as selfish. Yet, the whole concept of intimate relationships centers on continuing interaction. Gottman continues, “in fact, we could define trust by claiming that in a trusting relationship we take as a given that our partner has our best interests at heart, rather than just self-interest.”
Basically, it’s not necessary that our partners be selfless, catering to our every desire. Trust (and intimacy) just requires that partners hold our interests as important. Each independent interaction must be held against the context of the whole, trusting that our partner (who holds are interest as important) will make some choices that honor our desires over their own immediate self-interest.
For example, Alan turns a non zero sum game into a critical decision when he demands Betty to miss an important business meeting to attend a performing arts musical. When she explains that the meeting is essential for her career development, Alan counters, “if you loved me, you would miss the meeting.” Basically, Alan turns a single decision into a zero-sum game.
Alan, not Betty, is devaluing the relationship, resting the entirety of a relationship on a single event. The only way for Alan to win is for Betty to lose. Turning a single interaction into a zero sum game is a manipulation strategy, giving an event the power to define the entirety of the relationship.
Danger of Transforming Conflict Into Zero Sum Games
Gottman warns that conflict that transforms disagreement into zero sum games spreads to non-conflict interactions as well. “Gradually, during conflict and non-conflict interactions, people are unable to act with their partner’s best interests at heart, and, instead, respond with their own interests at heart” (2011). Our beloved partner is no longer just an irritating friend but an enemy, where every maneuver is an ill attempt to gain advantage in serving our self-interest. The drama relationship is a sickening string of zero sum game interactions.
We can do better. We can suffer a single insignificant loss without using the manipulation of transforming a simple instance into a long term zero sum game. Most of the time, Both partners can win.
Narcissistic Self Interest and Zero Sum Games
To the narcissist, the only interest is self interest. Every transaction is to serve personal desires. Other peoples’ best interest is not only unimportant, in the narcissist’s mind their interest doesn’t even exist. For another person to gain, it is registered as a loss to the extreme narcissist. Raymond Angelo Belliotti writes, “in Paradise everyone shares and gains. On earth, human beings are too often obsessed by zero-sum contests: my gain comes only at the expense of others.” Belliotti continues, “arrogance is unreasonable, inaccurate, excessive, and narcissistic. As such, arrogance hardens our hearts to intimacy, spiritual and earthly, and celebrates self-aggrandizement as an intrinsic good” (2011, location 1,515).
We must measure the good life with something better than comparisons of power and possessions. Victories in zero sum contests are not a measure of greatness but often the insignificant fluff of a narrow minded fool, incapable to see the greatness of cooperation and community success.
Axelrod, Robert (2006). The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition. Basic Books; Revised edition.
Belliotti, Raymond Angelo (2011). Dante’s Deadly Sins: Moral Philosophy In Hell 1st Edition. Wiley-Blackwell; 1st edition.
Gottman, John (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; 1st edition.
Newport, Cal (2016). Deep Work. Platkus Books.
Pinker, Steven (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.
Sapolsky, Robert M. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.