Zero-sum game theory states that if there is a conflict of some sort, one side will ultimately become the winner and the other side, a loser. It’s a “winner takes all” mentality that finds a comfortable place in a capitalistic society that encourages competition.
Zero-sum games are not all bad. When thinking in terms of sports, for example, a game is either won or lost by any given team. That makes sense. There is a winner and a loser. When it comes to community and sharing resources, however, a zero-sum game is not a useful paradigm in which to view the world and ultimately harms outcomes by causing unnecessary obstruction and an unwillingness to compromise.
Framing a conflict in terms of “zero-sum” or “winners and losers” is useful for one thing: division. It divides people into camps of “us and them.” It creates a binary situation where “you’re either with us or against us” and it helps drive support for one side of the issue or another. What it is not good for, however, is cooperation.
When looking at resources, one can think of a pie. Say there are 6 people who all want the pie. There is a conflict, because all 6 people want the pie and there is only 1 pie. That means, in terms of a “zero-sum” game, that there will be 1 winner and 5 losers if one person gets the pie. Maybe all 6 people start arguing over the pie. Maybe someone says, “Look, there is one pie and 6 of us. Perhaps we should slice the pie.”
This is a simplistic example to illustrate the concept, but the point is fear of scarcity. Looking at conflicts in terms of “winners and losers” drives fear and fear drives division. It also is a very lazy way to look at conflicts and problems. It is much more difficult to build coalitions and consensus among people when “we’re all in it together.”
Fear also drives action. When a person fears something, it is because their instincts have alerted them that harm is coming their way. It also causes people to act in ways that they may not have acted otherwise. Fear is not our friend. That is why FDR said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”
The truth is that in terms of community, there are no winners and losers unless we create them. People fear, however, that we will create them. Some people want to create them… out of fear of losing a zero-sum game. It is a vicious circle that must be broken.
We must elevate leaders that term conflicts and problems in terms of nuance. Problems are solved in gray areas, not in black and white. When conflicts are framed in terms of winners and losers, we must push back and call it out for what it does: wedge people into two camps.
Look at the current state of “wedge issues” that people are facing today:
- Gun control
- Confederate statues
- Civil Rights
These issues are used by politicians to ask people to look at the issue on its face and say “yes” or “no.” It allows a politician to stoke fear and emotion, gets people to open their wallets to support either side and gets votes. In that case, it is highly effective. Fear also causes people to want to defend themselves from a perceived harm, which may lead them to act in reactive self-defense or proactive self-defense (violence or resource hoarding).
We should start calling out wedge issues for what they are, highlight nuance, and reassure people that there is nothing to fear or lose when addressing an issue. This approach, of course, is only effective when decision-makers come to the table with good, legal, proactive intentions. Exclusionary or violent ideas should be a non-starter.
Driving wedge issues as zero-sum is “as American as apple pie.” It solves nothing and keeps the conflict going. If more people realized they were being manipulated by lazy messengers, they may start to look at productive solutions and stop fearing the other side. Zero-sum fear creates real life winners and losers. It is the reason we have the inequity we have today. As we push to move forward to a more equitable world, we have a lot of work to do. A lot of that work is in the area of framing and messaging against a zero-sum game. When it comes to the current state of the USA today, Coolio said it best. Most are “still trying to get a piece of that apple pie.” We will get there if we stop the zero-sum games