The Zero-Sum Mindset: How to Avoid Toxic Thinking in Moments of Crisis
Believing that in order to win, others must fail is a critical mistake in times like these.
"It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a zero-sum game: somebody wins, somebody loses."
– Gordon Gekko, Wall Street
In the 1987 Oliver Stone classic Wall Street, Michael Douglas' role as the brazen corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, not only won the actor an Oscar for his performance but iconized his character as the embodiment of individual excess. Though most often remembered for his frequently quoted monologue praising the virtues of greed, what truly captures the essence of Gordon Gekko's character can be found in the equally telling, but lesser-known, quote above.
The above quote portrays Gekko as someone whose motivations go beyond rational self-interest, to encompass the mentality that in order to succeed others must fail. And while the character reflects a work of fiction, all too often this sort of zero-sum thinking can take root in people's mindsets, especially in moments of crisis.
For example, the crisis we currently face involving the spread of COVID-19 provides a surfeit of examples of individuals who, rather than coming together to help those in need, have begun to view their interactions with others as zero-sum and behave in ways consistent with such a mindset (such as hoarding thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer).
Yet, adopting such a zero-sum mindset can be detrimental to our success, both at work and in life. Below, I discuss why such a mindset arises in the first place, and how it can be overcome.
In moments of crisis, why do we think in zero-sum terms?
Zero-sum thinking likely arose as a cognitive adaptation within early-human hierarchies, emerging as a defensive response to resource-scarce environments and readying individuals for potential conflict over limited resources. During early human development, when resources were scarce and competition was fierce, gains accumulated by some (e.g., competition for status or mates) often meant others lost out. Such environments would have likely offered a selective advantage to those who viewed transactions with others – such as territorial competitors or sexual rivals – as win or lose.
So now when we find ourselves in dynamic and uncertain environments, such as our current predicament involving the spread of COVID-19, we may fall back on some of our more primitive forms of information processing. The problem, however, is that when we develop a zero-sum mentality, we may apply this type of thinking to situations that are not, in fact, win-or-lose. For example, one study found that within harsh economic environments, employees are likely to view success as zero-sum and apply this heuristic broadly even in specific situations where success for some does not necessarily imply others' loss, such as helping their fellow coworkers even when it doesn't come at a cost to themselves.
How can we overcome such zero-sum thinking?
Armed with the knowledge of how we develop zero-sum thinking in the first place, there are steps we can take to avoid the perils associated with its occurrence. Below, I focus on two tips for overcoming such mindsets and how to work together in moments of crisis.
1. Reframe how you view a "gain"
Part of the reason why times of crisis may cause us to think in zero-sum terms is that such situations activate our survival instincts, causing us to narrowly focus on short-term gains. This is why we might see employees reducing their willingness to assist their colleagues during a recession or people hoarding toilet paper in the wake of a pandemic. But it's important to understand that such thinking may actually be counterproductive to our own well-being because it is in times of crises that we often need the help of others the most. When we help others, rather than viewing them as rivals needing to be vanquished, we are likely to generate feelings of reciprocity, the results of which can far outweigh the short-term gains that often accompany zero-sum competitions.
2. Focus on positive-sum interactions.
Moments of crisis often cause us to perceive that resources in the environment are scarce, even if they are not, in fact, scarce. This is why in such situations we may begin to view transactions with others as zero-sum. But such zero-sum thinking often leads to predation and invites distrust from others. To combat these maladaptive effects, we can remember to remain mindful that there are numerous opportunities for positive-sum interactions with others, such as finding opportunities to exchange surpluses or favors with others. Doing so provides the necessary ingredients for trust and reciprocity to form, which are both necessary for any business or economy to function optimally, in good times and in bad.
Although moments of crisis can bring out the worst in us, we need not succumb to our worse impulses. Rather, we can, as Harvard psychologist and best-selling author, Steven Pinker, suggests, rely on the "better angels of our nature". The key is to reframe how we think about our relationships with others and remain mindful there are opportunities for positive-sum interactions.
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