Psychological Underpinnings of Zero-Sum Thinking
- Samuel Johnson, School of Management, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom
- Jiewen Zhang, Department of Psychology, University of California - Davis, Davis, California, United States
- Frank Keil, Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, United States
AbstractA core proposition in economics is that voluntary exchanges benefit both parties. We show that people often deny the mutually beneficial nature of exchange, instead using zero-sum thinking. Participants read about simple exchanges of goods and services, judging whether each party to the transaction was better off or worse off afterwards. These studies revealed that zero-sum beliefs are pervasive. These beliefs seem to arise in part due to intuitive mercantilist beliefs that money has value over-and-above what it can purchase, since buyers are seen as less likely to benefit than sellers, and barters are often seen as failing to benefit either party (Study 1). Zero-sum beliefs are greatly reduced by giving reasons for the exchange (Study 2), suggesting that a second mechanism underlying zero-sum thinking is a failure to spontaneously take the perspective of the buyer. Implications for politics and business are discussed.
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