The nature of “zero-sum” beliefs

Date & time

4–5pm 17 March 2015




Professor Mike Smithson, Research School of Psychology, ANU

While much has been written about the consequences of zero-sum (or fixed-pie) beliefs, the nature of these beliefs has received almost no systematic attention. No researchers, to our awareness, have examined the question of whether the endorsement of a zero-sum proposition depends on how the proposition is formed. This paper focuses on this question. Zero-sum statements have a form such as “The more of resource X for consumer A, the less of resource Y for consumer B”. X and Y may be the same resource (such as time), but they can be different (e.g., “The more people commute by bicycle, the less revenue for the city from car parking payments”). These statements have four permutations, and a strict zero-sum believer should regard these four statements as equally valid and therefore should endorse them equally.  

We find, however, that three asymmetric patterns routinely occur in people’s endorsement levels, i.e., clear framing effects, whereby endorsement of one permutation substantially differs from endorsement of another.  We report two studies, with samples representative of adult populations in two Western and two non-Western cultures, demonstrating that most of the asymmetric belief patterns are consistent across these samples. The patterns seem to arise from beliefs about asymmetric resource flows and power relations between rival consumers.  We explain the nature of these beliefs, and trace their implications for the measurement of zero-sum thinking as well as theoretical developments in understanding its causes.

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