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Are we destined for a zero-sum future?

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You wouldn’t typically think of affirmative action advocates and anti-immigration nativists as being bedfellows. The former group skews young and is composed overwhelmingly of progressives, and the latter skews old and conservative. But according to a fascinating new study out of Harvard University, they have one significant thing in common: a predilection for zero-sum thinking, or the belief that for one group to gain, another must lose.

The same way of thinking crops up on all manner of issues that cut across traditional political divides. Roughly equal numbers of US Democrats and Republicans agree that “in trade, if one country makes more money, then another country makes less money”. And while Democrats are more likely to say “if one income group becomes wealthier, this comes at the expense of other groups”, a third of Republicans agree.

A zero-sum mindset is not in itself clearly a good or bad thing, morally speaking. The same belief system that might drive one person to take care of the disadvantaged might lead another to pull up the drawbridge. But economically speaking, there is a growing body of evidence that such a worldview is associated with demotivating beliefs — the sense that extra effort is not rewarded — and in turn with lower rates of innovation at the societal level.

Where this gets especially interesting is that the causal arrow appears to operate in both directions. Among the most striking Harvard findings was the discovery that there is a strong relationship between the extent to which someone is a zero-sum thinker, and the economic environment they grow up in.

If someone’s formative years were spent against a backdrop of abundance, growth and upward mobility, they tend to have a more positive-sum mindset, believing it is possible to grow the pie rather than just redistribute portions of it. People who grew up in tougher economic conditions tend to be more zero-sum and sceptical of the idea that hard work brings success. These attitudes are perfectly rational.

The pattern holds whether you look at people who grew up at the same time but in countries with varying economic fortunes, or different generations who grew up in the same places but against a shifting economic backdrop.

Every five to 10 years, the World Values Survey asks people in dozens of countries where they would place themselves on a scale from the zero-sum belief that “people can only get rich at the expense of others”, to the positive-sum view that “wealth can grow so there’s enough for everyone”.

The average response among those in high-income countries has become 20 per cent more zero-sum over the last century. Moreover, two distinct rises in the prevalence of zero-sum attitudes have coincided with two slowdowns in gross domestic product growth, one in the 1970s and another in the past two decades.

The same pattern holds within individual countries. Britons and Americans have become significantly more likely to believe that success is a matter of luck rather than effort precisely as income growth has slowed.

To be clear, no one is arguing that this shift in mindset is not justified. When the pie was growing rapidly, the average person’s material circumstances were indeed more liable to improve without the aid of luck or connections. And if developed societies are more concerned with fairness, that is no bad thing.

But, as the authors of the Harvard study point out, a rise in zero-sum thinking has some unpleasant side-effects. Populism, conspiracy theories and nativism are all rooted in the belief that one group gains at the expense of others, and all these have risen of late. Self-identified Democrats who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 scored very high on zero-sum beliefs.

A recent suite of experiments in the UK and US also found consistent evidence that zero-sum thinking predisposes people to downplay the potential benefits of trust and co-operation, and see others as potential rivals or threats rather than partners and collaborators.

The risk is that we have tipped into a negative cycle, with an economic slowdown fostering more suspicious and defensive thinking. That could act as a brake on the sorts of ambitious and utilitarian policies that might boost growth towards previous levels.

Pushing back against this trend will require political bravery and a reversal of the recent retreat from globalisation seen in recent years. The question is whether our leaders have also caught the zero-sum bug.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

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