We rely on fundamental theories about the social world and how it works to guide our behavior in everyday life. These generalized beliefs about ourselves, other people, groups, and institutions — known as social axioms — help us navigate the social world without being crippled by uncertainty and ambiguity.
According to a team of researchers from Poland, one such social axiom is the belief in a zero-sum game (BZSG), which they describe as a belief system in which individuals or cultures assume that only a limited amount of goods exist in the world, and one person’s gain inevitably results in another person’s loss.
Their study, recently published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, suggests that belief in a zero-sum game is a useful concept to compare individuals and cultures.
“The present work addresses the possibility of a relatively permanent and general conviction that social relations are like a zero-sum game. People who share this conviction believe that success, especially economic success, is possible only at the expense of other people’s failures.”
The researchers initially conducted a study with more than 1,000 individuals in Poland to develop and verify the BZSG scale. They then expanded their study to 6,000 other individuals living in 37 different nations to ensure that “zero-sum game belief is not merely an indigenous Polish phenomenon.”
The scale measures participants belief in a zero-sum game by asking them whether they agree or disagree with statements such as “successes of some people are usually failures of others” and “the wealth of a few is acquired at the expense of many.”
At the individual level, the study found that people who believed that social relations were a zero-sum game tended to trust others less, have a lower self-esteem, and be of a lower social class. Based on these findings, the researchers suggested that “game believers perceive themselves as losers in the world” and use belief in a zero-sum game to explain their position in life.
“The zero-sum game belief provides an easy and self-serving way to explain one’s own failures (‘I failed because selfish others have stolen my success’), but it does not offer such a handy, self-serving explanation of one’s own winnings (nobody thinks ‘I succeeded because I stole the successes of others’),” they explained.
At the cultural level, the study found that belief in a zero-sum game was more prevalent in countries with lower income. Economically-deprived countries, the researchers said, are more likely to view the “social world as an arena for a fierce fight” over the limited amount of wealth.
The researchers were also surprised to find that belief in a zero-sum game was associated with collectivism rather than individualism.
“Taking into account these results, we can conclude that cultural BZSG emerges in hierarchical collectivist societies with an economic disparity of scarce resources. Whereas at the individual level, people fight over limited resources, similar phenomena are encountered at cultural level between groups and nations,” the researchers wrote.