Psychological Underpinnings of Zero-Sum Thinking

6 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2018  

Samuel Johnson

University of Bath - School of Management

Jiewen Zhang

University of California, Davis - Department of Psychology

Frank Keil

Yale University - Department of Psychology

Date Written: January 28, 2018

Abstract

A 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 (Experiment 1). Zero-sum beliefs are greatly reduced by giving reasons for the exchange (Experiment 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.

Keywords: Intuitive theories, Folk psychology, Judgment & decision-making, Behavioral economics

JEL Classification: D6, D8, H00, M3, Z13

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Samuel and Zhang, Jiewen and Keil, Frank, Psychological Underpinnings of Zero-Sum Thinking (January 28, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3117627 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3117627

Samuel Johnson (Contact Author)

University of Bath - School of Management ( email )

Claverton Down
Bath, BA2 7AY
United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://www.sgbjohnson.com/

Jiewen Zhang

University of California, Davis - Department of Psychology ( email )

Davis, CA 95616
United States

Frank Keil

Yale University - Department of Psychology ( email )

P.O. Box 208205
New Haven, CT 06520-8205
United States

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