Zero Sum Bias

Note to my future self…

Lately I’ve come to understand the importance of avoiding Zero Sum Bias. According to Wikipedia:

Zero Sum Bias is a cognitive bias that describes when an individual thinks that one situation is like a zero-sum game, where one person’s gain would be another’s loss … Zero-sum thinking is captured by the saying “your gain is my loss” (or conversely, “your loss is my gain”).

In other words, people that fall for zero sum bias assume that they’re fighting for a piece of a pie of fixed size. Meanwhile, people with a positive-sum (i.e. growth) mindset know that win-win situations are ideal and that the pie only gets bigger.

There’s some interesting research suggesting that this bias is an evolutionary response to scarce resources and that this scarcity led people to perceive that the more desired a resource is the more scarce it is. Nowdays this less and less true for more and more different types of resources. Food, electricity and land are abundant in most places yet we still fall for this.

Avoiding Zero Sum Bias can also help us focus on ourselves rather than on what other people are doing. If someone else’s company or career takes off that’s awesome and it doesn’t mean that your company or career can’t take off in the same way. We’re social creatures so comparing ourselves to others is at the core of the human experience but I believe that it’s still important to think about the fact that in life there are enough resources and opportunities for everyone.