Zero Sum Bias: Insight Gained from Competition

Zero Sum Bias: Insight Gained from Competition

Depending upon whether you’re a football fan or not, or whether you’re one of our community members from the U.S., you may or may not realize that today is the Super Bowl. The biggest football game of the year. A display filled with athleticism, hysterical commercials, and competition.

This event got me thinking about the nature of competition itself and how it can become twisted and entangled in our minds. In fact, our competitive feelings can reveal powerful insights about what we desire, fear, and value. 

Let’s be honest.

For most of us, if we’re being honest, we’ve felt jealousy, resentment, anger, or a similar emotion toward someone who has something we want.

Career success.

Financial stability.

A certain body shape / size.

A certain type of relationship.

Many times, we begin to feel competitive toward that person – looking for reasons why we deserve what they have. Why they don’t deserve what they have. 

These feelings of resentment, anger, and hostility come from a very basic cognitive bias that is baked into the fabric of our minds: The Zero Sum Bias.

Zero Sum Bias

It’s worth getting a little technical for a minute to tease this apart. A “Zero Sum” situation is one in which one person’s success must be balanced by another person’s failure. It’s a situation in which there is only a finite amount of resource to go around, so if one person gets some of the resource, there’s less left for other people. 

The Super Bowl is a great example. Only one team can win. There is exactly ONE trophy to be handed out. One team will get it, and the other team won’t. 

On the flip side, a “Non-Zero Sum” situation is one in which the success or reward of one person isn’t dependent on the success or reward of another person. Everyone can “win.”

Traditionally, grades or marks in school are a great example. In theory, every single person in the class could score high on an exam if they answer all of the questions correctly. One person doesn’t have to fail simply because another person got a perfect score.

But here’s the thing, psychological research shows us that collectively, we all are subject to something called the “Zero Sum Bias.” When a situation involves a reward or an outcome that we desire, we’re more likely to believe that the reward or outcome is scarce and finite, and we see the situation as a zero sum situation. 

To put it another way, if we see someone else get something we want, our Zero Sum Bias kicks in and makes us believe that we’re less likely to get that thing, simply because someone else already has it. Even if the thing they have isn’t actually scarce or finite. Even if it’s abundant and available for anyone to have.

Life is rarely a Zero Sum Game

If you go back up and re-read the list of jealousy-provoking situations above, you’ll notice one thing: none of them are zero sum situations. 

Does your cousin’s career success have anything to do with your likelihood of career success? No.

Does your neighbor’s financial stability have anything to do with your own? No.

If that Instagram influencer has the “perfect body” does it mean that you can’t? No.

You get the picture. 

Yet, because of the Zero Sum Bias, we get competitive, resentful, jealous, angry, and hostile toward people who have what we want. 

Now before you get down on yourself for this, let’s all remind ourselves that the Zero Sum Bias is a natural, normal way our minds have evolved to process and understand the world around us. Sure, it’s not “correct,” but it’s very common. We all deal with it.

Once we can accept that, and once we can be open and honest about our own hostile and competitive feelings, we can actually learn something from them! Read on.

Learn from your competitive feelings

Be on the lookout for situations where jealousy, resentment, anger, and hostility arise. 

Ask yourself if your own success or ability to achieve truly does depend on what that other person has achieved.

Many times, the answer is no.

Then go a step further. Ask yourself what it is you truly desire. If you’re feeling competitive or jealous about another person’s success, Zero Sum Bias would tell us it’s because you desire what they have. 

That is a powerful insight!!

Once you know that, you can take a more proactive, intentional stance toward setting a real goal to move in the direction of that thing you desire. 

If your neighbors are putting in a pool and you’re jealous about their financial security, be honest! Of course you want to feel financially secure!

Then, take some time to decide what you’re going to do about it. Competition won’t get you what you want in a non-zero sum game. You can’t compete with your neighbor to “win” the pool they’re putting in.

But, you can take intentional steps to improve your financial situation in your own life. How are you going to move in the direction of becoming financially secure yourself? What steps can you take, even if they’re small.

Turn negative emotions into insight

So many times, it’s our negative emotions that can teach us powerful insight about ourselves, and this is one of those times.

If you pay attention, you’ll likely uncover what it is you actually want, and you’ll be more likely to move in the direction of getting it.

If you want to learn more about your mind’s natural biases, how they can affect you, and, more importantly, what to do about them, you’ll love our signature psychological strength building program, Ascend. Check it out and learn how to make your mind work for you. 

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