Something’s gotta give, right?

A zero-sum mindset could be impacting our well-being.

Rachika Komal
4 min readJun 25, 2021
Photo by Danil Aksenov on Unsplash

The fixed pie

In economics and game theory, there’s an interesting phenomenon called the zero-sum fallacy, or the idea that an economic pie is fixed, and that there will always be a winner and a loser; for someone to grow rich, another must become poor.

In situations of zero-sum, both parties have goals that are invariably at odds with each other. To put it simply: either I win and you lose, or you win and I lose. The thought that outcomes could be mutually beneficial is never really considered.

This idea extends beyond just books and experiments; it spills into other areas of our lives, shaping our mindset and behavior in a way that impacts our well-being.

Let’s think about the modern-day workplace for a moment. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Katica Roy, David G. Smith, and W. Brad Johnson, talk about how this bias pervades the workplace equity narrative. Their research suggests that a big reason for any diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative to fail is because of the zero-sum notion that men must sacrifice their resources and power for women to earn a place on the table.

While there might be situations in which one party’s gains are directly balanced by the losses of other parties (think tennis matches) but what this bias tends to do is make us perceive situations as zero-sum when that’s actually not the case.

So, how did we get here?

Like most things that are problematic nowadays, zero-sum bias too is a product of evolution. Researchers suggest that it likely arose as a defensive response to resource-scarce environments in the early civilizations. It was a way to get ready for a potential conflict over the limited resources.

In such environments where resources weren’t being grown actively, it’s likely that people who viewed interactions with others as transactional — such as territorial competitors or sexual rivals — had a selective advantage. It then makes sense why natural selection ensured it remains an instinctive way of thinking among modern humans. This is where we come from.

As human societies evolve and techniques to procure and grow resources expand, the utility of a zero-sum bias has lapsed. But the realization that win-win opportunities abound hasn’t yet sunk in deep enough to create a shift in our mindsets.

Scarcity breeds more scarcity

Living with such a mindset is taxing at best and problematic at worst. This type of thinking — often implicit and automatic — can create friction and erode trust in our interactions.

We can either try to win by way of making others lose or allow others to win and believe we’ll lose as a result. No matter what, we’re buying into the story that we’re destined to be the loser: when we’re up against someone we love, we naturally don’t want to win, or when we intentionally put ourselves in conflict with others in an attempt to win.

The detrimental side effect here is our tendency to become combative and/or defensive when the situation doesn’t call for it. It affects our well-being in ways we don’t account for.

We might miss out on building meaningful connections, or realizing opportunities because we’re more focused on burning bridges than creating a network of powerful allies that work together for a joint success — and that’s really where the magic unfolds if you ask me.

Cooperation is a cornerstone of the success of our species; we tend to hinder this when we perceive our relationships and social issues with a win-lose mindset.

Can the pie grow bigger?

It’s personally been a challenge for me to shift away from such thinking, given how impulsive it can be. While it’s super helpful to be aware of this pattern of thinking, there are ways to put this awareness into action.

A powerful way to counter this mindset is to identify our triggers. What situations make us think in a zero-sum way? Is it with family, our friends or at work? How often does it happen? How many times has it happened in the last month?

Using such prompts to trace our thinking is step one; we need to become aware of the source of our triggers. Once we have that in place it’s really about practicing mindfulness the next time we are in that situation. We can do this by slowing down our reasoning process to understand the situation for what it is. We must ask ourselves: How can this opportunity benefit all of us? Does someone have to lose? Is there a better way to think about it?

It’s about being able to think in a win-win manner and adopt a positive-sum approach to our interactions. Finally, we must try and inculcate the realization that by helping others we are likely to generate feelings of reciprocity, which honestly outweighs the short-term gains that accompany zero-sum thinking.



Rachika Komal

I'm a behavioral researcher interested to work on challenges in the space of work-life, well-being, and education.