Różycka-Tran, J., Boski, P., & Wojciszke, B. (2015). Belief in a zero-sum game as a social axiom: A 37-nation study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 1, 24. pdf
A group of Polish psychologists has expanded the list of social axioms with a very intriguing one. They called it “belief in a zero-sum game” which is a belief that if someone gets anything it means someone else has lost it.
The concept of zero-sum game was adopted from game theory, but it’s not very popular in cross-cultural research. This is a very important concept in institutional economics, where the zero-sum game mimics the imperfect institutions that can shape how people behave. In the reviewed paper the authors were interested not in institutional conditions but rather in perceptions of these conditions. This issue matters particularly in relation to cultural barriers of economic development. Potentially, a production of added value is problematic if no one believes it’s possible.
The previous findings from Polish samples showed that people who believe that the game has zero-sum, are generally the ones who used to lose. This is a clear tendency of a personality to keep its psychological balance – “I didn’t win, because the others took my win” (not “because I wasn’t able to”).
Using psychology student samples from 37 nations the authors measured this belief with a battery, including 8 items such as “when somebody gains, others have to lose”, “person wins only when others lose”, and surprisingly “interests of different people are inconsistent” and “When someone does much for others, he or she loses.”
At the country level the belief in zero-sum game correlated with many cultural dimensions but all the correlations disappeared after controlling for GDP per capita, except for individualism measured by Hofstede, GLOBE (family collectivism) and Suh et al.,1998 (which is actually averaged Hofstede and Triandis indices). This is the most surprizing result for authors. The authors suggest that “there is little necessity to share returns” in individualistic societies and for this reason individualistic nations believe in non-zero-sum game. This explanation seems insufficient and doesn’t explain why the correlation between individualism and zero-sum belief keeps significant after controlling for national wealth.
I would say, this is not surprizing if not confusing individualism with egoism. Let us recall what is individualism in Hofstede’s dimensions: this is generally importance of freedom at work and career success versus comfortable work conditions, self-fulfillment and learning at work. It can be harmlessly re-labeled “achievement vs comfort”. Under this label it is not surprizing that in the nations dominated by the belief in zero-sum game (and very likely sharing a culture of de-motivation as well), achievement loses its value and comfort takes its place. And this is true regardless of nation’s wealth, as it’s been demonstrated in the paper. So, nation cultures that irradiate its members with the message that achievement is worthless may share belief that success might be a curse, that a person cannot win without depriving the others. This interpretation seems much more consistent.
Some discomfort comes from the descriptive part of the paper.
The rankings of countries are not very intuitive.
BZSG is higher in poorer countries (e.g., Angola, Vietnam, Ukraine) and lower in economically advanced countries (e.g., USA, Germany, Canada).
Yes, but what about Taiwan, Singapore, Portugal or Spain that are in the upper part of the graph?
At the individual level interpersonal trust and self-esteem are independent variables in relation to belief in zero-sum game. The relations are most likely reciprocal or even reversed – it is easy to conceptualize the impact of trust into zero-sum belief.
But all these are just minor details.
The topic is very mind-provoking and this is the main feature that promises fruitful agenda. The concept of belief in zero-sum game might become a very powerful explanatory national and individual variable. A properly measured belief in zero-sum game would add a lot to our understanding of cross-cultural differences if administered over the world with representative samples. It’s a pity that World Values Survey Open call for modules has ended, for I would be happy to see it as a part of WVS.