April 22

Zero-sum Thinking Fallacy: You Can Succeed, And They Can Too

Before the tie-break rule was instituted, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut were engaged in the longest Tennis match ever played, a game that lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes. They had to duel it out on the courts for that long because Tennis is a zero-sum sport: one player has to lose for the other to win. However, most of us life isn't zero-sum but we incorrectly extend the zero-sum thinking principle to life in general.

We believe that our progress or success in life can only come at the expense of someone else’s growth. This “my gain is your loss” concept is a fallacy and can be detrimental to our happiness and wellbeing.

Renaissance in Florence

The year was 1503. Florence, Tuscany was one of the largest and most important city-states in Europe and arguably, the cultural capital of the Renaissance movement. One of Florence’s own sons, Leonardo da Vinci, had gained international fame by then. He had just finished painting the Mona Lisa, and his popularity all over Europe was skyrocketing.

Not surprisingly, the Florentines were keen for DaVinci to leave their hometown a memorial work. And so, Leonardo DaVinci, 55, was commissioned to paint a large portrait on the city council wall: The Battle of Anghiari, a scene from the 15th-century war between Florence and Milan.

A few months later, another artist, two decades younger than DaVinci, was commissioned by the same city council to paint The Battle of Cascina, a 14th-century battle between Florence and Pisa, on the opposite wall. This younger artist, a trained sculptor, had sculpted the Pieta in Rome a few years ago and had just finished perhaps what’s still the most iconic sculpture in the world today—the statue of David. His name was Michelangelo.

Two legends in one room

The city hall of Florence was the only project on which both Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo worked together at the same time. Based on what historians tell us, the two legends didn’t get on with each other. Well, that’s putting it mildly. They saw each other as rivals and were said to harbor an intense dislike for one another. Word is that Leonardo even moved to France to avoid dealing with Michelangelo.

Anyway, (and unfortunately) for various reasons, neither artist could complete the city hall paintings. While they both had completed their sketches (also referred to as cartoons), Leonardo encountered technical difficulties and abandoned the project, while Michelangelo was summoned to the Vatican to work on a different mission and never finished his painting.

The Florentines had hoped competition between the two legends would produce patriotic, uplifting, and inspiring masterpieces. However, a study of the preliminary sketches from these artists reveals that the rivalry unleashed dark aspects of their personalities. While still creative, the drawings are said to reflect menacing and disturbing images of the two wars, perhaps a byproduct of the jealousy between the two artists?

Competition, it seems, did not spur the artists on to do their best. Instead, it cramped their styles.

Zero-sum thinking

The rivalry between DaVinci and Michelangelo is not unusual.

In the study of human history, it is rare to find two people with equal capabilities, in the same space and time, eyeing the same prize, managing to live amicably. The human desire for one-upmanship takes over very quickly thanks to the fallacy of zero-sum thinking: the cognitive bias that for one person succeed, the other one has to fail. 

Looking back through the lens of history, we are equally enamored by DaVinci’s The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s frescoes adorning the Sistine Chapel. But, in 1504, while painting the walls city hall in Florence, the two artists were convinced that there was only room for one master. Who can blame them? Because, like us, they were all too human and victims of zero-sum thinking.

The origins of zero-sum thinking

Zero-sum thinking is a term derived from game theory.

In economic theory, a zero-sum game represents a situation where one participant’s gain is equal and opposite to all other participants’ losses. After considering everyone’s gains and losses, the net result is always zero. In other words, for you to gain, someone has to lose.

Poker, for instance, where everyone contributes to a pot, and the winner takes all is a zero-sum game with one winner and multiple losers.

Zero-sum thinking is a psychological perception derived from the above concept. It is a cognitive fallacy based on the incorrect assumption that there is a fixed amount of wealth, resources, success, or happiness. This results in the “my loss is your gain” philosophy.

But before we get into why zero-sum thinking can be dangerous, first an economics-101 lesson.

Economics: The concept of value-addition

If you’re like me and spend more than a justifiable amount of time watching HGTV (or any home renovation shows), you’ll have come across shows where property developers buy the worst house at the best location, redo it, and then list it again for sale at a jaw-dropping price.

While it’s tempting to think that the property developers are merely taking advantage of the greater fool theory (by purchasing assets and selling them at an even higher price after just putting a coat of paint on,) the shows demonstrate the value-creation process.

Let’s say a developer buys a dilapidated house for 100K and then brings it up to code and updates the house with modern conveniences, spending 75K in the process (cost of labor and materials) for a total of 175K.

When the developers eventually sell the house for 275K, it’s not right to assume they fleeced the new buyer for a cool 100K. The developers have created value: they’ve added a market-determined 100K worth of value that didn’t exist in the world before.

Of course, the developers generate a monetary profit in the process. But the buyer, in a sense, gains from the process, too, by finding a dream house to live in. Ultimately, the house is worth what the buyer (or the market) will pay for it. So, rather than being a zero-sum, win-lose proposition, the developers create a win-win plan.

Fixed-pie fallacy

Value-creation is everywhere.

When an artist records a new album and lists it for a premium on iTunes, she’s creating value and, in the process, wealth for herself.

When you buy parts and put together a working computer to sell on eBay for a profit, you create a new product that did not exist before, thus adding economic value.

But, with zero-sum thinking, we forget the value-addition part and instead treat resources and emotions like a fixed pie. We believe that, like a pie, there are only so many servings available of wealth, happiness, and success. As a result, for one to get a slice, we assume others have to forgo theirs.

A research study about student grades demonstrates how we fall victim to the zero-sum thinking fallacy.

How many students can get an A in class?

For the study, students’ presentations in a class were graded non-relationally, i.e., based on their performance against a predetermined set of answers rather than by comparing students’ work against one another.

In other words, there were no limits on grades. Potentially every student could get an A if they got all the answers right.

After most of the presentations were complete and graded, students were shown the class grade distribution up to that point and then asked to predict what grade the next presenter would get.

Here’s how the prediction went:

a) If the grade distribution showed previous students had high grades, the prediction was for the next presenter to have a lower grade. In this case, the students were demonstrating zero-sum thinking bias. They reasoned that since most of the class had high grades already(wins), the remainder were likely to have lower grades (losses).

b) Interestingly, if the grade distribution showed that previous grades were low, the students did not exhibit zero-sum thinking. They predicted lower grades for the rest of the class too.

This led researchers to believe that we exhibit zero-sum thinking only for desirable resources (higher grades in this case.) The researchers concluded that the root of this problem is that we compete for a limited set of coveted resources. Conversely, we don’t care much about resources that are abundant. 

Recognizing zero-sum thinking

Here are some examples of how commonplace zero-sum thinking is in our culture.

Quality of life around the world

We love to complain about how things are constantly taking a turn for the worse. And, we long for the seemingly idyllic days of the past. But the truth is starkly different. Vox published a study that shows how the quality of life has gotten better—way better—for a large percentage of the world’s population in the last forty years.

Extreme poverty has fallen dramatically the world over since 1987.

Here’s the thing: The fact that people’s lives in India and China have improved does not mean the quality of living in the developed world has suffered. The world, as a whole, has gotten better, in contrast to what zero-sum thinking (and most politicians) would make us believe.


When a new child is born into a family, there is a perception that the parents may now have to split their love between two children. In this case, the assumption is that the parents’ have a finite capacity to love and that the newborn’s love will come at the cost of loving the older child.

But, ask any parent, and they’ll tell you it’s like they’ve grown a new heart full of love when their newborn came along.

Consumer bias

In a research study, two laundry detergents (Brands A and B) were compared on their stain removal capability. Brand A claimed to specialize in stain removal, while brand B claimed to have multiple specializations – stain removal, static prevention, and fade resistance.

Consumers preferred to buy brand A for its stain removal capability even though brand B touted the same stain removal features. The reason? Consumers automatically assumed that brand B’s stain removal might not be as good because the brand was also focused on other attributes—static prevention and fade resistance. See the logical fallacy?

Why do we exhibit zero-sum thinking?

For most of our evolutionary existence, we were forced to compete for limited resources. Survival of the fittest and all that. So, it’s easy to blame our zero-sum thinking tendency on our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

However, that does not explain why we continue to engage in this behavior even in modern times, especially in situations when there is no paucity of resources.

There is a simpler, less pleasant, and probably more accurate explanation.

We are raised in a culture where we see everything and everyone as competition.

Our beliefs in the winner-take-all philosophy and the hierarchical and pyramid model of success are encouraged. We are taught that the higher you go, the narrower the space, and ultimately there is just room for one at the top.

By making our brains think we’re forever short on resources – money, time, emotions – our brain creates a scarcity mindset—a feeling like we will always be lacking in resources. This, in turn, causes us to make poor decisions. We focus on the short-term problem at hand to the detriment of long-term consequences.

The trouble with zero-sum thinking

Zero-sum thinking can lead us to act irrationally and create unnecessary insecurities and jealousy, making us less trustworthy of others. It encourages competition and dissuades cooperation. We start hoarding resources instead of sharing them.  

And more often than not, zero-sum thinking leads to poor, regrettable decisions and avoidable interpersonal conflicts. It makes us less-nice humans. And by no means can we call that evolutionary progress.


Early in my career, a wise person gave me a wonderful nugget of financial wisdom. He told me there were two ways to live a financially sound life:

1) Reduce spending or

2) Increase your earnings

Most well-meaning folks usually recommend the first option as the best way to live well within your means—live frugally, spend less, save, etc. I would, too, because I believe in staying away from the hedonic treadmill.

That said, option 1 is a classic example of zero-sum thinking where we box ourselves into thinking that we have a finite capacity to earn. Though good advice, this option creates constant financial pressure because, quite honestly, there is only so much discretionary spending we can cut back on.

Option 2, on the other hand, opens up possibilities and allows for a greater margin of error.

Of course, the point of this example isn’t limited to finances alone. The same concept applies to living and loving.  

Gains don’t always have to be accompanied by corresponding losses. Your failure is not necessary for someone else’s success and vice-versa.

The pie is not fixed. It can be as large or small as you want it to be.



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