Psychological underpinnings of zero-sum thinking

Samuel G. B. Johnson, Jiewen Zhang, Frank C. Keil

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter in a published conference proceeding

5 Citations (SciVal)


A core proposition in economics is that voluntary exchanges benefit both parties. We show that people often deny the mutually beneficial nature of exchange, instead using zero-sum thinking. Participants read about simple exchanges of goods and services, judging whether each party to the transaction was better off or worse off afterwards. These studies revealed that zero-sum beliefs are pervasive. These beliefs seem to arise in part due to intuitive mercantilist beliefs that money has value over-and-above
what it can purchase, since buyers are seen as less likely to benefit than sellers, and barters are often seen as failing to benefit either party (Study 1). Zero-sum beliefs are greatly reduced by giving reasons for the exchange (Study 2), suggesting that a second mechanism underlying zero-sum thinking is a failure to spontaneously take the perspective of the buyer. Implications for politics and business are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 40th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society
PublisherCurran Associates, Inc.
Number of pages6
ISBN (Print)9781510872059
Publication statusPublished - 25 Aug 2018

Publication series

NameProceedings of the Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society
ISSN (Electronic)1069-7977


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