The Zero Sum View of Life

At an annual conference, I have lunch with a colleague whom I don’t know very well. When the bill comes he says that he paid when we had lunch once before a few years back, and he even remembers the approximate amount. I pay the bill, tip generously to make it equal to his prior spend, and resolve never to have lunch with him again.

A woman at a party says that she likes the new Italian restaurant in town. She and her husband ate there last week and really enjoyed it. Before she can finish her account, a guy overhears and snorts “HA! The BEST Italian restaurant in town is X” and then goes on to explain in boring detail why his favorite Italian restaurant is in all ways superior to the one she liked. The woman lapses into stunned silence.

I call these sorts of things the “zero sum view of life”, and I find them toxic to my spirit. The lunch buyer ostensibly did something kind a few years ago: He bought me lunch. But it wasn’t truly generous because it went on a mental balance sheet in his head that I *owed* him. He’s very professionally successful and doesn’t lack for money, but apparently lacks something else in his worldview that is possessed by most people I hang with, who could not tell you who paid last but will certainly fight to pay the current bill regardless.

In the second example, the woman thought she was sharing an enjoyable experience with other people who might pursue the same. But the listener heard something different: A contest had been announced about who knew the best Italian restaurant and there could only be one winner. The thought that two good Italian restaurants could exist in the same city, or even that two different people could have different favorite Italian restaurants and de gustibus non est disputandum was not admissible in his philosophy.

Speaking with my psychologist hat on, I wonder where the zero sum view of life comes from and what the emotional payoff is for the person who holds it. It seems, based on casual observation, more prevalent among men than women, but that’s the only pattern I see. I find it hard to understand why people would live life with such constant resentment of others and sense of competition with the world; I am only sure that it’s worth significant effort to avoid them.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.