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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

45 thoughts on “The Zero Sum View of Life”

  1. Read Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” . She has examples where a man describes an experience, a woman, attempting to show empathy, describes a similar experience and the man takes it as competition.

    I think you are being harsh tying resentment and competition. Competition can be fun; the problem comes when only one person is playing the game but I do not think the problem is a deep one; rather like dealing with an overenthusiastic puppy.

    1. Tannen’s is a good book, I used to give to clients when I was in marital counseling game.

      I agree that mutually agreed to competition can be fun (and motivating). There is something disturbing though about people to whom competition is everything always, who at every moment are scanning the terrain to see whether they are winning or losing (because they are sure someone always is) and attack whoever they think happens to be winning, even if that person has not a competitive bone in his/her body.

      Resentment is another side to the same thing, rather than feeling good for people to whom something good happens, feeling instead minimized by it. I remember being on a professional committee where a colleague (female in this case) said we should not recognize another colleague’s enormous contributions to our field with an award, because when one person gets an award everyone else feels bad about themselves.

      1. I think the sense that doing or saying something nice for one person is unfair to all other people has grown – I do not remember it being so prevalent in my youth. It clearly favors the lazy who wish to do nothing.

        The funniest instances, for me, are when a man says something like “Your dress is lovely.” and then explains that he does not mean to imply that my other dresses are not also lovely. I’ve never heard a woman worry that a compliment was an implied insult.

        During the campaign, Anne Romney said that she and Mitt liked to spend vacations with their family. She was accused of implying that the Obama’s did not. That seemed a stretch.

        1. Ancient joke (well, from The Joys of Yiddish): A mother buys her son two neckties. When next he sees her, he wears one of them. The mother says “So, the other one you didn’t like?”

      2. I just had a similar experience. In a meeting a person got up and thanked some other people in exactly the way you should thank people–for specific things they had done to make things work much better the day before. Then the person running the meeting jumped all over the subordinate doing the thanking for not including everyone in a generic “We really appreciate your hard work” sort of way that’s the norm in that place. How can you be in management and not get that what encourages people is hearing that management notices and appreciates hard work and sacrifice and that if you make that clear everyone feels better about working there? Over time everyone gets their fair share of praise and if competition results it’s competition to do a better job.

  2. The accounting program for favours received and due is pretty resilient. Isn´t it still there, running quietly in the background, in all our relationships, escept perhaps the one-way street of parenting? We can´t wish it away, only try to keep it under control. The people you rightly despise are those who literally make a virtue of biological necessity, and make exchange the ruling principle of their moral code.

    To anticipate a glibertarian objection, voluntary and honest exchange is of course better than coercion or manipulation; though much commercial exchange, including the employment realtionship, is coerced or manipulated in some way.

    1. James wrote: The accounting program for favours received and due is pretty resilient. Isn´t it still there, running quietly in the background, in all our relationships, escept perhaps the one-way street of parenting?

      Certainly there can be an adaptive function to this, for example making sure that one has not been exploited. One can though recognize the calculus regarding balance of payments yet decide it is irrelevant for decision making. When I die, I am sure I will have done more for some of my friends than they have for me, and, that in other cases it will be the reverse. But they are my friends so it doesn’t matter.

      Likewise in marriage, it will not be perfectly even for most, perhaps all couples. Yet to make a commitment is to accept this and proceed anyway. If your spouse gets Alzheimer’s at age 70, you become a care giver which is highly demanding. But the committed approach would be to say “This is a bad deal for me, and my spouse will die in my debt, but I am going to stay with it anyway because my spouse would do the same for me”.

      1. “I wonder where the zero sum view of life comes from”

        That always seemed to me to be the central message of organized sports as I was growing up (East Texas) and later in the business world. Everything was always a competition and there was only one winner. The measure was usually how big the paycheck was.

        1. Yup. This is why golf and bowling are such terrific sports. (Or, if you prefer “sports” to be more athletic, then “games.”) You can play them competitively if you want to, or you can choose to work hard at improving, at doing your new best, without having to beat your friends who are your fellow players.

        2. This brings to mind a comment Ted Turner once made, reflecting the impoverishment of a zero-sum view of life:

          “Life is a game, and money is how we keep score.”

        3. I’m living in East Texas now, and yes, there’s a lot of that. I’m not from here, I come from a big city up north and when I tell folks that people there tend to be friendly and helpful, they don’t believe me.

          You know where I really notice it the most? Driving.

      2. An anthropologist would say that our relationships are founded on being in debt to each other, on delayed reciprocity. When you itemize and precisely pay back a debt, it implies that the transaction is done, as if you’d just purchased something and had fulfilled your responsibility toward the seller. As with your friend at lunch, or as if you received a birthday gift and immediately wrote a check to the giver for the cash amount, it indicates that when you’ve paid in full, you don’t owe anything so you don’t need to see each other again. But when the reciprocity is delayed, and often asymmetrical, like in a good friendship or marriage, you can’t even total up the debts, much less repay them…and so you’ve got a relationship. This may not explain every interaction or relationship but it does help explain why we’re uncomfortable being in debt in some contexts, and uncomfortable with exact reckonings in others.

  3. Fortunately, the examples you gave are pretty rare. As soon as I finished reading the episode with your, “he owes me a lunch” acquaintance I broke out laughing. Why? I know that guy! And, its been about ten years since he “settled up” with me.


    1. May he dine alone in perpetuity…

      The examples in my post are specific and yes in that sense rare, but if you surf many websites you can see the same phenomenon daily in comments sections (thankfully, for the most part, not at RBC but at many sites). A number of people apparently read articles not to learn anything or engage with anyone but to “take someone down”. The desire to do this is strong enough that in many cases, they attack people who agree with them because they didn’t bother to finish reading, they just jumped to the comments and attack whatever fragment suited their purpose.

    2. Restaurant oneupmanship is unfortunately far from rare. It is particularly common, and annoying, when the subject is a specific dish, or obscure place. “This roadside stand – usually located in rural Mexico – has the best mole sauce in the world,” said in a way that suggests it is a factual statement, and not hyperbole.

  4. It sounds like you’ve encountered either men in grey or their victims.

    “All that matters in life,” the man in grey went on, “is to climb the ladder of success, amount to something, own things. When a person climbs higher than the rest, amounts to more, owns more things, everything else comes automatically: friendship, love, respect, et cetera.”

  5. To this point, go to the next post (The Wizards Behind Corporate Mergers) watch the video, which is great, and then watch the video “The wedding toast”.

  6. Slightly related: my 20-something children and their friends love to play board games and are competitive about it. But their favorite recent game find is called Pandemic, and is not competitive among the players, but pits the players against a world-wide pandemic to save humanity. It is interesting to me that there don’t seem to be many such games.

    1. There may be a small trend in that direction. I was recently introduced to a game by a twenty-something where everyone works together to save a fantasy universe.

      On the issue of sports, I think there is something to be said for team sports that require actually working together to succeed as opposed to golf or bowling where you either do it individually or aggregate individual performances. It isn’t necessary to buy into Vince Lombardi’s philosophy–although I think you get run out of town on a rail if you say so in Texas. I’m not sure that professional sports in this country hasn’t long since moved well beyond that focus on winning as the only thing. As Rasheed Wallace once opined, the focus now is on CTC — Cut The Check.

      1. speaking as a texan who always detested sports of all sorts, the money quote here is along the lines of “some people think football is matter of life and death but we know it’s more important than that.”

        1. Come on, don’t exaggerate. The most important thing in Texas is barbecue.

          And credit where credit is due: If everything in TX was on the level of barbecue, I’d have nothing to complain about.

    2. ‘Co-op’ board games are less common than straight zero-sum ones, but there are plenty of them out there. I think the main reason there aren’t more of them is that they are more difficult to design (you don’t want it to be impossible for beginners, too easy for experts, or so luck-driven that the strategic element is lost). There are also more complex ‘traitor games’ such as the Battlestar Galactica board game, which are primarily co-op but one or more players is secretly working against the group.

      1. There was also a game from the now defunct Avalon Hill Company called “Republic of Rome.” To win you had to overthrow the republic and become emperor. However, a lot of the things you would do to advance your cause weakened Rome and if it fell, everyone lost. So there was a tightrope to walk of cooperating enough to avoid losing while defecting enough to win.

  7. I’ve never been cheap, like your dining companion (whose cheapness is a different malady from competitiveness or resentment, I think) but when I was younger I did have a take-no-prisoners attitude towards conversation that resembled that of the guy at your party. I think insecurity is part of it, as is arrogance, but in my case there was another cause too: my parents conversed like that. Every observation was a fine occasion for an argument (or, Monty Python-style, just a contradiction); very few things were an occasion for simple shared joy or amusement, or even friendly banter. They liked argument more than fellowship, I guess. Growing up with them, my sister and I grew to like it more as well–or rather, we didn’t really know there was any alternative. I’ve heard of other families that were like this–mostly the families of thoroughly disagreeable people, Pat Buchanan for one.

    I trained myself out of this habit in adulthood, at least mostly and most of the time–not completely; there’s a reason I’m an academic–through a sort of emotional induction. I wanted more close friends, and less occasion for the friends I had to forgive me as often as they had to, and tried to figure out through observation how one did that. But it’s been hard and has taken years. (By the way, this social perversion may be more common among men than women because women more spontaneously tune in to others’ reactions. Men and women who equally learn this awful habit of relating may have unequal skill at unlearning it.)

    So Keith, you probably shouldn’t over-think this as a sign of the times. Sometimes the personal is personal.

      1. A bit late to the party, but to reinforce Andrew’s point: just got back from taking care of my mother after surgery, we’re not close, I’m all she has. Over a week spent stoically listening to her forgotten behavior patterns repeated endlessly in a cycle. I was forced to realize that they were impressed upon me and I’ve spent many years unlearning her speech patterns and behaviors and driving off the dark cloud following her around. Nature and nurture. My nature allowed me to change ( I hope ), my mom’s is that she won’t and has no one else.

    1. By the way, this social perversion may be more common among men than women because women more spontaneously tune in to others’ reactions.

      This is an observable pattern, but if you look more closely you’ll also see that women are taught to pay more attention to others’ reactions — it’s not an innate ability, but a learnable skill. In fact, any charismatic male leader (and every con-man in the world) has it to a high degree. So don’t think that just by the accident of having been born male, this ability is denied to you.

  8. My experience of the ‘whose turn is it to pay?’ business is that the person in ‘credit’ doesn’t really care, but the person in ‘debt’ is eager to balance the books. When there’s an argument, it’s because two people want to pay for each other, not because nobody wants to pay. I don’t know if this is specific to my (middle-class English) culture or what, but generally the one who gives monetary favours has a higher social status than the one who receives them, and people are more anxious about losing status than losing money.

  9. I think that you’re conflating two types of behavior that, while similar, are different.

    The dinner companion behavior is, I believe, more common among women than men. Typically, when men dine out in groups, for instance, they merely divide the bill equally, even agreeing on an appropriate tip. (There is actually a hilarious bit on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” about the related issue of “tip coordination. It has even given rise to its own Tee Shirt. Women, especially older women who have not had the experience of going to lunch with business colleagues, often will attempt to split the bill based on who ordered what.

    On the other hand, the “best Italian restaurant” example is typically male. It is, I believe, a form of oneupsmanship that is an attempt by the challenger to display superior status. That is, the implied message is “You’re really stupid. The best Italian restaurant is not X, but Y.” (Note, to my knowledge there is no such thing as “oneupswomanship.”)

    1. That each-pays-her-own thing is endemic, I find, among older women, of which I am one and therefore have frequent occasion to notice. It drives me crazy, though, the gene for that having somehow been left out of my personal make-up. I just hate ending a pleasant restaurant meal with friends in frantic calculations over piddling amounts of money. Recently, I attended a fiftieth high school reunion and went out to dinner with three other women who attended. There was a suggestion of splitting the bill equally. One woman was clearly troubled by this, but seemed able only to splutter, not to articulate the concern. It took me a while to realize she had ordered less expensive items than the rest of us had ordered. I nudged the person sitting next to me who was organizing the bill payment, and she re-arranged the math to accommodate this person. (Women do sometimes display a talent for doing that sort of thing without making a federal case out of it.) I’d love to be able to report that this was an instance of a woman who had little experience with dining with colleagues or perhaps even an instance of how we older women may have slender means and need to watch every penny, because either explanation would be so much easier to swallow than recognizing the cravenness of the behavior. However, the woman who didn’t want to pay a penny more than she herself had incurred had spent the entire weekend of the reunion regaling everyone with her tales of how well she had done for herself in real estate. This woman was playing a zero-sum game in every sense of the word. She could not be generous, even to show off what a great success she was!

  10. Here is the process for deciding who pays, where “OP” is shorthand for everyone but you:

    If OP is a regular companion, you swap each time, not worrying about the actual cost, as it evens out over time, well enough.

    If OP is not a regular companion, by convention each financially solid person argues for the right to pay the bill. This should be resolved in favor of the most enthusiastic petitioner, with an implicit tilt to the person who did the inviting, within 30s or so.

    If OP is not financially solid, you pay the bill, w/o making any kind of display over it. The principle is “pay it forward”.

    Similarly, if OP is junior in age/social standing, you pay the bill.

    These last two rules can result in some consternation in the OP if not handled deftly, but hey! It’s your job to use your superior position in life to get this right.

    That’s it.

    OP who violate any of these rules do not receive the opportunity to participate next time. But this time you demur to their gauche behavior.

    So KH, of course acts correctly.

    1. But the corollary here is that regular companions also don’t worry too much about remembering who paid last time. The point is to demonstrate that the friendship supersedes petty accounts-keeping, and that it matters more than who paid what when.

  11. I think this is a sign of the times, but has been for a long while. Size wars matter more in a winner-take-most society.

    As for the accounting thing the experience in my circle has typically been that when there isn’t any explicit reckoning there are always a few people who end up throwing more into the pot and a few who end up paying less. (Back in the days of weekly office lunches, one of the senior editors routinely pulled an extra $20 or two from his wallet to cover the bill and tip after the rest of us had ostensibly chipped in.) And the same on the interpersonal level — some people time and again seem to be short of cash or have left their wallet in their other pants. So if you travel in certain circles developing a solid memory for tabs may be the only way to stay afloat.

  12. The restaurant one-upmanship is much too crude. Calvin Trillin gets it right. He says somewhere that for much of America, a crucial question “What do you drive?” For car-scoffing New Yorkers, the equivalent question is, “Where do you go in Chinatown?” The answer — a sub-basement place for Shandong noodles or Sichuan yak tail, etc.– is one-upped by, “Oh, is that place still good?”

    1. Trillin is a genius, of course, who manages to make fun of the whole thing while sort of seeming to be a participant. His latest is terrific.

  13. Back in the late 80s, when I was fresh out of college and much poorer than I am now, a friend and I used to have dinner each Friday night and take turns paying. One night, when it was her turn to pay, she selected a more expensive restaurant than usual. When I mentioned this and offered to pay some of the bill (as she was perhaps a bit poorer than I was), she replied, “It’s okay, I’m expecting you to put out later.” Suffice it to say her expectations were met and exceeded.

  14. I’m curious to know how you would have reacted if he had remembered that YOU had paid last time, and made an effort to shout you lunch this time to pay you back.

    I find that I remember when other people have shouted me things and make sure to repay them. I am uncomfortable with this kind of accounting, but would feel bad to mooch on other people, and also just find it hard not to remember.

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