Preferences over economic policies often reflect deep societal divides. Individuals frequently disagree on the right level of taxation, on whether the government should do more to support the poor, and on the need for affirmative action policies on gender or race, among others. Most of these divisions are often attributed to a rise in partisan-led polarisation, as documented across a range of European and Asian countries and, notably, in the US (Silver 2022). But there is also increasing evidence of rising within-party variation in political views (Oliphant and Cerda 2019, Bonomi et al. 2021, Gethin et al. 2021), so partisanship cannot explain the full story.
We explore whether, at a more fundamental level, the way individuals perceive economic interactions can help explain these divides (Chinoy et al. 2023). In particular, we focus on how approaching policy problems with a zero-sum mindset ultimately shapes policy preferences. A zero-sum worldview implies that the gains of some are invariably the losses of others, based on the assumption that societal output is limited and that how it is distributed is determined by competing societal interests. Conversely, an alternative worldview centres on how economic interactions generate value, rather than solely redistributing existing resources. Embracing one perspective over the other can have profound implications, as it will likely influence people’s endorsement of certain policies that determine how resources in the economy should be distributed.
This column explores both the origins and the implications of zero-sum thinking, based on a survey of 20,400 US-based respondents. We first develop a measure of zero-sum thinking that captures views held across four types of representative economic interactions. Respondents were asked to consider whether:
- increases in the economic wellbeing of non-US citizens come at the expense of US citizens;
- trade gains drive trade losses across different countries;
- the wealth gains of some US ethnic groups imply wealth losses among other groups; and
- wealth accumulated by the rich comes at the expense of the poor in the US.
Figure 1 Responses to zero-sum statements, by ethnicity, citizenship, trade, and income
Notes: The figure shows the distributions of responses to the zero-sum questions, where answer options are (1) strongly disagree, (2) disagree, (3) neither agree nor disagree, (4) agree, (5) strongly agree.
We then examine whether a zero-sum view of the world is associated with policy preferences, namely, attitudes towards taxation and redistribution, affirmative action, and immigration policies. For example, on redistribution policy: if an individual has a zero-sum view of the world, they perceive that the wealth and income of some come at the expense of others. As a result, they may believe the government should correct this through an income tax, which would be used to provide basic public goods or public healthcare, pensions, and social programmes. If, however, one’s worldview is not zero-sum, then the income and wealth of the rich are not perceived to have come at the expense of others – the rich getting richer is instead a tide that lifts all boats. In this case, taxing and redistributing wealth would be considered unfair and possibly even inefficient.
Similarly, on gender and racial issues, zero-sum individuals believe that the disadvantaged group is doing worse because of the advantaged group and want to correct this with policies such as affirmative action. By contrast, individuals who do not view the world in zero-sum terms do not see much of a justification to single out support for disadvantaged groups.
Our survey shows that individuals who view the world in more zero-sum terms support policies that redistribute income from the rich to the poor and policies that help disadvantaged groups, such as affirmative action for women and Black Americans. Zero-sum thinking is, however, also associated with less support for immigration, as immigrants are perceived to benefit at the expense of US citizens. Notably, these policy views are associated with real actions: more zero-sum individuals are more likely to sign a petition to increase taxes on the rich and redistribute to the poor and to donate to an organisation fighting racial injustice.
While a zero-sum mindset generally correlates with stronger alignment with the Democratic party, there is significant overlap in the extent of zero-sum thinking across political parties, as shown in Figure 2. In fact, zero-sum thinking helps explain important and often puzzling within-party variation in policy views. We find that within the Democratic party, more zero-sum thinking explains opposition to immigration, while among Republicans, zero-sum thinking is associated with support for universal healthcare and redistribution.
Figure 2 Zero-sum mindset, Democrats vs Republicans
Notes: Vertical lines show the mean zero-sum index for each political party. ‘Republican’ includes respondents who considered themselves ‘strong Republican’ or ‘moderate Republican’, and ‘Democrat’ includes respondents who considered themselves ‘strong Democrat’ or ‘moderate Democrat’. Those who considered themselves ‘independent’ are not shown.
Next, we ask where this variation in zero-sum thinking comes from. We focus on three factors that are especially relevant to US history: the experience of intergenerational economic mobility (the ‘American dream’), historical mass immigration, and the legacy of slavery. Consistent with the fact that historical forces can shape worldviews, a combination of an individual’s own and ancestral experiences appears to influence present-day zero-sum thinking. The experience of greater intergenerational upward mobility is associated with less zero-sum thinking today, with the effects being fairly similar for mobility experienced across all generations (measured as far back as great-grandparents).
A history of immigration in the family is also associated with less zero-sum thinking. This relationship is strongest for individuals who are immigrants themselves, followed by the children of immigrant parents, and then by the grandchildren of immigrant grandparents. This is consistent with the perception that the immigrant experience benefits everyone and helps enlarge the economic pie. Interestingly, there are also indirect effects of exposure to immigration. If the respondent’s grandparents were raised in a county with more immigrants during the Age of Mass Migration to the US (1860–1920), the respondent is less likely to think in zero-sum terms today.
Finally, slavery was an inherently zero-sum economic and social system, and consistent with this, we find that exposure to the legacy of slavery is associated with more zero-sum thinking today. Among all racial groups in the US, Black respondents are, on average, the most likely to embrace a zero-sum view of the world. Among them, those who have ancestors who were enslaved have a more zero-sum worldview today. Similarly, individuals (and their ancestors) who grew up in a county with a higher share of slaves in 1860 are also more likely to think in zero-sum terms today. Even those who grew up in non-Southern counties with a higher share of Southern migrants in the early 1900s, who would presumably have helped diffuse a Southern mentality, are more likely to hold a zero-sum view of the world. This evidence suggests that in the case of slavery, both the intergenerational transmission of perspectives from ancestors to respondents and the institutionalisation of the legacy of slavery may have contributed to the persistence of zero-sum thinking across time.
The patterns that we uncover are not unique to the US. We find that they also hold more generally. Evidence from a sample of 72 countries and over 192,000 respondents to the World Values Survey shows that zero-sum thinking aligns with stronger support for left-wing politics, government redistribution, and immigration restrictions, echoing our results based on the US sample. We also find that early-life experiences help shape zero-sum thinking worldwide: Figure 3 shows that early-life exposure to economic growth is negatively associated with zero-sum thinking today, across the 72 countries in our sample.
Figure 3 Early-life exposure to economic growth and zero-sum thinking, across 72 countries
Notes: The black solid line is the percentage change in bottom 50% income for the first 20 years of an individual’s life, averaged over five-year bins. Data are from the World Inequality Database. The blue dashed line is the average zero-sum index for respondents, also by five-year bins of birth year.
In a time marked by rising political polarisation and deeply entrenched positions across various policy domains, understanding how a zero-sum mindset arises and how it frames the way individuals evaluate policy alternatives may be critical.
Bonomi, G, N Gennaioli, and G Tabellini (2021), “Identity, beliefs, and political conflict”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 136(4): 2371–411.
Chinoy, S, N Nunn, S Stantcheva, and S Sequeira (2022), “Zero-sum thinking and the roots of US political divides”.
Gethin, A, C Martinez-Toledano, and T Piketty (2021), “Brahmin left versus merchant right: Changing political cleavages in 21 Western democracies, 1948–2020”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 137(1): 1–48.
Oliphant, J B, and A Cerda (2019), “Republicans and Democrats have different top priorities for US immigration policy”, Pew Research Center, 8 September.
Silver, L (2022), “Most across 19 countries see strong partisan conflict in their society, especially in South Korea and the US”, Pew Research Center, 16 November.