Zero-Sum Thinking and the Roots of U.S. Political Divides
Publication: Harvard University Working Paper, 2022
We examine the causes and consequences of an important cultural and psychological trait: the extent to which one views the world in zero-sum terms — i.e., that benefits to one person or group tend to come at the cost of others. We implement a survey among approximately 15,000 individuals living in the United States that measures zero-sum thinking, political and policy views, and a rich set of characteristics about their ancestry. We find that a more zero-sum view is strongly correlated with several policy views about the importance of government, the value of redistributive policies, the impact of immigration, and one’s political orientation. We find that zero-sum thinking can be explained by experiences of an individual’s ancestors (parents and grandparents), including the amount of intergenerational upward mobility they experienced, the degree of economic hardship they suffered, whether they immigrated to the United States or were exposed to more immigrants, and whether they had experiences with enslavement. These findings underscore the importance of psychological traits, and how they are transmitted inter-generationally, in explaining current political divides in the United States.