Different approaches to 'zero-sum' thinking, contribute to political divide

December 18, 2019

Voters tend to believe that one political party's gain can only be obtained at another party's expense, according to a new study. Conservatives engage in so-called "zero-sum thinking" when the status quo is challenged, a finding that explains their tendency to uphold social hierarchies. Liberals, meanwhile, engage in zero-sum thinking when the status quo is upheld, leading them to question social hierarchies. The results illustrate how contrasting uses of zero-sum thinking contribute to political divides in the Unites States, suggesting policies may be more likely to attain bipartisan support if they are framed to emphasize the status quo when presented to conservative voters and if they are framed to challenge the status quo when presented to liberal voters. As examples of zero-sum thinking, some white Americans believe that anti-white prejudice stems from decreases in anti-black prejudice, and some American-born citizens worry that rising immigration threatens their own economic well-being. This thinking prevents "win-win" resolutions and reduces trust during political debates about who stands to win and who stands to lose from a proposed policy. To examine the effect of political ideology on zero-sum thinking, Shai Davidai et al. performed a series of six studies. They first analyzed World Value Survey data from 2,128 Americans, finding that the more strongly respondents identified as belonging to the right side of the political spectrum, the more they believed people can only get rich at the expense of others. Subsequent studies randomly assigned participants from Amazon's Mechanical Turk to positions that either challenged or maintained the status quo on issues including immigration and racial status inequality, finding across the board that conservatives engaged in zero-sum thinking only when an issue challenged the status quo, while liberals did the opposite.
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

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