I have been thinking a lot about zero-sum games lately. There are a lot of situations where someone has to win and someone has to lose. As a sports lover, I personally like some types of zero-sum games. Athletic competitions would not be the same if there was not some type of incentive, some type of target. You play hard because you want to emerge victorious at the end of the day. You want to add the additional victory in your win column, and the inevitable result of your increase is that the other team has to increase the total in their loss column by one.
Even in my day job as an insurance underwriter, I see elements of zero-sum games. If I end up selling an insurance policy, that means that someone else did not. My utility increased, but someone else did not increase their utility by an equivalent amount. This is not really a perfect example because that person’s decrease in utility is not necessarily identical to my increase, and the whole point of a zero-sum is that the increase and the decrease are equivalent. One has to lose in order for the other one to gain, and in theory, as the name implies, those should be exactly the same.
All of this being said, there are a lot of things that do not necessarily have to be zero-sum. There are times when outcomes can be mutually beneficial, and both people can benefit. For instance, I think about the child that my sister and I sponsor through Compassion International. We have done this since I was a teenager, and she was younger than that. On the surface, it may seem pretty much zero-sum. We donate money, she receives money. However, there are intangible benefits that I think both parties receive from this transaction that make it actually mutually beneficial instead of zero-sum.
For us, we get the knowledge that we are helping someone in a tough economic situation. The child we sponsor is from Central America, and donating money makes an actual difference in her life. It feels good to know that you are helping someone else. It is obviously not a financial benefit on our end, but it is a benefit that we receive through this process.
In fact, I would argue that in fact the benefit of this intangible, emotional feeling provides us with a net positive in this situation. After all, if the money every month could give us greater happiness in another way, then rationally, you would expect us to redirect our money to other causes or other uses. That’s what the rational consumer does. According to the laws of economics, we do what we can to maximize our utility or satisfaction.
Even in these situations where one party seems to bear all the costs while the other receives all the benefit, that is not necessarily a complete picture. It doesn’t have to be zero-sum when we take into account the broader picture of the situation. Yes, we do bear all the financial cost, but our emotional benefits increase our utility to the point that it is worth it.
That’s the difference between these situations though. The first ones are competitive. A soccer game or winning a new business account inevitably have winners and losers. That’s the nature of what they are. Charity on the other hand could be perceived to have winners and losers. However, there are different criteria when thinking about these kinds of noncompetitive scenarios. It is instead a cooperative effort. All of us benefit from a child sponsorship. We are not in this venture to beat each other.
What happens if we start mixing up these situations though? What happens if we start to cooperate in competitive situations or compete in cooperative situations? What types of dilemmas do we run into?
In the first scenario, it is not going to work out very well for me if I am trying to cooperate with someone who is trying to compete with me. If I think that my grocery store can coexist with the grocery store next door because there are enough people for each of us, if they start to roll out a competitive tactic like advertising, I am going to lose. There are a fixed number of potential customers in our area, so any increase for them must necessarily be a decrease for me. If I want to stay in business, I can’t just assume that we are going to cooperate and somehow coexist. That’s not the nature of how this situation works.
In the second scenario, if I try to compete in a cooperative situation, I am going to miss out on maximizing the utility of the situation. To use a different business example, consider manufacturers who produce computer parts. They all specialize in different parts, and while each manufacturer could try to produce all of the parts in the house, they do better when they cooperate. Each manufacturer does what they do best, and they put all of the parts together to build the computer. If any one of them tries to make it competitive, there is going to be a reduction in efficiency and no one will benefit as much as they otherwise could have.
Identification is therefore the key. We need to make sure we understand what kind of situation we find ourselves in. Is it the type of situation where we have to compete, or is it the type of situation where we can actually gain more benefit from cooperating?
I think our temptation is to compete. Competition can be hard, but at least we feel like we are in control. It easier for us to think of everything as zero-sum because then I have incentive to keep working hard. Not only do I want to get more, but if I perceive the situation as competitive, I also have to protect my own because I believe that people are coming after my stuff. If I’m competing, I assume they must be competing as well.
Cooperation requires a degree of trust. I have to be willing to hope that the other person understands that we can both gain more by cooperating and we can by competing. I have to believe that they are going to do their part as well. If they don’t, I’m going to be in trouble. I think that’s why it is a little hard sometimes to cooperate. Bottom line, we do not want to trust other people. Maybe it is because of bad experiences in the past, or maybe it is just because some of us are a little bit more doubtful than others. It is a challenge to think about anything other than a zero-sum game.
As Christians, I can’t help but think of the multitude of references to Christians being one body, a family, brothers or sisters. All of these terms indicate a kind of closeness and a spirit that points us towards the idea that not everything is a competition. There are times when we need to come together as a body and work for the benefit of other people. It is a cooperative endeavor. Each one contributes what he or she can to God’s mission.
This attitude that we find with other Christians should remind us that there are other areas in life where we can apply these cooperative skills as well. Like I said, it can’t necessarily happen everywhere. Good luck trying to convince basketball teams that they should go for a tie every game instead of going for the victory. And, it shouldn’t happen everywhere. Some things are by nature competitive, and that is simply how they have to be by virtue of what they are. That’s not a problem.
However, some things can be cooperative, and we need to get better at identifying them and resisting the temptation to turn them into a zero-sum game. Instead, let’s turn them into the type of game where we are actually able to work together for mutual benefit. Yes, it takes trust, something that is lacking in our world today. We have all been burned by other people who we put our trust in. However, let’s think back to our Christian worldview, and we can’t help but think of all the times that we are called to come together for the benefit of other people. Yes, most of the time the New Testament is speaking about the body of Christ and coming together with other believers. However, I do think this attitude should at least encourage us to think outside the church walls in the same way. Where are those opportunities where we can be especially effective when we work together? That’s the challenge for this week.