Eg - Some people think that education / the cosmetics industry benefit some individuals but hurt other individuals at the same time because job markets / dating markets involve zero-sum games, so education / the cosmetic industry don’t provide any benefit to society overall. In other words, they change who succeeds but don’t cause more success.

I’d also like to find a term / nicer way of phrasing how individuals involved are incentivised to invest more resources to these things as others do the same, leading to a vicious cycle and increasing amounts of resources being dedicated to something that does not benefit society.

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That is perfect, exactly what I was looking for, thank you!

“Pareto efficiency“ - Pareto efficiency, or Pareto optimality, is an economic state where resources cannot be reallocated to make one individual better off without making at least one individual worse off (from

and “arms race”, if that counts as a nicer way, or some allusion to the Red Queen (

These are also perfect, thank you!

Maybe rent seeking

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I think the two answers so far, Positional Goods and Arms Race, are pretty solid.  But I'd like to challenge the underlying statement - there are no truly fixed-sum games in the real world.  Utility is highly-dimensional and highly variable across time and individuals, and every legible interaction is actually a sub-game in a much more complex set of known and unknown future decisions.

I think I agree with you, but I also think it's very useful to think of games as fixed-sum when making decisions relating to them.

It's very often worth noticing these features in interpersonal, small-scale decisions.  Whether you frame it as "look for the win-win", "avoid zero-sum sub-games", or "prefer kindness over winning", it's good advice.

I don't know many cases where it's useful on the general topics you give as examples (industries, education as a whole, dating).  

I should probably admit that I actually do care about myself and those close to me more than strangers, and I acknowledge that there is some amount of zero-sum outcomes in our current perceptions of individual identity.  The overall game of individual existence is a mix of many games, and winning some of the zero-sum components lets me get higher sums on other components.