This is the first part of a mini-sequence of posts on zero-sum bias and the role that it plays in our world today.

One of the most pernicious of all human biases is zero-sum bias. A situation involving a collection of entities is zero-sum if one entity's gain is another's loss, whereas a situation is positive-sum if the entities involved can each achieve the best possible outcome by cooperating with one another. Zero-sum bias is the tendency to systematically assume that positive-sum situations are zero-sum situations. This bias is arguably the major obstacle to a Pareto-efficient society. As such, it's very important that we work to overcome this bias (both in ourselves and in broader society).

Here I'll place this bias in context and speculate on its origin.

Where this bias comes from

It's always a little risky to engage in speculation about human evolution. We know so little about our ancestral environment that our mental images of it might be totally wrong. Nevertheless, the predictions of evolutionary speculation sometimes agree with empirical results, so it's not to be dismissed entirely. Also, the human mind has an easier time comprehending and remembering information when the information is embedded in a narrative, so that speculative stories can play a useful cognitive role even when wrong.

Anatomically modern humans appear to have emerged 200,000 years ago. In the context of human history, economic growth is a relatively recent discovery, only beginning in earnest several thousand years ago. The idea that it was possible to create wealth was probably foreign to our ancestors. In The Bottom Billion, former director of Development Research at the World bank speculates on the motivation of rebels in the poorest and slowest growing countries in the world who start civil wars (despite the fact that there's a high chance of being killed as a rebel and the fact that civil wars are usually damaging to the countries involved)

[In the portion of the developing world outside of the poorest and slowest growing countries...] growth rates may not sound sensational, but they are without precedent in history. They imply that children in these countries will grow up to have lives dramatically different from those of their parents. Even when people are still poor, these societies can be suffused with hope: time is on their side...If low income and slow growth make a country prone to civil war, it is reasonable to want to know why. There could be many explanations. My guess is that it is at least in part because low income means poverty and low growth mans hopelessness. Young men, who are the recruits for rebel armies, come pretty cheap in an environment of hopeless poverty ...if the reality of daily existence is otherwise awful, the chances of success do not have to be very high to be alluring. Even a small chance of the good life as a successful rebel becomes worth taking, despite the high risk of death, because the prospect of death is not so much worse than the prospect of life in poverty.

Neither the developed world nor the countries that Collier has in mind are genuinely good proxies to our ancestral environment, but like the people in the countries that Collier has in mind, our ancestors lived in contexts in which growth of resources was not happening. In such a context, the way that people acquire more resources for themselves is by taking other people's resources away. The ancient humans who survived and reproduced most successfully were those who had an intuitive sense that one entity's gain of resources can only come at the price of another entity's loss of resources. Iterate this story over thousands of generations of humans and you get modern humans with genetic disposition toward zero-sum thinking. This is where we come from.

For nearly all modern humans, the utility of zero-sum bias has lapsed. We now have very abundant evidence that the pie can grow bigger and that win-win opportunities abound. Both as individuals and as representatives of groups, modern humans have a tendency to fight over existing resources when they could be doing just as well or better by creating new resources that benefit others. Modern humans have an unprecedented opportunity to create a world of lasting prosperity. We should do our best to make the most of this opportunity by overcoming zero-sum bias.

153 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:56 AM
Select new highlight date

This post should present experiments that demonstrate this "zero-sum bias", or at least thought experiments that more clearly describe what counts as instances of "zero-sum bias". As it stands, you begin by presenting a vaguely described hypothetical problem, and proceed by hypothesizing about "its" origin in evolutionary psychology. You build on sand.

My posting is much more speculative than I would like and I wish I were on more solid ground.

My reason for posting anyway is if this bias exists (as I strongly suspect based on my own experience and observations, but cannot produce rigorous scientific evidence for) then discussing it is extremely important. A quick Google search shows that very few people have explicitly discussed the possibility of zero-sum bias.

Robert Wright's Non-Zero is a good popularisation of the ideas, but I can't remember whether/how much the alleged bias per se is discussed.

Also, more thought experiments to clearly describe what counts as instances of "zero-sum bias" to follow in future posts :-).

If I recall correctly, one of the classic examples was the purely economic effect of employment discrimination. If the majority excludes some subgroup from economically valuable jobs, the bulk of the reduction in the subgroup's income isn't a gain to the majority - it is just a deadweight loss from forcing the subgroup to perform less valuable work. At least the economic (not status!) motivation for the majority to do this looks like a "zero-sum bias"

Your example only works if both majority and subgroup are otherwise equal (i.e. subgroup does same quality/amount of work for the same wage). In real life conflicts of this type, the subgroup will generally work for lower wages, thus lowering average wage and reducing income of the majority.

I suspect, but am not sure, that your "real world" assessment is biased in almost exactly the way multifoliaterose is hypothesizing that most people are biased.

When someone is rationally willing/able to work for lower wages (assuming they aren't be forced into it by expensive systems of repression) it creates what economists call a comparative advantage which is an opportunity for mutually beneficial cooperation. All the people who would have done the drudge work for wages that are low (but not that low) can switch to whatever their new comparative advantages are with more total wealth produced in aggregate, which can be traded back around.

Academics have noticed for years that comparative advantage is a real phenomenon, but also that it is not widely understood and is frequently denied even when explained. This seems a likely candidate for the kind of bias that multifoliaterose is writing about.

If I had any quibbles with the article, it would be that (1) the object level was ignored in favor of mere "topic introduction", (2) while drawing support from evolutionary hand waving rather than citation to strong experimental evidence, with (3) the assumption that it certainly is bias (rather than a reasonably accurate model of the world).

I would have liked to have read about the subject itself and thereby learned something, rather than reading about the tragedy of the developing world and why evolutionary hand waving is valuable. A good place to look for grounded material on the subject might be the literature that grew out of George M. Mason's classic work on "peasant culture". His 1965 paper Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good included this summary in the introduction:

I will outline what I believe to be the dominant theme in the cognitive orientation of classic peasant societies,* show how characteristic peasant behavior seems to flow from this orientation, and attempt to show that this behavior—however incompatible with national economic growth—is not only highly rational in the context of the cognition that determines it, but that for the maintenance of peasant society in its classic form, it is indispensable.[4] The kinds of behavior that have been suggested as adversely influencing economic growth are, among many, the "luck" syndrome, a "fatalistic" outlook, inter- and intra-familial quarrels, difficulties in cooperation, extraordinary ritual expenses by poor people and the problems these expenses pose for capital accumulation, and the apparent lack of what the psychologist McClelland (1961) has called "need for Achievement." I will suggest that peasant participation in national development can be hastened not by stimulating a psychological process, the need for achievement, but by creating economic and other opportunities that will encourage the peasant to abandon his traditional and increasingly unrealistic cognitive orientation for a new one that reflects the realities of the modern world.

I know that there exists almost 50 years of academic literature downstream of this statement, but I know little about its data, controversies, or leading authors. If someone was looking for academic results from which to borrow content (to popularize the material as "relevant to personal rationality" the way Kahneman & Tversky are being popularized by Eliezer) this might be a good place to look :-)

JenniferRM:

Academics have noticed for years that comparative advantage is a real phenomenon, but also that it is not widely understood and is frequently denied even when explained.

That's true, but on the other hand, economists often present the theory of comparative advantage in a way that's either disingenuous or shows their own lack of deeper understanding of what it actually says. What they usually omit -- either out of ignorance or for ideological reasons -- is that the principle of comparative advantage is fully compatible with various realistic scenarios where great masses of people get completely screwed over by the emergence of trade involving a new party that enjoys absolute advantage over them.

This is true even when all the assumptions necessary to derive the principle of comparative advantage hold. However, to make things even worse, its derivation involves some highly questionable spherical-cow assumptions, and the question of what can happen when these are relaxed in various realistic ways is rarely asked. In particular, the fact of capital mobility can wreck the usual simple model of comparative advantage completely.

Now, you say:

All the people who would have done the drudge work for wages that are low (but not that low) can switch to whatever their new comparative advantages are with more total wealth produced in aggregate, which can be traded back around.

See, here you're assuming that with their new comparative advantage, these people will be in a tolerable position. But in reality, what they're capable of earning by practicing their new comparative advantage in the new equilibrium can be arbitrarily bad -- in principle, it can even be below subsistence.

For the clearest example, take horses instead of people. Why didn't horses benefit from comparative advantage when motor vehicles were invented, but instead got slaughtered massively? Well, they did exercise their comparative advantage at the end -- it just happened that their comparative advantage was to be killed for meat and hides, even if the overall outcome was a great increase in wealth. Similarly, when a new party with a strong absolute advantage over you appears on the market, there is no bottom for how low you personally can sink in the new equilibrium, no matter how much the total wealth produced goes up.

Of course, the outcome for various groups of people may end up being good or bad in any particular concrete case in practice, and one can argue that the bad outcomes are rare, inconsequential, and ultimately a price that should be paid for the benefits of free trade. But this requires much more sophisticated and specific arguments than the usual knee-jerk invocations of "comparative advantage" as a trump card.

I'm in total agreement that there are "spherical cow" problems with comparative advantage, like the fact that there will be retooling costs if things change and that economies of scale are important complicating factors... and... the physical world is just complicated... so yes to that :-)

But unless I'm mistaken, you're going overboard by pairing "more realistic assumptions" with outcomes that are bleak to the point of absurdity.

Why didn't horses benefit from comparative advantage when motor vehicles were invented, but instead got slaughtered massively? Well, they did exercise their comparative advantage at the end -- it just happened that their comparative advantage was to be killed for meat and hides, even if the overall outcome was a great increase in wealth. Similarly, when a new party with a strong absolute advantage over you appears on the market, there is no bottom for how low you personally can sink in the new equilibrium, no matter how much the total wealth produced goes up.

Horses were property. They didn't have property rights over anything, not even property rights over their own bodies to prevent a predatory species (humans) from using their body parts in more efficient ways when it suited us. Horses didn't have the ability to negotiate or trade so they are not the kind of entities which are capable of personally leveraging comparative advantage. Moreover, they don't have a deep and generic capacity to learn new skills the way humans do, so their "economic function" was fixed. Finally, cars aren't economic agents either.

The horse example didn't add real world complexity to the standard Ricardian examples, it subtracted complexity and filled it in with the specter of people being analogically "carted off to the glue factory"!

Where is the dispassionate reason? Where is the evidence? This seems more like predator-prey ecological modeling than economics >.<

Based on experience, to make a meta claim like "something people usually think is X is actually not-X" you need to be able to think clearly about the object level and then think clearly about the mechanisms by which people normally understand the object level. You must defend "not-X" while simultaneously explaining "X and its incorrect justifications". The best way I know to do this sort of thing is to talk about the real world in excruciating detail and provide links for the education of the audience and to allow verification of facts reported by third parties. The "incorrect justifications" normally fall out pretty clearly once the object level is understood.

In this case I will simply cite Krugman's essay (with a title that's a play on Dennet's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea) "Ricardo's Difficult Idea". Krugman tries to explore why so many smart people are so dumb about comparative advantage. One possibility he raises is that a major part of problem is that people invent objections that take some time to debunk, so he raises three major objections and debunks them for those who do have the patience.

I saw one thing that jumped out as a reference to clear reasoning and evidence:

In particular, the fact of capital mobility can wreck the usual simple model of comparative advantage completely.

An hour of googling based on this hint was educational, but the best connection I could find was to the Heckscher–Ohlin model of international trade, where different capital accumulations were identified as a potential endogenous source of comparative advantage, if capital adhered within countries (as heavy machinery tends to do, for example). The model itself seems to have serious problems and in any case, I don't see the connection to any kind of broader point that makes zero-sum assumptions more plausible.

I'm not a trained economist, but the more I study this the more it looks to me like comparative advantage may be a good example of a "non-zero sum truth" that many people systematically misunderstand in a zero sum direction. I feel relatively comfortable deploying "knee-jerk invocations of 'comparative advantage' as a trump card" if that leads to URLs that have the kinds of evidence and reasoning I'm finding in an attempt to understand it better.

JenniferRM:

But unless I'm mistaken, you're going overboard by pairing "more realistic assumptions" with outcomes that are bleak to the point of absurdity.

The point is that unlike what one commonly hears from the proponents of free trade, including many economists, comparative advantage by itself does not prove that everyone, or even a great majority, will end up better off -- since it says absolutely nothing about how the wealth produced in the new equilibrium will be distributed. Moreover, when the spherical cow assumptions are relaxed in some arguably realistic ways, not even the conclusion that the total produced wealth will increase is certain.

Mind you, I am not making an argument against free trade here, but merely pointing out that the theory of comparative advantage is typically used as a nearly thought-free shibboleth, not a sound argument. It simply cannot prove what its fans commonly claim it does. To make a valid argument for a free-trade position on any realistic economic issue, much more is necessary.

That essay by Krugman you linked is a typical example. It sounds as if a mathematician complained that people are incapable of grasping the Pythagorean theorem, smugly scolding them for their lack of understanding, while casually assuming that it applies to every triangle, not just the right-angled ones.

Horses were property. They didn't have property rights over anything, not even property rights over their own bodies to prevent a predatory species (humans) from using their body parts in more efficient ways when it suited us. Horses didn't have the ability to negotiate or trade so they are not the kind of entities which are capable of personally leveraging comparative advantage. Moreover, they don't have a deep and generic capacity to learn new skills the way humans do, so their "economic function" was fixed.

Horses are an extreme example that elucidates the basic problem. In the new equilibrium after the appearance of motor vehicles, most horses were no longer capable of earning their subsistence even by practicing their best comparative advantage. Even if they had been able to trade and negotiate, it wouldn't have helped them at all, and if they had been protected by law from slaughter, it still means that they would have starved to death unless someone decided to keep them alive out of charity. Note that all this holds regardless of the fact that the total amount of wealth produced went up tremendously.

Of course, humans are more flexible than horses, and even the most unskilled human labor nowadays can earn more than subsistence in all but the most messed up parts of the world. But even if they can't realistically fall below subsistence, this still doesn't mean that large numbers of people can't be badly hurt by losing their absolute advantage. Now, who would lose and gain what under various scenarios is a complex question, and it may be that free trade is brilliantly vindicated in practice -- but again, this is a question that demands further argument, and a mere invocation of comparative advantage can't even begin to answer it.

(Not to mention the issue of what will happen if machines start reaching human-level intelligence and other skills at some point. This would put increasing numbers of humans precisely in the position of horses. On this topic, one often hears awfully naive optimistic arguments based on comparative advantage.)

I'm not a trained economist, but the more I study this the more it looks to me like comparative advantage may be a good example of a "non-zero sum truth" that many people systematically misunderstand in a zero sum direction.

That may well be true for the general population. However, I'd say that among economists and many other elements of the intelligentsia, the prevailing bias is actually in the opposite direction -- noticing that some important things actually are close to zero-sum under certain realistic assumptions will commonly provoke scorn instead of rational argument. And their opinions matter much more than what common folks believe.

I feel relatively comfortable deploying "knee-jerk invocations of 'comparative advantage' as a trump card" if that leads to URLs that have the kinds of evidence and reasoning I'm finding in an attempt to understand it better.

Well, here's a fun URL for you then -- "Reassessing the Theory of Comparative Advantage" by one R.E. Prasch:
http://www.econ.tcu.edu/harvey/5443/prasch.pdf

I don't agree with everything in the paper, but it's definitely a sobering look at the actual state of the comparative advantage arguments.

Well, here's a fun URL for you then -- "Reassessing the Theory of Comparative Advantage" by one R.E. Prasch: http://www.econ.tcu.edu/harvey/5443/prasch.pdf I don't agree with everything in the paper, but it's definitely a sobering look at the actual state of the comparative advantage arguments.

It took me about a week to find the minutes to read this and process it, but once I was done, it felt like one of those cases where there was some new and relevant things in it, but the new stuff wasn't relevant and the relevant stuff wasn't new.

To be clear, all I'm saying is "there's is something to comparative advantage worth learning from which seems to bear out the more general 'zero sum bias' idea" and your position seems to be a much stronger (and due to over-reaching, false) claim that comparative advantage is some kind of silly intellectual fashion among pointy headed intellectuals that should never even be mentioned without heaping portions of warning and quibble on the side. As though a little dose would be poisonous rather than give people a taste for learning more, and the meal wouldn't be that nutritious even by the end.

If this is the ground you're defending, and that's the ground I'm defending, I really think you're simply wrong.

The core insight here is not whether free trade among many many people is always pareto efficient for every single member of the economy, but whether 2 individuals can gain via comparative advantage (which obviously they frequently can) and then whether N people can institute free trade among themselves in a way that is Kaldor-Hicks efficient.

If something benefits 20 people a quite a bit, and it benefits them more than it hurts one person who wants to veto all of their ability to trade with each other (rather than trade with the one person), then I say that the one person should look at themselves in the mirror and feel guilty. They should train for a new job (and maybe should be given a kickback from the profits for retraining) and bring on the efficiency! :-)

It is obvious that sellers of anything would prefer that they have no competition in order to get nice fat profit margins. Someone competing with them will be bad for that seller but will almost always be good for the customers. If you give someone the political power to veto economic competition, nearly everyone will... but it would be good for all of us to agree to each refrain from this because in the end, we're all someone's customers :-)

Nearly all of the content in the paper you linked to was quibbles and carping and fear mongering. There was no clear and robust explanation of why comparative advantage was simply a crock of feces that no one should ever even link to.

The paper was full of claims that "it is possible that some union workers might be hurt" without paying any attention to whether other people were reaping enormous benefits in the meantime.

And, yes, it is also worth worrying about whether some country might lose the capacity to feed itself, or to produce tanks, or to fuel tanks, if it engages in trade and ends up having one of those industries shrink to near nonexistence within its borders... I mean, that does and should stimulate a little fear for "what if" scenarios where property rights fall away in at some point and warfare breaks out. People should be honest that someone might "turn predatory" if they end up in a strong military position after economic optimization increases the aggregate levels of wealth...

But the whole point of our back and forth, from the get go, has simply been that comparative advantage is (1) non-obvious, (2) strongly intellectually resisted by some people in a way that might imply some kind of general bias, and (3) worth at least linking to without any kind of worry that its a "mere shibboleth".

Again, if you think this is weak concept that mostly has intellectual fashion to support it, please give me links to similarly fashionable concepts, because, I want to learn about them (and learn to apply them) even if you don't :-P

JenniferRM:

To be clear, all I'm saying is "there's is something to comparative advantage worth learning from which seems to bear out the more general 'zero sum bias' idea" and your position seems to be a much stronger (and due to over-reaching, false) claim that comparative advantage is some kind of silly intellectual fashion among pointy headed intellectuals that should never even be mentioned without heaping portions of warning and quibble on the side.

I actually don't see how these claims are contradictory, and in fact, I'd say they are both true. Yes, comparative advantage is a non-trivial insight that has something useful to say about certain situations that occur in the real world. However, at the same time, it is used in an entirely wrong-headed way by many intellectuals, as a supposedly conclusive argument for things that it simply does not imply. At worst, and sadly quite often, it is thrown around as an entirely empty-headed ideological shibboleth. The typical mention of comparative advantage you'll see in practice, even by economists, barely rises above the level of "Brawndo's got electrolytes!"

After all, what does the principle of comparative advantage say? It's equivalent to the simple mathematical observation that if a1, a2, b1, and b2 are positive real numbers such that a1/a2 < b1/b2, then for any positive d1,d2 such that b2/a2 < d1/d2 < b1/a1, we'll have d2b1 > d1a1 and d1a2 > d2b2, and this is also true in the special case when a1 > b1 and a2 > b2. (In the standard Ricardian example, the a's and b's are the coefficients of proportion between labor and production for each good in each country, under the assumption that production is a linear function of labor put into it, and d's are the amounts of labor that shift between the goods in each country when trade emerges.)

Now, as I said, there really is some non-trivial insight to be gathered here. But if you believe that this simple piece of math is enough to model what actually happens when trade is liberalized or some other bearer of absolute advantage appears on the market, always and in all possible circumstances, and if you don't see various critical unrealistic assumptions and all the numerous relevant variables that don't even get considered by the model, then with all due respect, I can only conclude that you haven't thought about it much.

Nearly all of the content in the paper you linked to was quibbles and carping and fear mongering. There was no clear and robust explanation of why comparative advantage was simply a crock of feces that no one should ever even link to.

Imagine an engineer designing a house, and using the Pythagorean theorem several times in the statics calculations. When some people ask him whether he's really sure that the triangles in question are right-angled, and point out that some of them look suspiciously obtuse or acute, he brushes this off as "quibbles" -- and when they point out that the roof might collapse on their heads if he makes a mistake, he accuses them of "fear-mongering." I think this is a fair analogy for your above comment.

Prasch's paper clearly enumerates several assumptions that are an essential part of the theory of comparative advantage, and questions whether they hold in reality. Some of these criticisms may well be flawed, and in fact I'd say some of them indeed are. But if only some of them are correct, it is enough to make the theory inapplicable in at least some real-world situations. When a theory that is supposed to provide real-world guidance is criticized, the critics don't need to provide robust and systematic alternatives. What you call "quibbles" are more than enough.

If something benefits 20 people a quite a bit, and it benefits them more than it hurts one person who wants to veto all of their ability to trade with each other (rather than trade with the one person), then I say that the one person should look at themselves in the mirror and feel guilty. They should train for a new job (and maybe should be given a kickback from the profits for retraining) and bring on the efficiency! :-)

You seem to be falling into what I like to call the neoliberal fallacy. You are speaking as if we were one step away from a global economic-textbook-model libertarian utopia, with only those pesky trade barriers separating us from it. Yeah, if we were in such a position, I'd also say, to hell with them. But in reality, the situation is far more complex in many ways that even the most sophisticated economic models, let alone simplistic comparative-advantage arguments, are utterly incapable of taking into account. Therefore, some humility and recognition of the law of unintended consequences would definitely be in order.

And to underly the other crucial point again: even if the assumptions of the comparative advantage theory are true, and the trade will lead to a Kaldor-Hicks improvement, this can still mean that 19 out of 20 people get screwed over in any given country. To show that this won't happen, you cannot just invoke comparative advantage.

I think this might better be framed as a "relativity bias", or perhaps the "relativity heuristic"

We don't assume that someone else winning means we have to lose, we just estimate things based on relative rather than absolute reference level. The status game would be one obvious example of this, and Yvain wrote a great post on how judgments based on relativity power thought processes all the way down to the level of perception.

You can also see it in the somewhat famous studies that show someone will drive across town to save 5 bucks on a 10 dollar calculator, but not a 100 dollar jacket, the fact that we judge gifts based on their expense relative to their class rather than their absolute expense, and probably about 100 other studies that I'm forgetting at the moment.

I like this remark. Quite possibly the "relativity heuristic" explains everything that I have in mind when I refer to "zero-sum bias." I will have to think about this some more.

Regardless, I think that it's worthwhile to isolate instances where the relativity heuristic pushes people in the direction of zero-sum thinking. From the point of view of people like myself who subscribe to utilitarian ethical principles, irrational zero-sum thinking is worse than some forms of irrational thinking, because when somebody engages in irrational zero-sum thinking, this has negative effects both on his or herself and on others, whereas some other forms of irrational thinking may not have systematic negative effects on others.

Here when I say "irrational" I'm referring to failure to exhibit "instrumental rationality" as opposed to failure to exhibit "epistemic rationality."

The flip side of this is when people assume that anything bad must have a counter-balancing "silver lining" that evens the overall outcome to exactly zero. This happens particularly often, for example, when I suggest that if it were possible to completely eradicate clinical depression then we should do so.

Yes, status quo bias also seems to have arisen from an evolutionary history of no/(very slow) growth.

I wonder whether either or both applies to the True Ending to "Three Worlds Collide".

I understand what you are saying, but depression happens to be a not good example.

Depression is a necessary "feature" in the control system that physiology uses to modulate its hedonic state. During a near death physiological state, the state one can attain while running from a bear, where to be caught is certain death, physiology induces a state of euphoria. The near death physiological state has to be euphoric, so that organisms can willingly run themselves to death. This is the source of the euphoria of autoerotic asphyxiation (what killed David Carradine). That state has to be euphoric because all the “safeties” that prevent organisms from damaging themselves (pain, fatigue, extreme pain, extreme extreme pain) are turned off to allow even a very slim chance of escaping from a bear. If organisms could enter a euphoric state easily, they would, and would risk death uselessly. There must be an aversive state between “normal” and the euphoric near death state. I am pretty sure this aversive state is depression. I say that as someone who has been depressed most of my life, and has been on antidepressents just about half my life now, so I do understand depression.

It isn't that depression is something good, but that an organism that can support a depressive state has superior survival characteristics to one that cannot. So evolution has configured all organisms to have the equivalent of a depressive state.

I think the reason people imagine there is a “silver lining” to depression is because depressed people are easier to control and bullies feel less guilty when they bully someone into a depressed state because they fantasize there is a “silver lining” to the depression.

That state has to be euphoric because all the “safeties” that prevent organisms from damaging themselves (pain, fatigue, extreme pain, extreme extreme pain) are turned off to allow even a very slim chance of escaping from a bear. If organisms could enter a euphoric state easily, they would, and would risk death uselessly. There must be an aversive state between “normal” and the euphoric near death state. I am pretty sure this aversive state is depression.

I'm not following this at all. Why isn't the aversive state "pain, fatigue, extreme pain, extreme extreme pain"? If you were running yourself to death, I'm pretty sure that's what you'd feel before the euphoria kicked in, not depression.

Blueberry, pain, fatigue, and depression signal different things. Pain signals local injury, fatigue signals not enough ATP in your muscles to do what ever it is you are trying to get your muscles to do, depression signals more of a global energy crisis, particularly in the brain. These things are to limit physical activity to reduce the damage that the physical activity will cause.

The “energy crisis” of depression is in the brain, but the current experience of depression is more of a problem with malfunctioning of the control pathways that regulate brain ATP levels. Low ATP in the brain is associated with depression. There are some other examples, vascular depression which is common in the elderly, there is reduction in ATP levels in the brain coincident with reductions in brain perfusion. Fix the perfusion and you fix the depression (and vice-versa because they are coupled). Bipolar disorder has similar low ATP status. ATP status is extremely well regulated. Depression and allied mental disorders are disorders of that regulation (which is very poorly understood).

Alternate notion about depression: creatures capable of thinking about alternatives need a "sounds like a good idea-- do it" mechanism and a "sounds like a bad idea-- don't do it" mechanism.

If the "sounds like a bad idea" mechanism is running too strongly, you get depression and/or akrasia. If the "sounds like a good idea" mechanism is running too strongly, you get mania.

NancyLebovitz, yes, almost exactly. My hypothesis of bipolar disorder is that the trade-off of normal-depression-mania is the normal-depression-euphoria of the near death metabolic state when one is running from a bear. I think what the euphoria does is more change the “discount rate” that organisms apply to their actions, immediate gratification vs long term gratification. When you might be dead in a few minutes (because the bear catches you), the time-value of risk-reward has different values. Any risk is worth taking if it might extend your life beyond the certain death of the bear catching you.

I suspect that this is the same physiology behind the stimulant drugs of abuse; it triggers the same near-infinite discount rate, where continued good health a few days from now is worth nothing compared to the next injection from a shared needle which might have HIV in it. I think this is why deterrence has been shown to not work to deter drug abuse. The lives that addicts already live are worse then what you can impose on them as punishment. If the addict lifestyle doesn't deter drug abuse, certainly the relative cake-walk of a stay in prison isn't going to.

The changing of the “discount rate” isn't under conscious control. It can't be because non-conscious human ancestors needed to do the equivalent calculations too (so it it from deep evolutionary time), and there isn't time (or cognitive capacity) to do those calculations consciously.

I think this changing of the discount rate is part of the problem of zero-sum bias. To an addict, an injection of drug from an HIV infected needle is worth dying for. The shifting of the discount rate occurs on a continuum. Lesser amounts of stress shift it less. Trigger an infinite discount via stress-induced bullying, and victims will agree to anything to get the bullying to stop. I think this is a common ploy of some politicians.

Is there information about how it feels to run from deadly danger? I don't get the impression it's a euphoric experience, but evidence would be nice.

Extreme metabolic stress is euphoric, as in autoerotic asphyxiation and I think the runner's high. I think exercise addiction is addiction to the euphoria of extreme metabolic stress.

Euphoria is a complex physiological state. I presume that for simple drugs to induce euphoria, they are actually triggering already existing pathways.

Thanks for taking the time to reply daedalus.

Let's just say for the sake of argument that depression does have an evolutionary basis as you say (it would actually be more surprising if it didn't have any such basis). From my perspective this wouldn't automatically make it worth preserving if we were in the hypothetical position to eliminate it. That something is evolved, or has an evolutionary basis, does not automatically decide its goodness or badness -- evolution has given us many characteristics that we would rather change were we in a position to do so.

alexflint, I agree with you. Just because something has evolved (or may have evolved) is not a reason to continue it.

I suspect that violence against women may have an evolved component (to reduce maternal death from cephalopelvic disproportion), but now cannot be justified for that because there are much better options (medical c-section). There may be other “features” of violence against pregnant women (epigenetic programming of the fetus to be more violent via the 'cycle of violence”), but I think the downsides of violence against women greatly outweighs any positives that may have existed during evolutionary time.

I think if we could eliminate violence against women we should do it. What ever positives there might be for individuals, for society it is a net negative (in my opinion).

I'm not sure what your line of thought is about violence against women. Induced miscarriage?

Induced miscarriage, preterm birth, low birth weight. There is evidence that all of these are associated with violence against women, and also violence against women by her mate increases while she is pregnant. I looked and was unable to find any data suggesting any non-human males commit violence againt a female while she is pregnant with his fetus.

Humans are unique among mammals for the degree of placental difficulties, birth dificulties and cephalopelvic disproportion they have.

I think you miss an important part of the ancestral environment that is a likely source of zero-sum bias. In the ancestral environment, material resources are far less important than status once you're not starving. The difference between the top and the bottom of the wealth distribution was much smaller than it is today. But holding more resources was still important - more resources means higher status (roughly anyway). And status is a zero sum game. So since all or most transactions essentially status transactions, zero-sum thinking was a good heuristic.

Of course, like your theory, this is highly speculative.

I agree that there's something to what you're saying.

Your comment gives me occasion to make a point that I had been intending to make later. I anticipate that some people will argue that since status is zero-sum and since humans crave status, zero-sum bias still helps humans get what they want. To this imagined argument (not made by you), I would respond that to a large degree, humans don't crave status, they crave the feelings historically correlated with status, and achieving these feelings is not a zero-sum game.

Similarly, historically the quest for reproductive resources was a zero sum game, but (a) this is no longer the case, and (b) we do not crave reproductive resources for their own sake, we crave the feelings historically correlated with attaining reproductive resources, and the quest for these feelings is not a zero-sum game.

The status game is not entirely zero-sum either.

Could you elaborate or point to a link about status being positive sum?

Sure. You can imagine two seemingly equal tribes. One with much more advanced status structure, where the chief is more revered, where there is a shaman with his own charisma or high status, where every member has it's own higher then zero place. A kind of Vanity Fair, but non the less.

And we can play this game of status in a smaller groups as well. Vote me up, I'll vote you up and we will both gain the status. We will cut together a little bigger piece of karma cake for us.

A nationalist leader may tell his people, that they are special. If they decide to believe him, the status of everybody will go up. At least they will think so, but it's all that counts in the status game, anyway.

We will cut together a little bigger piece of karma cake for us.

So it IS zero, since there is less cake for everybody else.

Helen Parr (to her son): "Everyone's special, Dash." Dash: "Which is another way of saying no one is." -- the Incredibles

"Everyone's special, Dash." Dash: "Which is another way of saying no one is."

Exactly. A person can only be high status by being higher-status than someone else; so one person's high status must lead to another person's low status. So status must be zero-sum.

I have no trouble visualizing a society composed mostly of people with high status, or a society composed mostly of people with low status, with very different sums of total status.

I think we might be using different definitions of status. So instead of status, I'll say that social power is zero-sum.

Many people may share social power, especially if they don't choose to wield it often or to the detriment of others. I suppose you'd say that you count them as having it in exact proportion to their tendency to actually use it, or in terms of the power they'd likely have if they chose to war against one another.

No, the point is if someone gains social power, someone else must lose that power. Sharing of power is fine in this framework - if you share power over the tribe, for example, then you don't have full power over the tribe. For one, you don't have the same kind of power over the individuals with whom you are sharing power.

You can gain social power that was previously held by natural randomness.

What if you construct more than one cake, then arrange distribution so everybody gets a bigger piece than somebody else on at least one cake. Thus, because of human tendency to emphasize what makes them feel good, people notice their privileged cake(s) and disregard their loss cake(s).

A real-world equivalent would be the religious concept of poorness as a virtue.

I think the issue is whether to use "relative status" or "absolute status".

For example using the karma example, it is not very important what the karma numbers are absolutely but what their relative value is. Thus a couple of friends voting each other up raise the average (+mode + whatever statistical marker one prefers). Thus while their absolute status rises the relative status of other people sinks.

I think we may have different notions of status with me thinking of "relative inside a given group".

This is an important point, but can be stated directly, rather than bringing in the "ancestral environment" thing as justification.

"Status" - or, more concretely, power over others - corresponds a great deal in our (and probably every actualizable) society to wealth. A society with big wealth differentials is going to be one where some members wield great power over others; it's not simply a question of differential consumption rights. I think this is basically motivates people to find wealth differentials unjust: as supporting evidence, consider that people don't consider happiness differentials that can't be translated into power differentials unjust - nobody thinks it unjust that Alice has a better native appreciation for classical music than Bob - and that the people who are most likely to consider huge wealth differentials just, libertarians, are the most likely to narrowly map power differentials to the exercise of physical force.

Interesting topic, interesting quote. However, I am not sure we should regard the third-world rebels as victims of zero-sum bias -- they might understand that their country would be a better place if people worked together on building it up, but the chances of that happening soon, are rather low.

I'd say it's more of a tragedy-of-the-commons problem, where people are less interested in the negative sum of rebellion or piracy or ..., but are more interested in how much they personally gain. Which is of course not so much different from the developed world on the individual level, the difference being that the developed world has structures that are capable of channeling this in positive-sum directions.

Yes, my suggestion wasn't that third-world rebel's plight is primarily borne of zero-sum bias (although it may be in part), I was drawing a parallel between the situation of the third-world rebels and our ancestors.

What about the notion of a "negative sum" bias? I'm sure there is an appropriate technical term. The point being: what about the act of decreasing overall wealth as an act of personal enrichment, or of "relative improvement"?

For example, if I am in competition for a resource like grazing land, if I kill my neighbor's cattle it leaves more resources for my enrichment...my wealth might increase even if overall wealth decreases. (this is something of a corollary to "Tragedy of the Commons")

Alternately, if I am in competition for a resource like overall prestige, if I kill my neighbor's cattle, I have more relative to him, even if my wealth is unchanged and overall wealth is decreased.

As a third issue, in relation specifically to civil war, there is "revenge bias". Do we have more evolutionary bias towards summation or wealth issues? Or is it more about "give me my endorphines"? When we feel slighted, we will destroy things because the act of it makes us feel better.

Adrenaline trumps cortisol, is the evolutionary imperative here. Bad conditions, or bad actions, result in personal stress. Nothing relieves stress like violence, and revenge is especially sweet.

All three of these, in the end, are about "how good do you feel as a result of an act". Extrapolating it to economic considerations might be going too far. The evolutionary imperative is more simple: the specific short term acts have physiological results, which are more tangible (in an evolutionary sense) than long term "wealth issues" (even while the long term wealth issue can reinforce the short term act as well).

Heck, ever see a cat pee on a computer as an act of "rebellion"? Where's the summation of wealth there? The act of rebellion pre-exists the human condition.

Indeed, many of the of the 'zero sum games' we see in reality are actually more like negative sum games, as one man's gain is less than the other man's loss. However, I wouldn't say there's bias for that - in fact, it seems the negative sum is often not recognized. Or?

Regarding the revenge bias, one reason sometimes mentioned for the worth some cultures (past, and somewhat less, present) cultures put on revenge comes from our pastoral past, where protecting your prestige, your honor would be of crucial value, so other will not steal your sheep that you can only loosely guard. The story then goes that the more closely connected a culture is connected to some pastoral past, the more value it will but on vendetta and revenge. Seems somewhat plausible, but hard to proof of course.

Indeed, many of the of the 'zero sum games' we see in reality are actually more like negative sum games, as one man's gain is less than the other man's loss. However, I wouldn't say there's bias for that - in fact, it seems the negative sum is often not recognized. Or?

Well, the relevant fact about zero-sum games is that their sum is constant - as long as that holds, worrying about its exact sign seems not too important...

Well, the relevant fact about zero-sum games is that their sum is constant

I'm not sure that the sum of "wealth" is constant, in a negative sum game. The willful destruction of someone else's wealth/resources does not result in a constant sum...that wealth is destroyed.
So the point is, there are zero-sum games, and non-zero-sum-games,and the question is where does the bias lie, at any given time?

You seem to have misunderstood some terms here. A general negative-sum game does not have a constant sum, no. But the constancy here is not constancy of sum between before game and after game; if that holds, you have a zero-sum game. The constancy here is over all options the players can take. If that holds, you can subtract out that constant to obtain a zero-sum game with equivalent strategy. A person who assumes all of a certain class of games sum to "1", whatever that means, will have the same bias in his strategy as one who assumes that all such games sum to 0. The only difference is that he'd want to play more often.

I guess I need your analysis in a real world example, because I think we are talking too much about the "game" model. If I kill your cattle, or I salt your earth, what is the sum? What is the constant? What is the bias? My point is: the sum is negative, there is no constant, and the bias is towards "gratification".
I don't think killing my competitors cattle comes from an inherent evolutionary-economic analysis...I think it comes from "doing this releases endorphines in my brain in the short term, I see his wealth destroyed and that seems good".
The bias is simply "relative success"...I win by gaining more, by losing less, or by making him lose more than me. It's all very short term and emotional.

And going for relative sense makes sense when? In a zero-sum (or if you like, constant-sum) game. Though this may be getting away from the original statement?

What happens out there in the hurly-burly is not a "zero-sum" or "constant-sum" game. Specifically: it's not a "game" at all. Those games are distillations and models used for testing behavior. This tells us certain things about how people react and interact, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
Going for relative makes sense when you can't take, you can't (necessarily) earn, you can't (in the short term) increase/generate. But you CAN win by destroying. You destroy your opponents resource, thereby "increasing" your wealth in a relative sense. It's why we bombed weapons plants during WW2, no? And to an extent, it's why they salted the earth....

Envy is pain at the good fortune of others. -Aristotle

What is the difference between what Aristotle called the vice of envy and the zero-sum bias? I wonder if these two concepts are aiming at the same thing, and if we can learn about one by reading what has been said about the other.

There are certainly many cases where Aristotle's definition of envy would adequately describe instances of zero-sum biases. In particular, when one observes the suffering of others in contrast to those with immense wealth. This can often be seen in comparisons to the west and the third world, as well as in the concepts of "core" and "periphery" in world systems theory. The problem with using the word envy, as I see it, is that the word in its currently accepted form leads people to assume that dissatisfaction is on behalf of the agent alone and not on the behalf of others. It would only reduce the clarity of language surrounding the subject.

I have a feeling most Less Wrong readers dislike using the word envy to describe this, though once can get a acurate description of zero sum thinking by using envy in many context.

Your post got me thinking perhaps one could tap into the strong Western arceotpye of "virtues" and things like "seven deadly sins", using them as a pedagogical and memetical tool? I know religious connotations and language are unpopular, but if we find Elizers stories about what are basically romanticized monks (but Bayesian! or in the future! to use a actual TV troope) for ilustrating ideas perhaps compling a list of seven cardinal sins of a aspiring rationalist and matching them with the traditional ones could be something people would be willing to consider.

* Gula (gluttony)
* Fornicatio (fornication, lust)
* Avaritia (avarice/greed)
* Tristitia (sorrow/despair)
* Ira (wrath)
* Acedia (acedia)
* Vanagloria (vainglory)
* Superbia (hubris, pride)

I can see a few posibilities on that list. I think there have been things like calling things rationalist virtues ect. I'm proposing a more explicit piggyback on the existing mems.

You have neglected the negative-sum lose-lose situation being mislabled as win-lose.

War is the classic lose-lose situation that is mislabeled as win-lose. No one "wins" a war. After a war, everyone is worse off, just some are more worse off than others.

I think the problem is that the zero-point shifts, where if you survive a war, you feel like you have won something where in reality you just didn't lose your life.

After a war, everyone is worse off, just some are more worse off than others.

At least in one point in history, it was possible to wage war as a strategic move, so that your country would gain more resources than you expended in war. This is probably not possible anymore, because of advances in weapon technology.

You can't really conquer another country and turn a profit on it these days, but it seems as though civil war can still pay: you can overthrow a dictator and install yourself in his place as the new dictator, and then allocate the spoils to yourself and your supporters. This seems to work best if there are exploitable natural resources (such as diamonds or oil) that you can gain control of.

Well, coups work better, but civil war seems to pay off at least some of the time. (At least you can sometimes get de facto independence from a local dictator.)

Civil wars can be even better than a coup if you find external sponsorship.

Even in that case, the war as a whole is a negative sum. The sum of resources after a war is less than the sum of resources before a war. Net resources have been lost due to consumption in the war.

If you discount the value of resources owned by your opponent in war to zero (while your opponent owns them), but not when you own them after the war you can come up with something positive, but I see that as an accounting gimmick.

Then you're missing the point. Historically, the kind of people who start wars of conquest tend to hold philosophies that value only their own in-group and its associated resources. When you don't value the happiness or prosperity of your victims it's quite easy to "win" a war. You just have to make sure the cost isn't so astronomical that it wipes out the benifits your in-group can reap by exploiting your victims over the next few generations.

It may still be negative-sum, but at least it's really win-lose instead of lose-lose.

Even in that case, the war as a whole is a negative sum. The sum of resources after a war is less than the sum of resources before a war. Net resources have been lost due to consumption in the war.

This isn't entirely clear, depending on how you look at resources. It's possible that military training and research produced skills and expertise useful in peaceful arenas, yielding an overall gain. It's also possible that a conquering nation can exploit the resources of the conquered nation in a way that the conquered nation couldn't, yielding an overall gain of available resources. The mineral wealth of Afghanistan might be one real-world example; the resources were there, but undiscovered and unmined.

If you look at resources before and after the war with the same metric, then resources have been expended and lost. If you are using a different metric to measure resources before and after the war, then it is the metric that has changed, not the positive sum generation of resources.

Once you start killing people (as is an inherent part of war), then any talk of gains and losses goes out the window unless you attach a specific value to specific human lives before and after and are willing to compare those lives lost with material resources. Since victims usually attach a higher value to their lives than do perpetrators, mutually agreeable values for the gains and losses can not be achieved.

Compelling people to do something against their will (i.e. slavery) is a negative that can not be “balanced” by what ever positive things the slaves might generate. That is why slavery is wrong, no matter how “productive” the slave masters compel the slaves to be. You do not make slavery “less wrong” by compelling the slaves to be ever more productive.

Once you privilege the values that you attach to things, then so long as you have gains, then you will perceive every interaction to be positive-sum because you have gained even if everyone else loses.

I think that the original poster was meaning “zero-sum” in circumstances where all parties have equivalent knowledge, that a transaction with asymmetric information (such as where one party knows the flea-market painting is a rare masterpiece and worth millions and not the $10 sticker price) isn't in the same class of transactions.

In other words the idea is that the transaction actually be positive sum and agreed to be positive sum before and after the transaction. A transaction with asymmetric information is more of (as I see it) a “gaming” the transaction and doesn't really achieve a true positive-sum.

The Afghan war didn't generate resources, those resources were always there. Buying the $10 masterpiece didn't turn it into a masterpiece, it already was one.

If you look at resources before and after the war with the same metric, then resources have been expended and lost. If you are using a different metric to measure resources before and after the war, then it is the metric that has changed, not the positive sum generation of resources.

OK, we'll stick to the same metric. Do you agree that human skills and abilities can be resources? Do you agree that the ability to exploit a resources is itself a resource?

Suppose country X has a functioning democracy, court system, banking system, and corporations, while country Y has none of those things. If country X invades country Y and sets up a functioning government and economic system, this could well be positive-sum. Country Y didn't gain any material resources, but it now has a greater ability to exploit its natural resources as well as its human potential. This is a clear positive-sum situation.

Once you start killing people (as is an inherent part of war), then any talk of gains and losses goes out the window unless you attach a specific value to specific human lives before and after and are willing to compare those lives lost with material resources. Since victims usually attach a higher value to their lives than do perpetrators, mutually agreeable values for the gains and losses can not be achieved.

One study put a value of around $1.5 million on a human life. You're right that people will be biased when they try to value their own life, so we should probably disregard any self-assessed value.

Of course we need to be able to value lives and trade them off against other resources; we do it all the time when we make policy or safety decisions.

Compelling people to do something against their will (i.e. slavery) is a negative that can not be “balanced” by what ever positive things the slaves might generate. That is why slavery is wrong, no matter how “productive” the slave masters compel the slaves to be.

Have you read the articles on this site about utilitarianism and deontology? This sounds like a deontological position; I think most of us on this site would disagree. Not about slavery being wrong, but about why it's wrong: that the harm to humans outweighs the benefits.

Simply discounting self-bias in valuing a life doesn't give you a correct value. The opposite of self-biased is not unbiased.

Human skills can be a positive resource. What ever skill are generated during a war, it does not take a war to generate those skills. Those skills could be developed in the absence of war. That those skills are not developed in the absence of war is not an argument I find persuasive that war has provided the benefit of the development of those skills.

I don't consider that responses that people make to mitigate adverse circumstances can ever completely negate the adverse consequence. I think the idea that people have that a “silver lining” can completely mitigate an adverse event is part of the zero-sum bias the OP was talking about. Maybe if the war had not happened, then even better skills would have been developed and without all the damage the war brought.

Part of the issue is that different events and consequences are to some extent orthogonal and can't be directly compared against each other. Part of that is that we can't know the actual consequences of paths not taken. Maybe one of the victims of WWII would have gone on to invent something that would have triggered a phase change in space-time and destroyed the whole universe.

Simply discounting self-bias in valuing a life doesn't give you a correct value. The opposite of self-biased is not unbiased.

I'm not sure it's even meaningful to put a dollar value on your own life. And, yes, we'd want to correct for the biases of hating the person in question, as well, which might lead you to undervalue him.

Human skills can be a positive resource. What ever skill are generated during a war, it does not take a war to generate those skills. Those skills could be developed in the absence of war. That those skills are not developed in the absence of war is not an argument I find persuasive that war has provided the benefit of the development of those skills.

I'm not claiming that war is the optimal outcome, only that it could be positive-sum. There may be other choices with an even larger sum. However, maybe the only way to exploit country Y's resources is with war; suppose all diplomatic attempts seem doomed to failure. Then, if the resources are valuable enough, war might be the best option (though we should also take into account how easy it is to underestimate the cost of war).

I don't consider that responses that people make to mitigate adverse circumstances can ever completely negate the adverse consequence. I think the idea that people have that a “silver lining” can completely mitigate an adverse event is part of the zero-sum bias the OP was talking about.

No, the zero-sum bias consists of erroneously thinking that an adverse event is always mitigated by a silver lining. Adverse events are sometimes mitigated by a silver lining. For instance, if you would freely choose to get a papercut for $10, and someone gives you a papercut accidentally, couldn't they mitigate the adverse event by giving you $10?

Of course we need to be able to value lives and trade them off against other resources; we do it all the time when we make policy or safety decisions.

I think the issue of lives in the context of "sums" is this: how many lives did "we" lose, compared to how many lives did "they" lose, in order to come to a conclusion of the conflict in and of itself. The sum is only self-referential....what happens afterwords is not relevant to the argument.

e.g. in a $10 zero sum experiment, the "winner" leaves with $9 and goes and buys crack on the street. The "loser" takes his/her $1 and buys a winning lottery ticket.

The long-term winning and losing after a war is not quantifiable, because there are no controls. Too many decisions, laws, random chance, weather events, could have taken things in one direction or another...who's to say?

It depends on what one assumes the motives for war are. If they are economic then I think a case can be made everyone ends up worse off. But if power is at stake, then war can indeed leave the nominal victor better off (from the perspective of motive).

By the way, attempts to characterize human psychological based on what life was like in the Savanna (or whatever environment humans are supposed to be designed by Darwinian forces for) need serious qualification, at best. Speaking metaphorically, evolution is an accident; where "successful", a fortuitous coincidence.In some cases an organism ends up with a set of traits that work out for it in a given environment and it lives long enough to reproduce (even if living in a great deal of pain). Obviously the given environment will impose certain limits, and these limits may lead to certain "modifications" if not extinction. But the assumption the organism is well designed (well adapted, if one prefers secular terminology) for environment X therefore automatically poorly (or less well) designed for environment Y, where X precedes Y, is misleading. Logically, we may be better adapted for our present environment than any previous one we've inhabited (and one can come up with imaginary environments that are far superior than any we've experienced)--it's question we can only answer by looking at X and Y and the organism's traits very carefully, and then perhaps only with a great deal of uncertainty. No one talks about the hand being well adapted to the Savanna and ill adapted the modern city yet analogous arguments re: psychology crop up constantly--esp. re: politics and economics, where extreme irrational prejudices operate.

One more case to consider-- if a country is invaded, it may be less badly off after successful resistance than if it surrendered.

How about WWII? At the end of WWII, the USA was certainly better off. The economic boom we experienced following the war was quite large, not to mention the baby boom.

I still think that counts as lose-lose, though not for the reason daedulus2u gives in the sibling comment. WWII destroyed the productive capacity of several nations and diverted huge amounts of resources to swords instead of plowshares.

Had there been no war, these resources could have been committed to making more plowshares, including for the people of the US. Don't mistake a recovery in plowshare production capability, for a higher absolute capability.

Ah, okay. I must admit that the depth of my knowledge on the economic history of my country is rather skin-deep. I do know, however, that we squander unbelievable amounts of money on war, so I think you may easily have a point.

I think the 416,000 US military dead and their families would disagree that the war made them better off.

That's irrelevant. Of course you can always cherry-pick people whom some event made worse off. The question was whether the war made the country better as a whole, not whether any individuals suffered.

Actually, what you consider and what you don't in this sort of calculation is an interesting question.

Was a particular country better off? Did it work out differently in different regions? How about the whole world?

Getting back to the US, was there a cost to the belief that war is good for the economy? Was there a cost to smugness from winning the Civil War and being on the winning side in WWI and WWII?

You're getting into much deeper water here. "What does it mean that some scenario is good/better/best?" is the ultimate, fundamental value judgment.

Giving a thorough answer to that question goes a long way towards explaining/understanding yourself, and it's an exercise everybody should do as soon and as often as possible, even though it is by no means easy or quick.

This sounds as though you've worked with that question yourself. What have you learned from it?

There's no way I'm putting it down in a comment, unfortunately - if I do go through the effort of writing down my moral system in a linear form that is understandable to other people, it'll be a several-pages-long essay (possibly a LW post, though). Step zero, for what it's worth, starts with asking "why do I want X?", and recursing that question until you hit an answer you can neither question (without questioning reality itself) nor alter.

Of course I agree with you. I am merely thinking in dollars and cents here, since that is the primary measure of value in the "civilized" world.

Important and interesting theory. Have you read this article by Paul Graham Mind the Gap? It touches on the aspects of zero-sum economic environments, and argues that the big change happened with the creation of the middle class in Europe. This was the first time it was possible to create wealth and keep the profit to yourself. The possibility to accumulate a fortune by creating wealth is just a couple hundred years old.

Maybe it’s a bit on the side but the “Daddy model” in the article seems to me like zero-sum bias.

The ridiculous amount of activity by the untrained and uninformed on the stock markets seems to suggest that people could use a significantly higher amount of "zero sum" bias there. There are tons of people who would not peg their investment skill in the top 1%, who nonetheless think they have a good chance of making money in short term trades. There certainly seems to be the thinking that the stock market is a source of profits for one and all, regardless of investment skill and understanding.

This bias however is most prevalent in the idea that getting rich cannot possibly be a noble act, a point extensively addressed in Paul Graham's essays.

Actually, in regards to your first point, I suspect that people do have an intuitive sense that playing the stock markets is a zero-sum game.

I think that the main reason that people exhibit irrational stock market behavior is overconfidence bias.

Great points. I will link this comment in my next post.

I am not sure that zero-sum or positive-sum games translate very well to the hypothetical early human society. You need more analysis to be convincing. What does it mean to have more resources when food cannot be stored and any surplus must be shared with others in the hope that they will do the same in the future? What does ownership or control of resources mean where only what can be carried can be protected? How does game theory cope with gift giving rather than trade? How does game theory work within families? etc.

See "folk economics" and Bryan Caplan's research for evidence of zero-sum bias. And Robert Wright's Non-Zero for a discussion of how human progress has come from increasingly positive-sum interactions.

This post feels a bit lacking as it just briefly introduces a bias and explains why it is there, but doesn't talk about how to overcome it or the harm that it does. Zero-sum bias results in tons of bad laws, for example. And it can be self-perpetuating - very high marginal tax rates are often justified by assuming the earner just got lucky or took from someone else. If those in the highest tax brackets are the most productive, then the disincentive caused by such punitive taxes is causing the most productive to work less - a huge cost.

High marginal tax rates are bad only if you assume that the highest earners are most productive. But are they? Don't forget that wealth is also self-perpetuating. If I earned $1 million - whether by hard work, or by luck - then I could live comfortably off the interest for the rest of my life. In terms of satisfying my basic needs, I would have zero incentive to continue being productive. If I live off the interest, am I somehow being productive by proxy of my investment? That's another question.

The only person you should try to be better than, is the person you were yesterday

But how do you resolve a situation where there is actually only enough of a resource for one individual or group in a positive-sum manner? The historical record is clear that there are zero-sum situations, and in those situations there can be only one winner.

I don't believe you when you say we live in a world of abundant resources or that we can simply create new resources or that we can design a perpetual motion society of "lasting prosperity".

An argument between you and me over your thesis would not end in two winners. I think it's a silly, ideological, unscientific proposal that is unquantifiable in all its essentials.