“A zero-sum game … leaves predation as the only way people could add to their wealth,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. One argument that Pinker makes in his book is that humans are social creatures because cooperation and living in a group creates more positive-sum scenarios for humans as opposed to zero-sum situations. Basically, when you have a group of people, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The collective abilities of people is greater than you might expect if you evaluated all the people and their individual skills on their own.
Pinker explains it this way, “a positive-sum game is a scenario in which agents have choices that can improve the lots of both of them at the same time.” If I am not very good at sewing, but have an excess of corn, and you are good at sewing but need food, we can engage in a trade where both of us win. I get new warm clothes for the winter, and you get food to survive the winter. We both are better off, but I now have warm food and can be productive outside by planting winter vegetables and you now have food and can continue to produce more warm clothes. The value we provided to the group we are a part of is greater than the clothes you sewed for me and the corn I gave to you.
Positive-sum games are much more complicated than the little example I just shared and are more common than we might think. We tend to simplify the world when we think about relationships between people and we often fall back on binary ways of thinking. We see the world as zero-sum because it is easier than seeing the complexities of the positive sum situations of our social world. In simplifid ways of thinking, people are either good or bad, you either win or lose, I either survive or a I die. The reality, of course, is that we don’t actually face a lot of zero-sum situations like these in our day to day lives.
“A key insight of evolutionary psychology,” Pinker continues, “is that human cooperation and the social emotions that support it, such as sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, and anger, were selected because they allow people to flourish in positive-sum games.” We are evolved for positive-sum games as social creatures. We are not evolved for zero-sum games as isolated individuals. We work together as teams, share surpluses, and work toward shared goals because most of our social interactions are positive-sum. Most of the day to day interactions we go through make the world better for everyone when we follow pro-social norms. We flourish in positive-sum games, and we often don’t even recognize how much of our lives are guided by such positive-sum moments.