All is fair in love and war, on Zero-sum games in life

Crossposted from my blog: Dark Rationality

Why can’t we all just get along? Is a good question to ask, even if you won’t like the answer. Naval Ravikant posted on Twitter that people should avoid playing zero-sum games and focus on the positive-sum game of wealth creation, the irony is quite amusing considering twitter is a zero-sum-silicon-valley-engineered status game that causes many of its participants to become utterly obsessed with their follower counts. In this case, the medium is the message.

The case I’m going to be making in this post is that for humans zero-sum games are not only unavoidable but are actually very important and that these truths are being suppressed and denied because of their dire implications.

Zero-sum games in life

The most famous and clear-cut zero-sum game in life is wars, two or more sides fighting over some scarce resource, may it be oil, land, or trade routes.

The entire human history was filled with wars, in many cases wars can be considered even a negative-sum game as the aggregate loss from both sides in many cases is larger than the utility gain of the winning side. A contrarian reader would probably mention world war 2 and the positive influence it had on the development of many technologies like computation or nuclear power. But I would argue that the price we paid in economic destruction and suffering was quite high, and it’s unclear if on aggregate the result was positive. But even if it was the case this is the exception and not the norm.

But wars are not what they used to be, it seems that nuclear weapons and the MAD doctrine have made wars somewhat obsolete so an argument can be made that while wars used to be a significant problem in the past their importance in human life seems to be heavily declining.

The second big zero-sum game in life is status, here things start to become unpleasant. Because it’s quite hard to deny that status is zero-sum and while wars are becoming rare it doesn’t seem that status-wars follow suit. And if you believe the ideas of Peter Turchin about the overproduction of elites they might have even become worse with time. Judging by revealed preferences, social status is very important to people – many spend a large number of resources on Veblen goods and signaling (the broke individual who still splurges on clothes is a trope for a reason). The elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler claims that many very basic facets of our life are actually related to signaling and status maneuvers.

The third bid zero-sum game is competing for sexual partners (long and short term). One objection that I sometimes encounter against viewing intrasexual competition as a zero-sum game is different preferences. Imagine that Alice is dating Bob and Charles is dating Dina but in reality, Alice and Charles are way more compatible, and so are Bob and Dina. So if they would switch you would get a Pareto improvement which means it’s actually not a zero-sum game. And while this argument is theoretically correct in practice most people are looking for the same qualities, men usually put emphasis on youth while women tend to appreciate power, but both men and women prefer attractive and healthy mates. So in practice, the competition for partners can mostly be described as zero-sum [1]. Important to note that the zero-sum game is not between the partners in the relationship, because if the relationship is healthy it’s definitely a positive-sum game. The zero-sum game is the intrasexual competition, think of the stories of Helen of troy or Bathsheba as archetypical representations of this phenomenon.

The fourth category of zero-sum games is more subtle but still happens quite frequently and these are zero-sum games that are hidden in positive-sum games, few examples:

  • While employment at large is a positive-sum game – salary negotiations are a zero-sum game, every extra dollar the employee is a dollar that the employer could have and vice versa.

  • While the government could be described as a positive-sum game (at least if you agree with the Hobbesian view). The election process is a zero-sum game for the parties that participate.

  • While marriage is a positive-sum game, a specific argument about who is the one who needs to get up to care for the crying baby at 4 am is zero-sum.

These are not the only examples, it seems that most interactions have some kind of a zero-sum in them: even if you work together to increase the size of the pie, the question of how the pie will be divided always stays pressing and relevant.

The grim implications

Two questions that are worth asking: How important are the results of these games are to our well-being? can someone lead a happy life while consistently finding himself on the losing side of these games?

The answer to both of these questions seems to be complex. Losing a war can be a matter of death or enslavement, while we can easily imagine someone who utterly sucks at salary negotiations but yet still lives a perfectly good life.

While there is a significant variance in the importance of different games, in aggregate, doing well in zero-sum games is extremely important for thriving and happiness.

The losers of the male intrasexual competition, which are most nowadays most commonly known as incels – seem to be extremely miserable, even though most of them are better off in most facets of life (health and material goods) compared to the average person in earlier times. It makes sense that a failure in something as crucial (in the evolutionary sense) as reproduction will cause suffering – just like hunger, thirst or physical pain.

In the case of status, it seems that there is at least some research that shows that social status influences well being, but most of the weight of the importance of status lies in revealed preferences, And while there is a lot of plausible deniability involved I think the work of both Hanson and Veblen is very convincing in demonstrating just how much people really care about status.

Now if we accept the idea that winning zero-sum games is very important for human thriving and happiness the logical implications are quite unsettling.

First, it seems that conflict theorists were mostly right all along. If one’s chance at happiness and thriving depend on zero-sum competition and position-based results then there is a very fundamental conflict of interests between people, and it’s quite rational to do things that might hurt everyone but will help you and your ingroup to beat the competition. It might be better to be the chief of a bush tribe than a low-status incel in modern Switzerland.

It also means playing by the rules is a bad strategy if you’re at the bottom of the totem pole – and you might be better with the riskier “get rich or die tryin’ ” approach. If you got dealt a bad hand playing by the rules means you’re probably going to lose and if these zero-sum games are crucial for your happiness and reproduction it makes sense to do anything that it takes to win, hence: “All is fair in love and war.”

But the propagation of these truths might be bad both for society, and for the ruling elite that benefits from the fact that people play positive-sum games, As they both get to keep their positional advantage and enjoy the economical growth that is the result of people creating value. That’s why the millionaire Naval Ravikant tells the clueless masses to avoid zero-sum games while aiming for status himself.

[1] – A more accurate term would be low-positive-sum games. Situations where the utility of the expected Pareto improvements is very low compared to non-Pareto improvements.