The Psychology of Zero-Sum: Selections from my current manuscript

Part of an ongoing set of posts from my upcoming book subtitled A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century. For close readers of this blog, some of this material may be familiar, but I welcome comments and suggestions. This is, after all, for publication. Footnotes not included.

The Psychology of Zero-Sum: Envy, Schadenfreude, and Mistrust

One of the most difficult aspects of honor-shame cultures for us moderns to fathom is the way in which they tend to view the world as a “limited good” and therefore all transactions and developments as a zero-sum game in which when someone else wins, I lose, and when I win, someone else must lose. While there are obviously cases in our own society where such is also the case – all competitive sports are zero-sum – there are others where the modern economy has, by making economic growth the norm, made it possible for even classic zero-sum situations – competing for a job position, for an A – not so remorselessly zero-sum. Indeed since the “positive-sum” 60s, grade inflation testifies to the strong desire to make even scholarly achievement a fully positive-sum game: everyone is “special,” everyone gets a high grade.

But in a society of scarce resources, like the Bedouins in the desert, or the Karamojong of the arid plains, the very life of the clan depends on their control of oases and pasture land. Here someone else’s gain is your loss, and the competition can get ruthless. Among the Karamajong of Africa, initiation to manhood involved killing someone from the neighboring tribe, man or woman. When the shocked Western visitor objected to killing the women, the tribesman replied: “If we don’t kill their women, they will have more children who will grow up to be warriors and defeat us.”

Zero-sum attitudes have a close relationship to envy: if someone’s success necessarily diminishes others, then any success will elicit envy, and, in many cases, mobilize forces to bring down the haughty ones. Envy, like shame, may be peculiarly human, and play a key role in our evolution. As an individual phenomenon, it is hard to track since, being an admission of inadequacy in relationship to the person envied, few people want to admit to feeling envy. As a social phenomenon – i.e. collective envy – it may play an important role in distribution of wealth by forcing those with a great deal to share. In some tribes, hunter-gatherers hide food and eat it alone at night in order not to lose the “lion’s share” to envious neighbors who demand their share.

There is a joke about a peasant who unearths a magic lamp, rubs it, and out comes a genie who offers him anything, but warns him that his neighbor will get whatever he requests twofold. His answer, “poke out one of my eyes.” Now if this were a chess move rather than a joke, you’d put two exclamation points after it. Why? Because since chess is a zero-sum game, and only the king matters, even a queen sacrifice is acceptable. Here, in one deft move, this peasant has turned a situation in which he would become half a wealthy as his neighbor (had he, say, asked for 1000 head of cattle, or 1000 acres of land) into a spectacular “win” for himself: in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is king. With this dramatic queen sacrifice, he has bought his dominion at the price of his self-mutilation.

Envy is a pervasive element of the human psyche and of human societies. The issue then, is how pervasive. What do cultures do with envy – accept it? or struggle against it? The expression “crabs in the basket” refers to the way if one crab tries to escape, the others will pull him down, hence, the tendency of people in poverty to show hostility to someone who, by dint of effort, rises above the collective condition and, by implication, sheds an unflattering light on those he or she leaves behind. This is not always negative. The argument that self-help warrior tribes are egalitarian, even ‘democratic,’ comes from their strong hostility to any single person rising to a position of dominance (kingship), not in any way to our notion that every individual, including women, have equal rights to speak and vote.

The evidence suggests that cultures that take envy as an inevitable and pervasive part of their lives produce societies of “limited good,” and by contrast that cultures that resist envy, even in relatively small but significant amounts, become wealth producing nations. When envy dominates a culture, its members mobilize against success. As the saying goes, “the higher up the pole you get, the more your ass is visible.” On the contrary, when people can tolerate success by others, even rejoice in the success of others, you have conditions for economic development. One might argue that monogamy, as painful as it is for alpha males who want to (are genetically programmed to?) spread their seed, is an effort to control the terrible conflicts of envy between multiple wives, not only for their own status, but for the status of their children. Polygamy, on the other hand, gives full range to both the alpha male’s power, and to a “family life” brimming with the most ferocious competitions at every level.

Those cultures in which envy flourishes, in which hard zero-sum games dominate virtually all relationships have certain characteristics worth keeping in mind when trying to understand them.

    Blaming the other: One of the more important dimensions of honor-shame self-help justice is the negative premium it places on self-criticism. The tendency of those who have been shamed by others is to blame the other for the insult. Public self-criticism registers in all but rare cases not as courage, but as an excuse not to fight, as a sign of weakness, of cowardice. To some degree this holds for almost any culture, even allegedly modern ones. “No one in France will admit to having made a mistake,” an observer told me, a few years ago. “It means you’re weak, and it’s the beginning of the end of your political career.” Rare are the cultures in which public admission of fault redounds to the credit of the confessor. Rather, most people blame, and, in some cases, scapegoat a designated guilty victim. The “other” must be wrong in order to save face.

    Evil Eye: The notion of the evil eye, the idea that a malevolent gaze can harm the recipient, appears, developed to various degrees, in most cultures. Where the belief prevails, the members of the society take a wide variety of actions to ward off the evil eye, some magical (talismans), some preventive measures (hiding wealth, disguising good fortune, avoiding any public display of success). Much “black magic” aims at harming others invisibly, and the notion that some people can cast an “evil eye” on another and thereby curse them is widespread. In Morocco, the saying holds, that “a third of people die from war, a third from disease, and a third from the evil eye.”

    Schadenfreude: The German term, adopted by pretentious Anglophones, designates the joy one takes in the failures and sufferings of others. This universal emotion remains, like so many aspects of envy, a kind of dirty secret that people often will not admit to themselves or others unless they can justify it with an explanation that the suffering is well deserved. Gladiatorial games, with their bloodthirsty crowds demanding death, provide just such spectacles. Nietzsche, ever vigilant to the workings of ressentiment among the weak, noted that Tertullian warned his fellow Christians not to attend gladiatorial matches because when they went to heaven, they would be allowed to view all the sufferings of those condemned (righteously) to hell – a kind of divine cable reception with thousands of stations from all the circles of hell. The public torture and execution of criminals in medieval and early modern Europe provided the spectators with a combination of Schadenfreude and cautionary object lesson.

    In a sense, on might argue that Schadenfreude defines the nature of us-them mentalities: suffering by “us” inspires hatred and desire for revenge; suffering by “them” inspires joy and celebration. Again, as with all the other emotions here described, Schadenfreude is a universal phenomenon, and the operative issue is whether the culture feeds its expression, or discourages it. While we in the West consider open expressions of Schadenfreude a sign of weak character, other cultures sponsor public displays. The rejoicing around the world at 9-11 was a classic expression of such emotions. And, as the French sociologist Baudrillard put it, while “they did it, we wanted it.”

    Humiliating others: In many honor-shame cultures, public discourse is often a game of one-upsmanship, in which public exchanges are contests of humiliation. The French film Ridicule describes the situation in the court of Louis XV at Versailles as one in which verbal jousts meted out sharp humiliations to the slow of wit, before adepts of Schadenfreude who thrilled to the contests. In such a world, every public discussion becomes a potential battlefield for honor, every exchange a “power challenge” for honor. People in such cultures live in constant anxiety since “honor is easily challenged and easily lost.” As the Arab proverb runs, “at the hour of trial a man is either honored or humiliated.” Indeed, people in power can expect at any time – and especially when they show signs of weakness – challenges to their authority, attempts to blacken their face, if not with blood, then with ridicule. As Madame de Sévigné once put it: “The humiliation of inferiors is necessary to maintain social order.”

    Lying: Every human being alive, and who ever existed, lies, we all conceal. There’s good evidence that were we not able to conceal certain aspects of our thought even from those most close to us, we would go mad. In honor shame cultures, two major attitudes vary significantly from those in the modern West. First, if it is legitimate to shed blood to save face, it’s certainly legitimate to lie. This can reach even the most trivial levels of concern: asked directions to a place he does not know, some men will give wrong directions, just in order to appear knowledgeable and not lose face by admitting ignorance. As the joke runs: “Why are there female astronauts? – If they get lost in space, at least someone will ask for directions.” Lying to strangers is particularly easy, since there are no consequences.

    Second, lying represents a game strategy whereby the liar both tests the intelligence of his interlocutor (how quickly does he catch on?) and a test of his interlocutor’s courage to call his interlocutor a liar and risk an escalation of verbal and even physical violence. The advantages of successfully lying are impressive: one can manipulate the unsuspecting and the cowardly, deceive him or maneuver his fear of embarrassment so that he or she takes positions that benefit me and harm their interests. An anthropologists who worked with tribal Afghanis told me his informant once said to him: “You Americans never lie.” Being the good earnest American that he was, he objected self-critically: “That’s not true, Americans lie often.” Then he realized… his Afghani friend meant it as an insult, not a compliment.

    Mistrust: I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors, all of us against the foreigner (Bedouin Proverb). In a world where zero-sum prevails, trust is a rare commodity, and generally only to be found in the confines of the family, if that. The mistrust of the “other” creates a cycle of suspicion and projection – they want to do to me what I want to do to them – that can only be broken with great difficulty. When the Athenians gave the Melians the choice between joining their side or having the men killed and women and children sold into slavery, their response was, “that’s not fair.” To which the Melians responded, ““You plead for fairness only because you are weak. Were you in our place you would be doing the same thing.” Anyone on the outside is immediately suspect of plotting zero-sum outcomes that will benefit him and harm us. On a political plane, this means that all political initiatives and conspiracies are virtually identical. As Thomas Friedman put it, “Don’t try to explain anything in the Middle East if you can’t explain it with a conspiracy story.”

45 Responses to The Psychology of Zero-Sum: Selections from my current manuscript

  1. Hard Rain says:

    Is there any estimation as to when this upcoming book will published? I hope I can pre-order online when it does become available :)

  2. Cynic says:

    RL,

    I feel that you need the input of paleontologists, zoologists and anthropologists as well as ours.

    “If we don’t kill their women, they will have more children who will grow up to be warriors and defeat us.”

    Maybe while trying to sort out the thinking of a clan/tribe culture one should also give some thought to the animal world where for example a lion will kill the litter sired by another lion so that he can get the lioness into heat again to be able to mate and sire his own offspring.

    Maybe the culture is so retarded that it should be studied at a more basic level?

    It seems that some cultures have through violence managed to prevent progress in matters psychological and philosophical and present, maybe superficially, a resemblance to the animal kingdom they presumably left behind eons ago.

    one of the books i use is Gighlieri, The Dark Side of Man. He’s a student of primates (worked with Jane Goodall). i do work with the evolutionary component. i’m not sure i’d call this form of culture retarded, so much as western culture as (partially and imperfectly) evolved. it’s all very problematic. one of my friends wrote that this chapter reminded him of the elementary school playground, and he’s right. just not as violent. -rl

    Amazing how Europeans seem to have managed to split off part of their culture and negate the excesses of the honour/shame aspect while still retaining that feudal aspect of obsequious obeisance to King/Queen.

    Burke!

    Is it possible that in the evolutionary dilution of honour/shame that has come to pass in today’s West, compared to existing tribal/clan cultures, it has provided the weaker part of society with the political slogans (political correctness; affirmative action; etc.) which when applied has reduced societal pressures and leveled the field somewhat against the more dominant sector?

    well that’s one of the issues i’ll have to tackle. on one level, because western culture is so different, the kinds of people that other cultures might see as expendable, are actually highly productive — e.g., Stephen Hawkings. there’s no easy formula here. but i will argue that PC, a perfectly legitimate and useful notion, has become seriously noxious.

  3. Lorenz Gude says:

    It took going back after I’d finished to decipher “competing for a job position, for an A” as referring to a school grade of A. Maybe just me, maybe not.

    will fix.

    The notion of using schadenfreude as pretentious strikes me as unfair – there ain’t no English word. Now Anglophone, that is one of those pretentious Frenchie words, isn’t it? :-)

    so’s “ressentiment.” okay we don’t have a word for it. anti-pretentious… moi?

    Another thing that jumped out was the idea that only humans exhibit envy and the like. As someone who has enjoyed the antics of animals since childhood I remain unconvinced by the standard academic notion that all such observations are based in projection AKA anthropomorphism. I think Cynic was raising the same issue in another way – some of the honor shame behavior you are discussing seems to me to be embedded in mammalian instincts. Alpha male strutting for example. I’m not suggesting you go into it that way, just that as expressed it jumps out as a bit suss.

    suss? is that an Australian expression? dominance is unquestionably a primate behavior, and obviously young male primates want the alpha male position. envy, tho, is something else. i’m open to examples of mammalian envy, but i do think it’s a complex emotion that, among other things, calls for a sense of self. the key book i’m using here is by Helmut Schoek, Envy: A Theory of Social Relations. it’s a field i’ll admit to knowing too little about.

    I am a bit uneasy with the notion that the win win of genuine commerce is similar to grade inflation. There something fundamentally different between my selling my car to get money I need to someone who needs a car and Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average.

    yes and no. in modern capitalist/productive culture, there are lots of cars to go around. you need not covet your neighbors donkey or car because you can get one. the woebegone culture is just a further development — there are A’s for everyone.

    Finally I would say that there is a difference between the game of honor and shame and when it gets real. Even in the animal kingdom there is a critical difference between strut and snarl and being brought to bay where it is either fight or die. So by real I mean recognizing a moment of truth when the situation requires us to act honorably or when shame tells us that we have failed to do so when it was within our grasp.

    you mean, as in Iran today? that’s why i emphasized that for these cultures, violence is a sign of seriousness. it’s like the scene in Hook, when Dustin Hoffman challenges Robin Williams to a duel, and Williams whips out his checkbook.

    I love the Afghan story. The next time I get insulted that way I am going to shake my head sadly and say “It’s ture, it’s true. That’s why my people are so rich and yours so poor.”

    nice.

  4. Ari says:

    First, as Lorenz pointed out, “For an A” lacks context. Better: “For an A in class.” But more importantly, both examples seem weak to me. On the one hand, how is competing for a job not strictly zero-sum?

    because in a productive economy, there are other jobs. it’s not all or nothing.

    On the other, when was getting an A ever a classic zero-sum competition? I may be too young, but in all of my long years of education, both as student and teacher, it has always been the case that grades were assigned based on absolute performance (well, except in sports, possibly). Grades have often been corrected using relative performance to fit a desired distribution, but there has never been any zero-sum barrier to any number of students achieving an A (or any other grade).

    you are so… American. in France — where i went to school in sixth grade — the average grade is 10/20. i.e., half the class fails. 15/20 is considered spectacular. (this may have changed after ’68.) the teaching is/was a form of creative humiliation in which losers got their losing grades publicly announced (every week).

    in any case, “absolute” grading (no curve) is what leads to grade inflation. in principle there should be no more than about 10% A/A-s in any given class. any more than that and A becomes a relatively meaningless award.

  5. E.G. says:

    How about exaggerating? It’s a sub-category of lying, and is found all around the Mediterranean. And yet Greeks, Italians, Spaniards etc. buy into Arab mythomania as if they didn’t know that “I drove at 295 Km/hour” actually means something like 130 Km/hour…

    that’s Enderlin’s defense: “oh, they exaggerate. i was in egypt when there was an earthquake and they’d scream about scratches.” as for the european gullibility to arab discourse… don’t get me started. especially since it’s matched with a ferocious suspicion of anything jewish (that isn’t anti-israel) as somehow “communautariste” (partisan) as if the Arabs aren’t partisan. self-destructive idiocy at the highest levels. one of the main thrusts later on.

  6. Ari says:

    Is the statement that polygamy leads to “the most ferocious competitions at every level” supported by empirical research? Since footnotes are omitted, I can’t tell, but a citation is definitely in order here.

    thanks. i’ll try and find some (originally didn’t have a note there. will now. i was thinking of David Pryce-Jones remarks on the impact of polygamy on the Arab family where everything is competition. i think you see the same issues addressed in the patriarchal narratives of the bible.

  7. Ari says:

    The sentence “Second, lying represents a game strategy whereby the liar both tests the intelligence of his interlocutor (how quickly does he catch on?) and a test of his interlocutor’s courage to call his interlocutor a liar and risk an escalation of verbal and even physical violence” is grammatically problematic (“both tests … and a test …”).

    roger that. thanks.

  8. Ari says:

    I hope this is referenced too: “There’s good evidence that were we not able to conceal certain aspects of our thought even from those most close to us, we would go mad.”

    no. (so far you’re two for two). but it shouldn’t be too hard, no? seems more like a novelist’s point than a psychologist’s… after all, we all conceal. the question is, how much? Sex, lies, and videotape… etc.

  9. Ari says:

    There is another type of lie which I’ve encountered (not sure how widespread it is, though, and whether it characterizes honor/shame cultures) which is something of a combination of outright lie and exaggeration. Namely, saying something that is either patently false (“I’ll do X” when there’s no way the sayer can do X) or will very soon be revealed as false (“I’ll meet you there in 5 minutes” when located at a much greater distance) in order to assuage the interlocutor, avoid an argument or the need to deal with an inconvenient matter, or get the other to do something. In either case the receiver is (supposed to be) embarrassed and reluctant to escalate by calling the lie.

    Pryce-Jones talks about how the first type — “i’ll do x” — is a permanent feature of Arab culture, and everyone understands that a) y cannot do x, and b) that y has a right to say he’ll do x in order to save face. only westerners expect results.

    as for the second type — temporal elasticity — i’m as guilty of that as anyone. it’s about not wanting to disappoint people, even tho you end up doing it.

  10. E.G. says:

    Ari,

    Are you sure it’s not that the receiver is supposed to know the code (5 min. = 50 min.)? The “I’ll do X” does sound characteristic – in Japan, one cannot shame oneself by admitting s/he is not capable of doing it.

    i’m confused. do you mean “one shames oneself…”? certainly, P-J argues that you can’t say that in Arab culture without losing face.

  11. Ari says:

    No, no. It’s not code. It’s about making you unable to object until it’s too late. It occurs in the little things, where kicking up a fuss after the fact makes you look petty.

  12. obsy says:

    I miss three person situations in zero-sum games.
    When three people play, helping one another to harm the third player can be advantageous to you.

    it’s called triangulation. and it’s characteristic of the schoolyard.

    Look at Arab leaders:
    When they want benefit from each other, they insult Israel. I don’t think this is just good manners for Arabs. It looks necessary to overcome zero-sum thinking. If they want their people to respect the them and their results, they need somebody who at least symbolically suffers from their agreement.

    i wd not call this positive-sum behavior. it’s just cooperation on one side of a zero-sum game. allies are necessary for large-scale zero-sum games. just look at the results — they gain the “respect” and cooperation of their Arab brethren, they dump on Israel, and they remain the most economically retarded sector in the global economy despite the trillions of petro-dollars.

    When you see something that looks as negative as zero-sum thinking, it is generally a good idea too search for the way those people soften negative effects. Because there almost certainly is such a thing and knowing it will increase your understanding.

    So when you don’t like my explanation: look for your own!

    done.

  13. obsy says:

    Mistrust: I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors

    A big economical factor for many African countries is the money that emigrants send from Europe to their families in Africa. I don’t know if that is true for the cultures that you have in mind, but if it is: this does not speak for mistrust and I don’t think any zero-sum thinking is involved.

    first of all, that’s a bedouin proverb. second, the draw of family/clan solidarity is supreme in these cultures. it’s one thing to suspect and distrust and even betray relatives, but never as much as you do that to outsiders. asabiyya (solidarity) is also a bedouin term.

    Maybe that was wrong. Some people argue that one reason for Africa’s failing economy is the quasi-socialism which results from the african big family social system. Why should I work hard, if I have to share everything with my brothers and sisters and cousins, …

    There may be cultural forces that require sharing on the one hand and egoism independently on the other.

    ideally that’s what you want: an individual is rewarded for his or her efforts, and also shares some of the bounty. envy plays a key role in all socialist or quasi socialist systems. there are cases of tribes where a hunter buries food outside the village and goes to eat it at night so as not to have to share…

  14. oao says:

    Maybe the culture is so retarded that it should be studied at a more basic level?

    maybe? we do call these primitive cultures and going by the definition they are, but the term culture carries a certain connotation that it is beyond primitivism and there should be perhaps a different name for it. do we say the lions have a culture? no, they go by instinct.

    Amazing how Europeans seem to have managed … retaining that feudal aspect of obsequious obeisance to King/Queen.

    not just europeans, but the US too. what about alibama, and before him kennedy? what are they treated as? animal instincts, such as that worshipping the leader in part to relieve oneself from making decisions (which requires thinking and risk) don’t entirely go away just because of some civilization occurs.

    the point of Eric Fromm’s Escape from Freedom — freedom means taking responsibility for your choices, even when they turn out to be bad. -rl

    some of the honor shame behavior you are discussing seems to me to be embedded in mammalian instincts.

    if it’s not instinct, what is it? that’s one of the aspect civilization has been trying to tame, no?

    Even in the animal kingdom there is a critical difference between strut and snarl and being brought to bay where it is either fight or die.

    indeed, many animals developed the former in order to avoid the latter. some fights reduce to showing off size or height, for example. seems to me that even animals have developed a certain degree of civilization which the H/S societies have not.

    On the one hand, how is competing for a job not strictly zero-sum?

    some competitions ARE INHERENTLY zero-sum game. that’s different from CONSTRUCTING/PERCEIVING most aspects of life as zs. i think it would be useful to have input from game theory too.

    agreed, but most game theory is so remorselessly mathematical (with an implied notion that we do what’s rational), and i’m interested in the emotions (with an explicit acknowledgment that people choose z-s or p-s for emotional reasons that follow radically different “rational” systems. but i’ll happily take instruction on this.

    I miss three person situations in zero-sum games.
    When three people play, helping one another to harm the third player can be advantageous to you.

    yes, that is a kind of qualitative difference. the more the number of participants in game increases, the games become extremely complex if you want to assume rationality — having to do with knowledge of players, coalitions, ability to affect the result, etc. my personal impression — having some background in this — is that beyond small groups games, game theory is not very salient. at the societal level it’s more likely to assume non-rational (NOT irrational!) behavior. for example, voting is a nonrational act from an individual point of view.

  15. Ari says:

    Q: On the one hand, how is competing for a job not strictly zero-sum?

    A: some competitions ARE INHERENTLY zero-sum game. that’s different from CONSTRUCTING/PERCEIVING most aspects of life as zs.

    Yes, right, but how does modern economy make it “not so remorselessly zero-sum?” (or were you answering a different question?)

  16. Cynic says:

    The sentence “Second, lying represents a game strategy whereby the liar both tests the intelligence of his interlocutor (how quickly does he catch on?) and a test of his interlocutor’s courage ….

    And how about cowardice on the part of the liar?
    What’s the probability that cowardice is more prevalent amongst liars, and game strategy is in Hollywood and novels?
    Of course in political discourse alluded to there would be no need for testing the intelligence of his interlocutor and courage, given what we are witnessing currently.

    not clear what you are getting at at the end here. but i’d definitely argue that lying is a form of cowardice, and that the challenge of the liar to the one he’s lying to is a displacement of the arena of courage. it’s almost a perfect arena for examining the difference btw integrity — telling the truth no matter how painful for the self — and honor — lying no matter how painful for the other.

  17. Cynic says:

    such as that worshipping the leader in part to relieve oneself from making decisions (which requires thinking and risk) don’t entirely go away just because of some civilization occurs.

    There will always be those looking for someone to throw them some scraps from the pie.

  18. oao says:

    Yes, right, but how does modern economy make it “not so remorselessly zero-sum?” (or were you answering a different question?)

    it’s not that the economy makes it not ZSG, but the culture makes people accept the ZSG without attempts at mutual destruction to win.

    the problem with arabs/pals it’s that their cultures takes everything as ZSG, which induces mutual destruction.

  19. oao says:

    must read by martin kramer:

    Obama’s Middle East map in shreds
    Martin Kramer
    http://sandbox.blog-city.com/obamas_middle_east_map_in_shreds.htm

  20. Francis says:

    I have found over some years now your analysis of honor-shame culture, among the many other topics you cover, to be quite compelling. One thing that interests me very much about the topic of zero-sum is how were we able to become different than them–to put it rather crudely.

    i actually plan two chapters to address that. one on demotic religiosity (esp monotheistic) as designed to combat zero-sum h-s relations (the patriarchal narrative goes from two zero-sum generations where only one son gets the blessing to a generation where all twelve get it), and another on how demotic religiosity slowly but surely transformed western culture over the course of the last millennium. obviously this won’t make certain confirmed atheists in our discussion happy, but i look forward to the discussion.

    I intuitively feel that we, who play positive-sum games, are different than them, yet we are all human. Vestiges of the zero-sum mentality still remain in our Western conscious and subconscious minds.

    we never get away from zero-sum interactions. they’re part of life. i’d argue if one out of three of your interactions with your fellow man/woman are positive-sum, you’re doing very well. getting rid of zero-sum is like getting rid of testosterone. not a good idea. the issue is taming it, not eradicating it.

    I have a feeling that some critical events occurred that caused Westerners to fundamentally and definitively move away to a large extent from our zero-sum past toward our current positive-sum reality. I do not necessarily mean by critical events things like the Magna Carta or the U.S. constitution. I feel that your writing on this zero-sum phenomenon could benefit from an historical analysis that would specifically call attention to these events in the evolution of the Western outlook. How about it? Do you feel that there were some critical turning points in the evolution of our viewpoint regarding the outcome of the competition for survival?

    yes. i’m delighted with your response because it’s precisely the kind of desire i want to create in the reader. please be patient.

  21. E.G. says:

    RL: What do cultures do with envy – accept it? or struggle against it?
    Well, some accept it as a human feature, and try to deal with it by making society members control it, by instituting societal norms.
    Here’s a Talmudic example:

    Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) Chapter 5, 10. «There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is a boor. One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — this is a median characteristic; others say that this is the character of a Sodomite. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a chassid (pious person). And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked.»

    and, like the four sons of the haggadah, i’d argue, all four dwell within each of our breasts. again, i go for batting averages. most of the time, we need to be median (the allusion to this as sodomite is an interesting example of hyper-self criticism — you can self-accuse or accuse your fellow of being like the men of sodom for so basic an attitude… as if God would destroy a city for that). some of the time we rise to the level of piety, sometimes we sink to wickedness. if we bat .333 for piety, we’re doing well. if our team (ie our society) has a batting average of around .300, we’re doing very well, and probably capable of sustaining a civil polity.

  22. E.G. says:

    oao #20,

    Infuriating – but what’s it got to do with the topic?

  23. E.G. says:

    Francis,

    For what it’s worth, from my shallow knowledge. At some period (Enlightenment? Post French Revolution? US Independence?) I think life and well-being became more dominant values, at the expense of honour/shame. And the more widespread education also contributed to more common abstract thinking, replacing concrete life-threatening actions undertaken to maintain honour and avoid shame, by more abstract (and less life-threatening) ones. WWI sowed the seeds of yet another transformation of minds, but WWII and its horrors was a decisive point.

    while i plan to push back the chronology here (the period from 1000-1500 are the early modern period in which the stuff we consider modern still had a [demotic] religious garb), EG is right about the critical turning point of the 18th cn. the idea that a society is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and have the right to work towards happiness is a formal application of positive-sum thinking that any society permeated with envy could not tolerate. (ie your happiness is my misery.)

    as for a good example of demotic religiosity in this period, i recommend a reread of Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

  24. Jonathan Levy says:

    Proofreading correction (?):
    In the section labeled ‘Mistrust’:

    When the Athenians gave the Melians the choice between joining their side or having the men killed and women and children sold into slavery, their response was, “that’s not fair.” To which the Melians responded, ““You plead for fairness only because you are weak…

    I may have gotten this wrong, but I think you meant the second “Melians” to be “Athenians”.

    roger that. thanks.

  25. oao says:

    francis,

    I can see at least 2 factors, aside from whatever events may have contributed.

    one is that islam has spread by sword and always forced infidel societies to accept/adapt it and to sustain islam economically; so islam was not forced as much to evolve and learn from bad experience.

    but it doesn’t much even now, when it is in bad shape. so the 2nd reason is the “inshallah” syndrome: no matter what one does, all it’s ultimately allah’s will, so why bother with anything, with thinking, with learning from experience? this also explains why islam resorts to return to the ways of 7th century as the solution, rather than go forward to the 21st.

    of course, this assumes an evolutionary/survival basis for growing out of honor-shame, so one must accept that basis to accept this explanation.

  26. oao says:

    oao #20,
    Infuriating – but what’s it got to do with the topic?

    #20 is not mine.

    sometimes the relation is not obvious; and sometimes there is no relation, but it’s something important that i want people here to read and the best way to ensure it is to post it in the most recent thread.

    it would be useful if there was a way here to just post links to important things not within the threads.

    i use wordpress. if there’s a way to do it, i will. if you’d like, i could post a “readers’ suggest…” entry every day or two. for that, tho, i’d want not just the url and title, but a short annotation.

  27. oao says:

    this is related only in the sense that honor-shame and zero-sum game is a winning strategy against the west.

    remember when i said “just watch how the pals will win if they keep failing” to do what we expect them to do?

    Special Emissary to Hamas?
    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2009/06/023863.php

    i rest my case.

  28. oao says:

    they are just like us:

    http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,,25658951-3102,00.html

  29. Eliyahu says:

    oao, I notice at the end of the story about the woman raped then sentenced to jail for illicit sex, that amnesty international jumped on the bandwagon. Amnesty sent a letter to the United Arab Emirates asking them to please respect the rights of women. I don’t think that the Amnesty honchos are really ignorant about women’s status under Islam and that Islam does not agree in principle with women’s rights [or human rights] as proclaimed in the West and in the Universal Decl of Human Rights. I believe that Amnesty knows and does little or nothing about hr in Muslim states but sometimes they feel that they have to make a show, so they send a demanding letter to Dubai or Abu Dhabi or wherever. They [AI] do have to make a show, at least, of loyalty to human rights.

    On the other hand, another fake “human rights” outfit, “human rights watch,” actually sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to raise money for their efforts to protect Gaza Arabs from mean Israel. As far as I know this hrw delegation did not raise the issue of human rights there in the Saudi kingdom while raising funds there. That might have gotten them kicked out of there, even if they really cared about HR. In the notice about this trip to KSA that I saw, there was nothing about hrw ascertaining that the rich Saudis whom they were petitioning for funds were for or against HR other than in the Islamic sense.

    These fake human rights outfits may be more dangerous for the future of human rights than oppressive regimes like KSA because they are corrupting the whole notion.

    http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1&section=0&article=122880&d=26&m=5&y=2009

    hrw also claimed to be in “Keeping with its mission of even-handed criticism.” Thus, “Human Rights Watch has also leveled criticism at other states in the region, including Saudi Arabia. The organization recently called on the Kingdom to do more to protect the human rights of domestic workers.”

    Isn’t that nice? While smearing Israel with war crimes charges, hrw “called on the Kingdom” [note that kingdom is capitalized] “to do more” to protect human rights of domestic workers.”

    Now, the domestic workers in Saudi Arabia are mainly or almost all foreigners, foreign workers. I was not aware that the “Kingdom” was doing anything at all to protect their human rights, whereas KSA opposes human rights in principle. So now you know that hrw is thoroughly morally corrupt.

    More info at the website of NGO Monitor
    www-dot-ngo-monitor-dot-org

  30. oao says:

    I don’t think that the Amnesty honchos are really ignorant about women’s status under Islam

    of course not. but they are not exactly VERY knowledgeable either, and they also know that no matter what they do, they won’t affect the arabs, not to mention their funds origins). but i contend that there is stupidity in this: they are a human rights org whose behavior defies its own function; not much brain to see that, is there?

    On the other hand, another fake “human rights” outfit, “human rights watch,” actually sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to raise money for their efforts to protect Gaza Arabs from mean Israel
    .

    it is i who posted the link to that in response to cynic’s claim that the world is crazy. and i contend there is stupidity in that too.

    These fake human rights outfits may be more dangerous for the future of human rights than oppressive regimes like KSA because they are corrupting the whole notion.

    they are useful idiots in the hands of arabs/muslims and integral part of the soft jihad. don’t I always argue that the west has committed suicide? and there is certainly stupidity in not seeing this, isn’t it?

    my point is that ignorance and stupidity are not mutually exclusive with policy — the former induces the latter.

  31. Richard Landes says:

    What struck me about the article about the Brisbane woman’s rape was the idea that without four males witnessesing the penetration (and agreeing to bear witness), the rape charge doesn’t stick, and hence it’s sex, illicit sex. often apologists for islam like Noah Feldman like point out that you can’t have proof of adultery without four witnesses and hence capital punishment is rare. here’s a case where it boomerangs.

  32. nelson says:

    What we call the West is, I think, rather the modern, the post-Enlightenment world. I’d say that, maybe, its turning point has been not exactly the abolition of slavery, but rather the moment when, to a critical mass of people, slavery ceased to look like something unquestionable or natural.

    Since the so-called Neolithic Revolution, slavery had been the rule in each and every complex society. Though, from a biological or zoological point of view, everybody was a homo sapiens, from a social, religious, legal or philosophical point of view, not every homo sapiens was really human, only a minority of them. The majority of homo sapiens belonged among the animal world and, as the other animals, its function was to provide the real humans with energy (through muscles, brains, skills etc.), even, in some cases, with edible calories.

    Nowadays, we, in the West/modern world, look at slavery as an aberration and an abomination. But how did this happen to something that was perfectly plausible but a few generations ago? The discovery of the ways of extracting much more energy from fossil fuels than from animal and human muscles and brains must have something to do with it, though I’m unable to say what’s the egg and what’s the chicken here.

    Anyway, it is likely that the very concept of human and individual rights couldn’t take root in a world where for someone to live actually well he had to own other homo sapiens who, thus, weren’t as human as he was. The full coincidence between homo sapiens and humans wasn’t possible in an energy-poor world. (By the way, neither vegetarianism nor animal rights would, in such world, be convincingly preached except by very marginal sects here and there.)

    By the way, one of the curious paradoxes of modern history is that such an archaic society as the Arab/Muslim one has been saved from terminal decay exactly by this process. Were it not for the invention of the internal combustion engine that needs oil, where would the Arab countries or societies be right now? They would either have had to develop and become modern or they would have become absolutely irrelevant.

  33. oao says:

    often apologists for islam like Noah Feldman

    they tie themselves in knots and yet reality always blows in their face. but in vain.

  34. oao says:

    about the only thing that individual muslims control in this world is women. they will not give it up, which is why they are at most violent and rabid when their control over women is at risk. remember theo?

  35. Ari says:

    Ari: I hope this is referenced too: “There’s good evidence that were we not able to conceal certain aspects of our thought even from those most close to us, we would go mad.”

    RL: no. (so far you’re two for two). but it shouldn’t be too hard, no? seems more like a novelist’s point than a psychologist’s… after all, we all conceal. the question is, how much? Sex, lies, and videotape… etc.

    I was thinking specifically of the assertion “There is good evidence that … we would go mad.” Everybody lies and deceives to some extent, but the assertion that had it not been possible we would go mad is much stronger than that, and needs to be supported by research. Perhaps you’d like to just make the point that everybody lies, period.

  36. E.G. says:

    Interesting point, Nelson.
    I never connected the abolition of slavery with the Industrial Revolution. Duh!

  37. Ari says:

    RL: you are so… American. in France — where i went to school in sixth grade — the average grade is 10/20. i.e., half the class fails. 15/20 is considered spectacular. (this may have changed after ‘68.) the teaching is/was a form of creative humiliation in which losers got their losing grades publicly announced (every week).
    in any case, “absolute” grading (no curve) is what leads to grade inflation. in principle there should be no more than about 10% A/A-s in any given class. any more than that and A becomes a relatively meaningless award.

    That misses the point. Of course grade inflation simply dilutes the meaning of a grade, which is why curve fitting is so common. However, fitting does not make it “classic” zero-sum. Fitting grades to a curve is typically done based on (relatively) objective raw grades (i.e., “absolute performance,” as opposed to, say, sucking up to the teacher). If, hypothetically, all students start out with the exact same raw grades, they will all end up with the same final grade. So technically this is not zero sum. (Realistically, of course, this never happens because different people have different abilities, and there is always a distribution—unless the instructor has screwed up royally.) Functionally, it’s not zero-sum either. I have never witnessed or heard of a case where one student actively sabotaged the work of another in order to gain an advantage in the grades rat-race. (Sometimes a student might steal someone else’s work and not return it, but the not-return-it part is motivated by the wish to lower the risk of being caught, not the desire to push the victim backward in the race.) There’s actually a great deal of cooperation going on among students at all levels. Has it been different in the past? Grading certainly has zero-sum aspects, but classic zero-sum it ain’t.

  38. E.G. says:

    Ari,

    When I once asked a French teacher whether 14/20 meant that about 70% of my answers were correct he was perplexed, and didn’t see where I got such an idea from. It was much after ’68 and he made his best to convince me that it was a very good grade.
    Several years later, I found myself (with a few colleagues) having to inflate (add a factor) grades so as not to fail a whole class.

    The only situations I can think of grades presenting a zero-sum aspect are competitive ones (concours) – gaining one entry to a prestigious/selective place (at the expense of other competitors). That’s more like competing for a job position.

  39. Ari says:

    E.G., I’m not sure whether you’re trying to agree or disagree with me, but what you say is in agreement with my main point: grades are *not* a classic zero-sum situation. Grades have a zero-sum aspect in that if you know that the final grades will be fitted to a curve, you have an incentive to cause others to fail thereby improving your position on the curve. In practice, this rarely happens.
    RL was saying (in the book chapter) that economic growth has made getting an A – a classic zero-sum game – into a non-zero-sum game. My objection was that certainly nowadays getting an A is not a zero-sum situation, and I find it hard to believe that things were much different in the past. Certainly it cannot be said that grades are a “classic” zero sum situation.

  40. E.G. says:

    Ari,

    I certainly don’t disagree with you. It’s just that I find it difficult to view grading as a whatever-sum game, both as a grade-earner and as a grader.
    I’m less sure than you about the “failing others” strategy being rare. Let’s say it’s not common.

  41. oao says:

    in any case, “absolute” grading (no curve) is what leads to grade inflation.

    wrong. when i was a TA at a decent univ, i
    graded absolutely and that yielded a large
    number of fails. too much for the prof,
    who instructed me to grade on the curve,
    so that more would pass. THAT inflated
    the grades.

    there is a certain amount of material to
    know and understand. the grade should reflect how much one knows and understands the material. if the best in class knows and understands 40% of the material and gets an A and the others who know less get B or pass, what does that say about the quality of education? isn’t THAT grade inflation?

    (i.e., “absolute performance,” as opposed to, say, sucking up to the teacher)

    if the former is the problem, the solution is to reform or fire the teacher, not to grade on the curve.

    So technically this is not zero sum. (Realistically, of course, this never happens because different people have different abilities, and there is always a distribution—unless the instructor has screwed up royally.)

    indeed, it’s not inherently zs. but there is ALWAYS a distribution??? nope. if the students, for example,
    come to the univ unable/unprepared and do not care
    and lack either capacity or motivation, the curve won’t reflect their acquired knowledge/understanding except
    relative to one another, which is misleading.

    and it’s the dominant method in america, not just europe.

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