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The Monopoly mindset
Even though younger people tend to think so, we don't live in a zero-sum world
I begin ‘Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom’, the book I published in 2021 (in South Africa) and in 2022 (globally), with a bold claim:
The world can be divided into two types of people. The first group believes the world is like a game of Monopoly: only the strongest, smartest or most fortunate survive. For this group, life is a zero-sum game; for you to win, I need to lose. If you have a world view like this, then you will inevitably also believe that wealth is acquired through the acquisition of something owed by someone else, whether it is their property (as in the game), their land or their forgone wages. The second group, by contrast, believes that the world is more like a game of Catan. They hold the belief that you can prosper while I prosper too. In fact, those in this group might even believe, as do the best Catan players, that you have to prosper for me to prosper, that our fates are irrevocably joined together.
This idea of a Monopoly vs Catan mindset was informed by teaching second-year students for over a decade, asking them questions about the roots of prosperity and being startled at just how ingrained the Monopoly mindset was in many of their responses. I also had the suspicion that this mindset had become more pervasive.
But I had no proof.
A new NBER Working Paper might just provide the evidence I was seeking. The stellar team of Sahil Chinoy, Nathan Nunn, Sandra Sequeira and Stefanie Stantcheva ask the provocative question of whether a ‘zero-sum’ worldview, where gains for some mean losses for others, can explain certain social, political, and cultural dynamics in the United States.
I learned much from the paper. The first lesson was that the Monopoly mindset is not a new concept: it was already introduced by anthropologist George Foster in the 1950s, who applied it to rural Mexico to describe how people might perceive societal wealth as limited, meaning that one person’s gain necessitates another’s loss.
A second lesson is that the Monopoly mindset still matters today, even in a wealthy country like the United States. The authors collected detailed survey data from about 20,400 US residents. This data included respondents’ views on several political and policy topics, alongside their zero-sum beliefs and personal and ancestral histories. Although the survey asked about their grandparents, the data provided insights into the situations of their great-grandparents as well. This four-generation data allows the authors to examine in detail how family history might impact current beliefs and opinions.
Their findings can be categorised into three main contributions. Firstly, the authors measure just how prevalent zero-sum thinking in the US is. They develop an index, scoring people’s perceptions from 0 (non-zero-sum) to 1 (completely zero-sum), reflecting how they see gains and losses in different economic and societal scenarios. They then use a technique called principal component analysis to show that a significant portion of the population possesses the Monopoly mindset.
Secondly, they then examine how this mindset affects attitudes and policy views. Those who strongly hold a zero-sum perspective tend to favour policies that redistribute wealth or resources from the affluent to the less privileged. These policies can range from taxation and universal healthcare to affirmative actions favouring specific demographics. Surprisingly, this mindset is not strictly aligned with party lines. While generally, zero-sum thinkers are more aligned with the Democratic Party, the research highlights that the mindset can explain variations within party views too.
Thirdly, the authors trace the origins of varying zero-sum thinking within the U.S. The authors find that historical influences play a role in shaping an individual’s Monopoly mindset. Three historical factors are considered: ancestral economic mobility, immigration history, and the history of enslavement.
Concerning economic mobility, the survey gathers data spanning four generations, from the respondent to their great-grandparents. The authors found that individuals who’ve experienced upward mobility across generations tend to think less in zero-sum terms. When it comes to immigration, having a recent immigrant history in one’s family reduces zero-sum thinking. This tendency is most evident for first-generation immigrants and gradually lessens in subsequent generations. Another observation was that if an individual’s ancestors lived in areas with significant immigrant populations during the Age of Mass Migration (1860-1920), their descendants today tend to view the world less in zero-sum terms. However, the same effect doesn’t apply to individuals based on where they grew up, suggesting the place-based influence of past immigrant waves may have faded with time.
A contrasting perspective is evident when considering the history of slavery, an institution inherently designed as a zero-sum or even negative-sum system. Black respondents, on average, emerged as the most zero-sum thinkers in the survey. Among them, those with enslaved ancestors have a more pronounced zero-sum worldview. Various forms of historical enslavement, not limited to antebellum chattel slavery but also including the internment of certain ethnic groups, forced reservations, indentured servitude, and experiences like the Holocaust, correlate with stronger zero-sum views. Notably, the research also uncovers that individuals and their ancestors who lived in counties historically known for more enslavement tend to have stronger zero-sum views. Furthermore, areas that experienced white southern migration and stronger ‘Confederate culture’ also reflected stronger zero-sum mentalities. These findings highlight the long-lasting effects of historical oppression, racial bias, and systematic racism on black Americans, regardless of whether their direct ancestors were enslaved.
Broadening the scope to a global context using the World Values Survey, which includes 72 countries, the study discovers parallels between the U.S. findings and international trends. Zero-sum thinking worldwide aligns with support for left-wing politics, government redistribution, and immigration restrictions. While the effects of immigration and enslavement history in the U.S. might be unique, upward economic mobility seems to be a consistent determinant of zero-sum thinking. In the international data, exposure to economic growth early in life inversely affects a Monopoly mindset. This global observation underscores the potential universality of the relationships between zero-sum thinking, political inclinations, policy perspectives, and economic conditions.
Back to my second-year class. Having taught the same syllabus for over a decade, my gut feeling was of a marked rise in students exhibiting the Monopoly mindset. But perhaps it was just me getting older…
The authors have an answer: ‘younger cohorts are much more zero-sum than older cohorts’. But why are young people more likely to suffer from the Monopoly mindset? Their answer: Economic growth.
To prove this, the authors examine the relationship between economic growth and zero-sum thinking across different birth cohorts — see their Figure 12 above. They find that individuals born prior to 1970, a period of prosperity and significant economic growth in the United States, tend to think less in zero-sum terms compared to those born after 1970, who experienced economic stagnation. This trend aligns internationally, as data from the World Values Survey reveals that individuals who experienced higher economic growth during their formative years exhibit less zero-sum thinking, irrespective of their age during the survey.
Were we to do a similar study in South Africa, I wonder what characteristics we would find. Perhaps an inverted-U shape, with very young (Zuma years) and very old (apartheid years) South Africans more likely to have the Monopoly mindset? Perhaps there will be large racial differences, or perhaps even regional or urban/rural differences. It would be fascinating to know. (Any funder out there willing to put in a few million to find out?)
But even if we did know, one critical question remains: what can be done to change a Monopoly mindset? The final paragraph of the paper recognises this cliffhanger:
Our analysis has shown that differences in zero-sum thinking are connected to historical forces in systematic ways. Individuals are more zero-sum today if they have ancestors who lived in an environment, or if they directly experienced, events that were more zero-sum. Understanding whether shorter-run experiences also affect zero-sum thinking is an interesting question for future research.
If the Monopoly mindset is as important as it appears, understanding how to turn it around should be one of the most important questions social scientists study today. In the meantime, perhaps playing Settlers of Catan rather than Monopoly with the kids this December holiday might be a good start. (Or, of course, ask Father Christmas for a copy of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom.)
An edited version of this article was first published on News24. Image created with Midjourney v5.2.