The Rise of Positive-Sum Thinking

And how innovation brings about non-zero-sumness

Embracing a positive-sum mindset can be hard because we aren’t wired for abundance; we’re wired for scarcity.

When we lived in tribes, if someone took your food, or excluded you, you didn't have anywhere else to go. It was a zero-sum world, which is why today we instinctively feel someone else's gain as our loss.

Then we invented technology: the ability to do more with less. Then we invented markets, which enabled people to acquire resources while simultaneously enriching others.

Suddenly, our world became positive-sum—the more you created for yourself, the more you gave to others.

If we can expand our circle of empathy across genetic boundaries and emotionally care about not just our tribes, but entire nations, we should be able to create positive-sum societies.

Positive-sum thinking and building enables us to feed billions of people. The idea is that we can always grow the pie, as long as we do so sustainably.

I'm talking about positive-sumness from a macro point of view, but this also applies in your own life: the more happy you are for others, the happier they’ll be for you.

Even if a local situation is zero-sum and you lose, act in a positive-sum way because it's advantageous in the long term. What goes around comes around, less because of karma as much as because of game theory. In other words, life is an infinite game — if you cooperate, people will cooperate with you; if you defect, people will defect. To get long-term cooperators, you must suffer some defectors (“get taken advantage of”). Don’t defect; Play long-term games with long-term people.

If a zero-sum mindset is what we're wired for, positive-sumness has to be learned.

There are a few ways zero-sum thinking manifests: One of them is the scarcity mindset—For every winner, there's a loser. The pie is limited. Another is the comparative mindset—How scarce something is relative to other things. e.g If you have 5 best friends, the idea that each best friend is "less special" than if you had just 1. Both of these can be pernicious.

Ways to be more positive-sum include: having a gratitude practice, refraining from tribalism, not holding grudges or keeping score, and learning nonviolent communication.

Also, surrounding yourself among other positive-sum people and putting yourself in positive-sum ecosystems. I find the tech ecosystem fairly positive-sum in a few ways: There’s an angel investing culture and an emphasis on equity-alignment as to share upside. People don’t know who’s going to be The Next Big Thing, so they’re more likely to help up and comers. And there’s a belief that information advantages decay, so it’s better to share and get brand benefits rather than hoard any “secrets”.

Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero, details how positive-sumness, or, to be more precise, non-zero-sumness (NZS) has increased over our history. In fact, that’s the TLDR of the book: society becomes more non-zero-sum overtime. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (9780679758945 ...

Here’s a more in-depth summary, including paraphrasings and direct quotes: Non-zero-sumness (NZS) is the evolution of culture toward deeper and vaster social complexity—an increasing intertwining of our fates. In other words, the growing extent to which we become interdependent on each other.

History rhymes—rulers, dynasties, and people may change, but all seem locked into the same endless cycle of conquest and expansion, fragmentation and collapse. The rise of NZS characterizes ancient history in a nutshell: onward and upward, to higher levels of social complexity.

NZS stems from game theory. In NZS games, there can be "win-win" outcomes, but not “win-lose”—fates aren’t inversely correlated, like in tennis or chess. If the players grasp this fact and play their cards right, they can cooperate to their mutual benefit. 

Fates used to be non-correlated. The advent of markets placed us in a chain linking our economic behavior globally. For better and for worse: On the positive side, we can expand the pie for everyone. On the scary side, we now have the threat of nuclear war. 

How does NZS occur? New technologies arise that encourage newer, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction (e.g. markets, writing, social media). Then, social structures evolve and realize this rich potential, converting non-zero-sum situations into positive sums, benefitting society in the process.

The story of the Middle Ages is the story of new non-zero-sum technologies restructuring society in their image. Their upshot ran counter to, and prevailed over, the imperial ambitions of ancient regimes. Free markets would clash recurrently with old regimes, and win. Once the synergistic power of these technologies crystallized in the form of capitalism, they would allow the entire populace—including descendants of slaves and serfs—to play complex non-zero-sum games with people they would never meet.

This basic drama—the centralizing instincts of the powerful versus the decentralizing tendencies of technology—would play out again and again throughout history. In short, both organic and human history involve the playing of ever-more-numerous, ever-larger, and ever-more-elaborate NZS games.

To be sure, NZS doesn’t necessarily mean cooperation. For example, we have a non-zero-sum relationship with the people in Japan who build our cars, but neither I nor they ever chose to explicitly cooperate with each other. Still less do individual genes on my chromosomes think of themselves as cooperating with one another, though they behave in accordance with non-zero-sum logic.

Furthermore, NZS doesn’t mean potential energy, which is inherently limited. NZS, by contrast, is self-regenerating. NZS compounds itself, bringing us from a world that only has bacteria to a world that has iPhones, Marie Kondo, and the United Nations.

So why non-zero sumness, instead of positive sumness? Because sometimes, in NZS, the object of the game isn’t to reap positive sums, but instead to simply avoid negative sums (e.g. nuclear disarmament, climate change, AI). 

There’s an interesting paradox: Economic transactions are NZS behaviors that create surplus, leading to zero-sum behaviors *within* the non-zero sum context. This is why the benefits of capitalism is so hard to instinctively understand - you’re fighting to redistribute the *surplus* that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

One example: To compete for high social status is to play a zero-sum game, since status is scarce by definition. Yet one way to successfully earn status is to invent technologies that create new non-zero-sum games.

Another example: War. War is zero sum as it gets, with clear winners and losers. And yet: War is so bad that people invent non-zero sum technologies and social structures partly to escape the zero-sum game of war.

If two nearby societies are in contact for any length of time, they will either trade or fight. The first is non-zero-sum social integration, and the second ultimately brings it. 

Population density, in this view, drives technological and social development not by creating opportunities, but by creating problems—that we have to then fix. it takes only one person to invent something that the whole group can then adopt (since information is a “non-rival” good).

So the more possible inventors—the larger the group—the higher its collective rate of innovation. This is why there’s so much innovation in cities.

Whether you're a bunch of genes or a bunch of memes, if you’re all in the same boat you’ll tend to perish unless you're conducive to productive coordination.

The rise of NZS mostly accelerates the good things, but also the bad things, like viruses (ahem…), harmful ideologies (e.g. terrorism), and quicker economic downturns.

These zero-sum events, like wars before them, help us create greater non-zero sum institutions that help us fend these off.

Once we reap the non-zero sum benefits from certain zero sum behaviors, we can prevent them (e.g. we don’t have war as much anymore).

Nature recognized NZS by giving us a desire for reciprocity. This was evolution’s way to make playing non-zero-sum games profitable. BUT those incentives assume a world of scarcity.

Today we have more complex ways of playing NZS games that don’t rely on reciprocity all the time. Indeed, we can get rid of other behaviors that were wired in but outlived usefulness: Revenge, jealousy, social anxiety, the desire to induce these in others, the joy of watching car-crashes or participating in digital cancellations..

In conclusion, the more complex societies get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find NZS solutions. That is, win-win solutions instead of win-lose solutions.

So maybe we will find our own victories in other people's victories, because it's in our interest to—our increasing interdependence forces us to seek non-zero-sum solutions.

Success is far from guaranteed—and it will depend on moral progress. History has forced people to either expand their moral compass—or pay the price.

Onwards and upwards for more non-zero-sumness….


I wonder if a cultural ethos/movement around “positive sum” would resonate widely

It’d recognize our increasingly intertwining fates, the importance of expanding (and sharing) the pie, and the need to refocus our attention towards abundance rather than scarcity, envy & status games.

Read of the week: Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks. I summarized it here.

Listen of the week: “Original Sin and the Meaning Crisis” with John Vervaeke & John Pageau

Cosign of the week: Ruben Harris. One of the most positive-sum people I know. I went on his great podcast recently.

Watch of the week: “Successor Ideology” with Wesley Yang & Coleman Hughes & Ross Douthat.

Until next week,


P.S. Luka Doncic.