The Zero Sum (0 Σ) Game [FP]

The Zero Sum Game (Σ).  This is perhaps the easiest “game” to recognize because it is so universal in our experience.  We’ll identify it as Fundamental Principle 4a:

An interaction between two or more people where the value of the total “stakes” or outcomes that is distributed at the end of play adds up to the same amount as at the beginning.

In other words, if you are playing for a ‘readily identifiable valuable material item’ (I chose those words carefully) as a stake, say “beans,” and the beans shift around as play continues, the total number of beans never changes.  Most often in economic situations the stake is money and goods and/or services.  Thus, in a two-player game both players can “break-even” or, if one person “wins,” then it must be at the expense of the other: “If he wins, then I lose.”   Some examples,

  • Shopping (a normal business exchange, recall my earlier definition): if the value is fair, you acquire your desired item and the seller gets fair value in cash for selling the item; if the value is not deemed fair, you walk away (or you should).  Zero sum, and normally everybody is happy.  If it were barter, then the exchange would be goods for goods.
  • Playing poker.  What the players ante and bet into the “pot” in each hand is distributed to the winner(s) when the hand is over (provided the ‘host’ doesn’t tap the pot to cover “snacks”).
  • For the younger set, when kids play “War” with cards.  There are only 52 cards total, when one wins a card, the other loses one (in the two person version.  This works in the
    n-person game also, but to explain it would make somebody ill).
  • When a corporation 1) sets the year’s operating budget for a department the same as last year’s, or 2) makes a fixed total of “X” dollars available to a department for annual raises for department employees, and then permits the department head (and staff) to allocate budgeted funds to various projects and operations, or budgeted raises to employees.  More important projects get funded at the expense of less important ones (presuming here that there is an excess of desirable projects).  High performing employees get larger raises, while others with lower performance get less, provided the final sum is still “X.”
  • You’ve invited another couple over for dinner and have planned to BBQ marinated chicken breasts, when the couple informs you that junior’s football team outing has been cancelled and it’s too late to find a babysitter so they are bringing him with them and knew you wouldn’t mind. Junior is the size of a horse and eats like one. It’s too late to buy more chicken breasts and marinate them, so you instruct your spouse to a) cut the meat ‘thin and artistically’ at a diagonal and b) not take his normal helping of meat but load up on salad instead (i.e., he’s the designated loser).
  • When a car merges in front of you, you move back a spot (rule of physics: two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, in spite of repeated attempts to prove otherwise).  Not a big issue if traffic is flowing smoothly and there’s space; but it’s different if it’s in rush hour, isn’t it?
  • “Mommy, Timmy took more than his share!!!”
  • “Daddy, Mary took the toy I was going to play with next!!”

We are exposed to this game from an early age and our experiences vicariously train us in our preferred behavioral reaction when tangible “valuables” come into play.  More often than not social pressures (read “culture”) guide us to try to “even out” the outcomes (for the “overall good”), even though our “survival instincts” drive us to go for all we can get.  (However, there are cultures that emphasize the latter).

But what if the “valuable” item at stake is intangible, or a mix of tangible and intangibles?

  • Time: Your boss needs to meet with all employees individually, so appointments are made throughout the day.  If one meeting goes overtime, it displaces all the following meetings (another physics rule: an object cannot be in two places at the same time).
  • Attention: So, when your meeting occurs your boss is clearly preoccupied with something else; no eye contact, the response “uh-huh” occurs at predictable intervals, and there are interruptions (telephone, secretary, birds outside the window, etc.).  You might begin to question the boss’s competence, but definitely are questioning how much you are valued.
  • Time & Attention: “Sorry, Timmy, I can’t play “_______________________” now (fill in contemporary parent-child quality time activity here) because I have to read the newspaper my emails on my iPad.”

It appears to be human nature to choose to step easily into this “game.”  When we find we are suddenly thrust into the midst of it, however, it also appears to be human nature to respond defensively to minimize our losses.

What “intangibles” do you put a high value on, that would cause you to respond defensively if they were threatened or lost?

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About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 04: Games People Play, The Fundamental Principles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Zero Sum (0 Σ) Game [FP]

  1. Pingback: The Negative Sum (– Σ) Game [FP] | Road Signs and Blind Spots

  2. Pingback: My Top Thought Provoking but Obscure Articles from 2012 | Road Signs and Blind Spots

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