What is this post about?
Inspired by the US election and the preceding months, I thought a lot about US culture. More specifically, I wanted to understand why US citizens behave so differently than European ones when it comes to their patriotism or their party. And while there are many important factors such as historic differences, a completely broken two-party system with an electoral college that incentivizes polarization, or a privatized news sector that mostly repeats their party line, some of the explanation is probably found in the different cultures and mentalities. The narrative of the American Dream probably explains some of the voting behavior of the average American who shows less solidarity with others than the average European voter. Unrelated to that, I was also thinking about company culture. This was mainly inspired by two podcasts with Netflix founder Reed Hastings, one on Freakonomics radio and one on Masters of Scale. Netflix is known for a very specific company culture that emphasizes direct communication and is pretty trigger-happy when it comes to firing employees. The more I thought about the US-EU differences and company culture, the more I asked myself which aspects of the two I find desirable and whether there are commonalities between them that can be extrapolated to other areas of life as well.
Just to be clear, when I say culture I do not mean the artistic, musical, or historic connotation as in Beethoven, Da Vinci, or the Romans but rather the group mentality component. So for the purpose of this post, I will define culture as a norm or system of beliefs that many people within a social group share. Examples of this include culture within a country, such as the American Dream, the culture within a company, such as Netflix, or culture within a social bubble, such as people who identify as Effective Altruists.
In the rest of the post, I want to analyze different aspects of different cultures specifically under the lens of game theory. I choose the focus of game theory because I think it has great explanatory power for the resulting behavior of the people within that culture and is greatly undervalued in public debates or personal conversations. In the end, I want to pick out some aspects of culture that I think are positive most of the time and describe how one can apply them in their own life.
To contextualize this blog post a bit better: These are my thoughts and while I have talked with friends about them, I have not really read any scientific literature (if it exists) or consulted any domain experts. Therefore, I am a bit uncertain whether it should make sense to you or whether I see connections that just don’t exist. So I would recommend to read this post expecting an intellectual stimulus rather than a well-researched paper. As always, I am interested in your feedback, additions and inputs.
Analysing different cultures
There are many parts of our lives that are influenced by culture, i.e. the rules defining the accepted and desired behaviors within a group. They range from the very large, e.g. ideologies and international relations to the everyday interactions with our closest friends. These group mentalities often determine which kind of behavior is acceptable and inacceptable within that group and thereby very much shape how the individuals in that group behave. It is important to analyze which incentives are induced by different cultures because they are very hard to change and often self-reinforcing but still have a large effect on everyone involved. Consider the political mind-set of large parts of the Trump administration as an example. Trump actively chose advisors that share his zero-sum perspective on the world (e.g. if China wins the USA necessarily loses). As a consequence, many staff members who have worked for different administrations in the White House but were used to certain political norms such as respecting expert opinions or a decent treatment of political rivals, left because the culture was changed in a top-down process. The selection of the staff that chose to stay was very much aligned with Trump’s views and thereby reinforced the culture. And while it is easy to criticize this mentality from the outside it is very hard to change from the inside. Even if you tried with best intentions and maximal effort to improve this culture you would be the odd one out and be laughed out of the room pretty quickly. Another example would be the differences between two subreddits. r/wallstreetbets is a subreddit mostly populated by inexperienced traders that celebrate incredibly risky and mostly stupid behavior on trading apps like Robin Hood. Arguing for caution on r/wallstreetbets is a fast way to get downvoted, receive aggressive comments, or direct messages. On the other hand, many other subreddits, such as the A song of ice and fire subreddit, is a pretty nice and cooperative environment. Trolls are largely taken care of by the admins or ignored. I think this further shows how cultures develop over time and once they reach a critical point it is very hard to change them in one way or the other. Because of its stickiness and importance, I want to analyze the different game-theoretical implications of a variety of cultures in the following.
Populist politicians and people who vote for populist parties have to assume that the world is a zero-sum game for their ideology and actions to make sense. This means that whenever you lose something others are gaining and whenever others are gaining you necessarily lose. If more immigrants come into your country and improve their quality of life in a zero-sum mindset this means that you have to lose something as a consequence, e.g. the immigrants steal your jobs or decrease the value of your culture (now in the historical sense). If the elites increase their wealth that must imply that yours is diminished. In a zero-sum mindset, there is no room for someone winning while others are winning too. If a minority gets more rights or more protection from the government this has to imply that your rights are infringed upon.
In contrast, in a liberal and globalist mindset, most games are positive-sum, i.e. it is possible that both parties profit even if one profit more than another. Under this mindset, immigrants can improve their quality of life while not harming yours or potentially even increase it by enriching your culture (in the other sense). The increasing wealth of elites is not necessarily seen as a negative as a rising tide can lift all boats and the minority can be protected without you being harmed.
Obviously, this is fairly simplistic and there will be populists who don’t have a zero-sum mentality and liberals who don’t think the world is a positive-sum game and some people will switch depending on the situation. But on average you will probably find a zero-sum culture when you surround yourself with populists and a positive-sum culture in the liberal camp.
The way in which trade, negotiations, and other international relations are handled is not only determined by rational calculations but to a large extend by the mentality of the leader and the culture among the political decision-makers within a given country. For example, if you find yourself in a prisoner’s dilemma type situation with another country, whether you cooperate or not is not only determined by the facts and information that your intelligence agency provides, but also by the trust and average level of paranoia that your political leaders have. If your leadership culture is mostly based around the fear that other countries try to fuck you over rather than engage in mutually beneficial trade you are more likely to defect.
Different approaches to international relations can again be split along the zero-sum vs. positive-sum axis. Donald Trump’s philosophy to governance (if it exists) seems to be mostly based on a zero-sum assumption. His trade war doesn’t make any sense from a classical (and reasonable) economic perspective because trade is a positive-sum game. If you view trade through the zero-sum lens, however, a trade war can seem plausible. If China loses more (e.g. GPD) than you during the trade war this is a net gain for you. Similarly, the cold-war-esque approach to IR by Putin seems to be also based largely on a zero-sum understanding of the world. Vetoing actions in the UN security council that are mostly independent of Russia or supporting most enemies of the West makes a lot of sense if you think that every harm you do to the West is a win for Russia.
Most Western Countries seem to have a largely positive-sum view of IR. In tendency, they want to reduce trade-barriers to create mutual prosperity or stop global warming even if it means taking on short-term costs.
Prisoner’s dilemma or tragedy of the commons type situations can again be greatly influenced by the group mentality of the decision-makers. The most prominent example for this is climate change but it similarly applies to others such as denuclearization. The fight against climate change only works if all countries work together. Everyone needs to take costs now (e.g. economic output drops because of stricter regulation) to ensure the common good in the future. If one party defects, e.g. by leaving the Paris climate agreement, they get an unfair economic advantage over the others because they don’t bear the cost of regulations and thereby create an incentive for all others to leave as well. The probability of success of such coordination problems with around 200 players is very much dependent on the culture of every single player (i.e. country). If your government’s culture is one that has high trust in other governments it is very willing to coordinate and solve the tragedy of the commons through cooperation. If your culture is based around fear and paranoia, e.g. because you expect other countries to exploit or trick you, it is significantly harder to cooperate and more likely that you defect.
Country-wide cultural beliefs
There are many different cultural beliefs that influence our decision-making processes such as the average openness or trust. However, I want to focus primarily on the average degree to which people believe their success is determined by chance compared to other (often random) factors such as birth, race, or luck because I think it has a pretty large influence on everyday interactions.
The more your culture is on the American Dream side of the spectrum, i.e. high individual responsibility and low credit to other factors, the stronger two effects occur.
Firstly, it disincentivizes risk-diversifying behavior, e.g. redistribution or health care. The more you believe that you are the architect of your own fortune, the more you see your success as winning and helping others as losing. They could have worked hard themselves instead of living on the fruit of your labor, right? A culture that emphasizes external factors more, in contrast, decreases this perception of winning and losing. You don’t lose money by helping someone in need you just counterbalance their bad luck - it could have been you after all. Once again, the more people believe in one or the other culture the more they act according to it and support or oppose e.g. collectivized health care or redistribution.
Secondly, it emphasizes the zero-sum parts of society instead of the positive-sum ones. The more your culture focuses on individuals being responsible for their own success the more the culture will emphasize individual success stories. Popular movies and books are more likely to tell stories of people who rose from nothing to the high echelons of society or the media will focus on the personal actions and achievements of important people such as the president instead of their privileged upbringing or their influential friends. I don’t think this relationship is necessarily causal but it definitely correlates empirically. A focus on success is a focus on the zero-sum parts of society. There are, often per definition, a limited number of positions with high social status in society as they are often defined by rarity. If becoming a doctor or working at Google was less competitive it would be less impressive. A limited number of slots automatically implies a zero-sum game. If I get the spot and thereby “win” someone else doesn’t get the slot and “loses”. Similarly, if someone else wins I can’t win too as the slot is taken. A culture that focuses less on individual success and thereby less on limited goods within society has more room to focus on unlimited goods and positive-sum scenarios. And, honestly, there are a lot of positive-sum games in society. Most moderate interpretations of religion are positive-sum - you can practice your religion and others can practice theirs and both of you can be happy. Education can be positive-sum - other people can get smarter without you getting dumber and vice versa. Families are positive-sum - both of us can have happy families without losing anything. However, all of the just named things can also be seen as zero-sum games depending on the culture you are in. Religions have fought many wars because of a zero-sum interpretation - if my god is right, yours can’t be right too. If I aggressively post pictures of my happy family on Facebook every day then others might be less happy because their kids can’t speak three languages and play five instruments while winning the state junior championship in two sports (but they are still broken inside because there is another kid who is even better).
Different cultures within companies also emphasize either zero-sum or positive-sum aspects of their employees’ lives. Honoring an employee of the month is zero-sum as only one person can get it, honoring all employees who perform better than a threshold is potentially positive-sum as multiple people could get it. It might still be a bad idea though because all those who didn’t get it might feel bad about themselves. Emphasizing that people who work hard climb the ladder is zero-sum as there are usually only limited places higher up. This also means that if other people within your team perform worse, because you sabotage their work or communicate badly they don’t climb up and you are incentivized to be uncooperative and a dick. Saying that everyone gets a raise proportional to the quality of their work is positive-sum and incentivizes cooperation as everyone can win and teamwork usually pays off. Clearly, there are some parts of a company that are zero-sum games - only one person can be CEO and you can’t promote everyone. I think it’s just important to realize that different company cultures induce completely different incentive structures which can lead to massive performance gaps between companies.
By social group, I mean a community that is connected through a specific purpose and regularly spends time together, e.g. a football club, a band, a group of friends playing online video games, a debating club, or the Effective Altruism community. In the case of social groups, there is a game theory element that inherently exists through the design of the group. A football match is by definition zero-sum - one team wins and the other one loses. A band is with high probability positive-sum and so on. The other aspect comes from the culture of the group, i.e. the mentality of the people and which aspects of their purpose they choose to emphasize. Being a fan of an average quality football club would be pretty useless if you focused on the zero-sum aspects. Half of the time you would go home happy because you won and the other half of the time you would be sad because you lost. Therefore, fans claim wins as the merit of their team but externalize the losses by blaming the referee, the weather, or the stadium. Additionally, the culture of a football club largely centers around positive-sum aspects. The game itself is only a small aspect compared to the community, the experiences, and the stories you get to share. All of these can exist in multiple football clubs at the same time and the fans can be happy even if their club loses all the time.
I also want to analyze the culture and my mentality within the three social groups that I have spent the majority of my time in the last five years. The first is competitive debating, which is honestly a pretty bad deal if you only focus on results. On most tournaments 40 teams or more compete for around 8 spots in the break and only one can win the entire thing. But for the first couple of years, I mostly focused on the zero-sum part of debating - I desperately wanted to perform well and, since I didn’t, felt pretty miserable most of the time. At some point it got so bad that members of my club approached me and talked to me about it (thanks btw!). I then decided a pretty drastic change was necessary if I want to keep debating. I decided to focus more on the positive-sum parts and the entire experience was immediately more fun. This meant focusing on improvements rather than results, spending time with the people you like within the community, or have interesting discussions between the rounds. The zero-sum vs. positive-sum split wasn’t something I saw at the time but retroactively it fits very well into this framework.
The second community is Effective Altruism (EA). I think from the very first moment the EA vibe was very positive-sum and cooperation oriented. Everyone I met at my first conference was pretty nice and patiently answered my naive questions while showing me this entirely new and fascinating way of thinking about the world. Whenever I am with a bunch of dedicated EAs I naturally get this feeling of unity where everyone works together on the unified goal to make the world a better place in the most effective way possible and I absolutely love it.
The third community is academia which is a bit of a mixed bag. Science as a concept is as positive-sum as it could get. Many people come together and cooperate to understand the universe and improve society through their research. However, the process of doing science, i.e. academia, is not always aligned with that. In many circumstances, the culture within academia focuses more on its zero-sum aspects and competition rather than its positive-sum ones and cooperation. At least in Machine Learning, the review process of the big conferences is often thought of as an author vs. reviewer game where you have to convince the reviewer to accept your paper to “win” because so much prestige is connected to acceptance at big conferences. A culture that would emphasize positive-sum aspects would frame the review process as cooperative, e.g. the reviewer and the author improve the paper together to further its content and understandability. I have personally found that employing a zero-sum mentality of academia makes me feel worse and less productive than a positive-sum mentality but that might just be me.
Relationships with your significant other should be positive-sum and cooperative!!! Everything else should really make you rethink your communication and behavior within that relationship. Practically speaking this means that if you are having an argument with your partner you should not have a zero-sum mentality where you try to “win the argument” while they “lose” it. One should rather see it as a positive-sum game where one of the two “discovers” a problem that can be solved by working together and both parties win. In a zero-sum understanding of a relationship, only one person can win but over time both of them probably lose. In a positive-sum understanding, both can win by improving their relationship in a cooperative fashion.
Relationships with other people should, in my opinion, also be positive-sum and cooperative but have a lower threshold for defection than a relationship with your significant other. So when interacting with friends and colleagues one should, a priori, have a positive-sum and cooperative mentality and also signal this to the respective person or group. However, when it becomes clear that the other person has a zero-sum or non-cooperative approach you will have to adapt. If you are working on a group project, for example, and another person is constantly leaning on your generosity by rarely contributing and mostly leaching, you have to adapt or there will be more exploitation in the future. If a friend uses you mostly as an emotional dump whenever they have problems in their lives but does not return the favor you should adapt or you will be exploited further. Adaption in both cases doesn’t mean warfare. You should not bitch about that person behind their back or try to “win” the zero-sum game they are playing in some other way. In my opinion, you should always try to communicate with the person you think is defecting first. Sometimes there are exceptional circumstances, e.g. a person close to them died and they just need your support without an expectation of reciprocity at the moment. Sometimes they think you are the leach and not the other way around - I guess we all had a group project where everyone thought the others are doing nothing. And sometimes they are just lazy and explicitly communicating with them will help out. In most circumstances, communication will help to regain a culture of positive-sum. In the remaining ones, you might have to change your strategy and e.g. end the one-sided relationship.
A culture to prevent
A group mentality that should be avoided as much as possible is what I call the “Sinking ship mentality”. It describes situations in which the majority of a group thinks that this group has no purpose anymore and will fall apart in the near future or, even worse, is currently competing for resources. As the name suggests this could describe a scenario like a point in time at which most passengers on the titanic realized that the ship was sinking, resources are sparse and not everyone can be saved. At this point, every thought of a cooperative or positive-sum strategy is completely gone. It’s everyone for themselves fighting against each other. Note, that this mentality often occurs even if a cooperative strategy would be much more successful overall. On a sinking ship, more people could be saved if you distribute safeguards, blankets, etc., and coordinate the rescue rather than everyone only caring about themselves. This phenomenon can be found in many more situations. If large parts of the workforce think that their company doesn’t have a future they will not cooperate and this might lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where the company actually has to close or lay off staff. If a large number of people in your society believe that the future is going to be very grim, e.g. because the leader is very incompetent, they are less likely to abide by the law and more likely to commit crimes and steal stuff - after all, future times will be hard, nobody will help you and you have to prepare yourself. If you lead a group, company, or nation you should always try to avoid this kind of mentality because it can spiral out of control very quickly. As soon as a sufficiently large group of others is not willing to cooperate, abide by the law, etc. then it becomes necessary for you to adapt their behavior because you will be exploited otherwise.
From the text so far it might seem like most of the named problems are pretty easy to solve - just make it a positive-sum game and cooperate. This is definitely not true for at least three reasons.
Firstly, culture is really sticky and it is hard to change in most circumstances. The whole point of culture (as used in this post) is that a group has a common set of rules guiding their behavior. If you deviate from that default behavior, even if it is with good intent, you will be seen as the outlier and the weird person. If you are, for example, discussing politics with a group of people that believes the economy is a zero-sum game suggesting it is a positive-sum game will not make you seem like the enlightened one but rather as the idiot. Especially because the culture is often tied to identity it is even more sticky since changing it would mean some people would have to change some of their fundamental beliefs.
Secondly, positive-sum thinking is actually harder than I make it sound. Evolutionarily speaking, most of the “games” our ancestors played were zero-sum. There was a limited amount of social status, a limited amount of food, a limited amount of potential mates, and less or more protected sleeping spots. Even though you could reframe some of them as positive-sum and, e.g. provide more food to prevent in-fighting, this would always come with a high expenditure of energy. It is therefore plausible that the way we think is very much biased towards a zero-sum understanding of the world. This also makes intuitive sense. Whenever I have an argument with my partner my very first urge is to feel accused and try to “win” the argument. Only after a couple of seconds is my system two able to overwrite that urge and apply a cooperative, positive-sum way of thinking. At least for me, it requires a lot of discipline and self-conditioning to consistently apply this way of thinking and if I don’t pay attention it’s easy to slip back to zero-sum.
Thirdly, the whole point of multi-player game theory is that it depends on other players. If you run around pretending that everything is positive-sum and cooperative but the group you interact with thinks it’s zero-sum, you will be exploited. This might happen on the international level where other countries don’t apply the regulation they promised and get an unfair economic advantage, on a country level where Democrats go high (i.e. try to cooperate) while Republicans go low (i.e. block everything in the Senate) or on a personal level where you are being abused as an emotional dump just because you were trying to help.
I also don’t think that zero-sum games are necessarily always bad. When different companies fight over the same market segment then this is a zero-sum game but consumers win through lower prices. Having competition between athletes, politicians, or job applicants can be good as the winner of that competition often brings positive effects for society at large. But note that in all the scenarios I just described we don’t focus on the zero-sum aspects, but we always like the part that is not inherent to zero-sum games, i.e. the external benefit. The people who are losing probably feel pretty miserable if they employ a zero-sum mindset and from a utilitarian point of view I would much rather try to find positive-sum games that yield the same external outcomes than focusing too much on zero-sum.
Given these problems, I think there are four basic steps that can still improve the situation which I, personally, will try to apply more in the future.
- Think about the game theory in your surroundings. This might be on the small level e.g. by re-evaluating your relationships and trying to improve them by focusing on the positive-sum aspects or by mentally reframing the way you think about your hobbies, as I tried for debating. Realizing a problem is one thing, changing it is another. Most of the time it’s a pretty hard journey that requires discipline and a lot of mental energy. I tried to change my thought patterns w.r.t. debating three years ago and I still fall back to bad habits way too often when I am in the competitive environment of a tournament. Suddenly, it’s all about winning and losing again and I have to make a hard and active effort to remember that there are positive-sum aspects through the group of friends, the educational aspects or the community. You should expect this journey to be hard, your brain is not designed to think like this.
- Choose your social groups more explicitly. We often end up in social groups through a number of random events with various path dependencies but it is rare that we actively evaluate a group and choose it because of its positive aspects. This doesn’t mean you should abandon all your friends right now and start from scratch but rather try to choose your community more explicitly whenever you switch because you, for example, move or change job. I am a rather competitive person and have spent a lot of time grinding myself through various video games but in retrospect, I have always appreciated the positive-sum, cooperative parts of the game more than the zero-sum ones. For example, I enjoyed Dungeon speed-runs with friends in Guild Wars 2 or teaming up in LoL or Dota 2. In contrast, the multi-hour solo queue grinds never felt that satisfying. What I will look for in future communities is this vibe of “working on a project together to improve the world” kind of feeling that I get within the EA community.
- Tit for Tat: Tit for Tat is a strategy by which you cooperate when the others cooperate and punish when others defect. I think it is a good heuristic on a personal level. You, a priori, show your intention to be cooperative and positive-sum, and only when the other player shows a different intention you punish or defect. Whenever they show their willingness to cooperate again, you switch back to cooperation as well. Depending on the situation you might also apply Tit Tit for Tat since others might have defected because of difficult circumstances or because they aren’t used to this kind of thinking and it might be important to show a willingness for cooperation for a healthy long-term relationship. In a relationship with a significant other, I would use something like a 5x Tit for Tat because you chose to be with that particular person for a hopefully good reason. This is mostly because I think we are too trigger-happy to classify our partner’s actions as defecting when they are due to extraneous circumstances. If a partner is, for example, depressed or under a lot of stress due to their work and therefore does less than half of the workload at home or are more focused on their own problems than mine, I should not defect and refuse to listen to their problems or also leave the dishes dirty. As long as there is a common understanding that the relationship is positive-sum and cooperative these problems will likely be just temporary and the relationship will improve over time. If, however, this leniency is intentionally abused and exploited by your partner, you might have to lead a tough discussion or even end the relationship. And even though this sounds pretty harsh, one should remember that the value from relationships is not intrinsic but because it improves the lives of both partners.
- Design systems and institutions: If you work in governance, lead your own company, or are the president of a small football club, you can emphasize the positive-sum aspects or explicitly design systems such that the incentives align with them. If you are the leader of a country talk about the economy in a positive-sum fashion, e.g. through emphasizing mutual prosperity instead of talking of winners and losers. Design your economy, education, immigration, etc. to reflect this fact because zero-sum games make it rational to block and inhibit others where positive-sum games do the opposite. If you lead a company, nurture a culture that focuses on the positive-sum aspects and design your hiring and promotion process accordingly. In the context of IR we should create and support institutions to break coordination problems such as climate change. Having a treaty like the Paris Climate Agreement is a step in the right direction as it removes the uncertainty of other player’s behavior. If we had clearer punishment for leaving or better enforcement mechanisms something like Trump’s desire to leave would have been met with actual consequences and maybe he wouldn’t have done it. Thereby his incentives would have aligned with the thing that maximizes group utility, i.e. fighting climate change together.
I want to end with an important reminder. While there is much room for improvement through reframing systems to be positive-sum and cooperative and applying this to your own decision making we should not forget that some systems are and will always be zero-sum. In many situations, there are only a limited number of spots available and the only thing you can change is your own mentality when dealing with the problem. If you don’t get the job, you can either see it as a loss or as an opportunity to learn and improve. And even if that sounds a bit like an excuse the person that applies that framework is happier and more likely to get the job next time. On the other hand, there will also be situations that are annoying and require a lot of nerves to deal with. Sometimes others defect for whatever reasons and you have to find a way to deal with it without defecting yourself. If someone is free-riding on the rest of the group in a group project defecting is bad because everyone will get a bad grade but not punishing that person will encourage other free-riders. If Trump leaves the Paris Climate Agreement, other countries should not leave because that would hurt everyone but there has to be a punishment for defection as it otherwise gives the USA an unfair economic advantage. I don’t really know how to solve these problems and I find them terribly unnerving but it further emphasizes that whenever you can you should choose a culture or mentality that avoids them by being positive-sum and cooperative.
Culture matters because it largely determines group behavior and is very sticky. Different cultures imply different incentives for each individual adhering to it. Within this post, I found that many different mentalities can often be described either with a zero-sum competitive or positive-sum cooperative framework. I argued that I would want the world to have as many positive-sum cooperative cultures as possible and how one can adapt their own thinking in a way to make this a reality for one’s personal life. However, it is important not to forget that there are always people or situations that are zero-sum and if this is left unrecognized a positive-sum worldview can be exploited.
One last note
I want to thank Maria and Emil for their feedback and input.
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