Zero sum thinking and a civil society

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It’s not about agreeing on everything; it’s about engaging in a respectful manner.

Zero-sum thinking is a cognitive bias that describes a situation where one person’s gain would be another’s loss. Zero-sum thinking is captured by the saying “your gain is my loss” (or conversely, “your loss is my gain”).

Our society – nationally, certainly; and increasingly locally as well – is seemingly focused on a zero-sum mentality, where one person’s winning makes the others losers (and vice versa). This conviction and belief leads to the construct that success – especially economic success – is possible only at the expense of other people’s failures.

This rational leads to extreme polarization and dogmatic “either/or” scenarios; it seems as if any community decision (around housing developments, local minimum wage, family leave legislation, all-day kindergarten funding, early childhood support, state transportation funding, air service development – the list goes on…and on) leads to a moral check. You can’t compromise with either side if you view them as morally bankrupt.

This “either/or”, zero-sum way of approaching problems leads to a declining level of trust and manifests in ways such as online ‘trolling’ and political polarization. This also manifests itself in the decline of a civil society. While I think it would be best if people ignored the carnival barkers and trolls, it’s clearly not going to happen.

A civil society should be comprised of individuals, groups, and organizations working in the interest of the citizens and operating both inside and outside of the governmental and for-profit sectors. A civil society must include all stakeholder groups and must be inclusive of various viewpoints.

The government plays a role. Government, after all, takes care of law and order and roads and bridges. Governmental special districts take care of education, water, electricity, recreation and other necessities. Businesses offer goods and services in exchange for private dollars. Combined, these public and private efforts keep a society moving.

Other groups, like churches, the PTA, and non-profits, also contribute to a civil society. These groups play an important role as they provide needed services and provide connections for locals to be engaged and active in the community – aligned in their individual efforts to build a stronger community. It’s not about agreeing on everything; it’s about engaging in a respectful manner.

Yet increasingly – online and at public meetings – everything and everyone is pigeonholed into a zero-sum, my way or the highway approach rather than viewing each other as one another’s neighbor where we are mutually responsible for determining the best solutions for the community at large.

I received a recent email from a friend and community leader, who shared her thoughts on the extreme polarization all too commonplace across our nation today. She stated “it is my belief that while we can and should be deeply and genuinely disappointed in the lack of decorum and civil dialogue in our country, I remain hopeful that we can make a difference locally through our work and our actions. We should model the behaviors we want to see in ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, showing that openness, tolerance, understanding, and agreeably disagreeing are still very much part of our essence and culture.”

She’s right. We would all benefit by recognizing that everyone is devoted to making our community a great place to live, work, and raise families. At Vail Valley Partnership, everything we are and everything we do is in the service of a stronger community and I have the utmost belief that regardless of others positions on various issues, they want the exact same thing. That mutual recognition helps build a stronger community.


Chris Romer is president & CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. Learn more at