BREAD Working Paper No. 623, September 2023

Zero-Sum Thinking, the Evolution of Effort-Suppressing Beliefs and Economic Development

Jean-Paul Carvalho Augustin Bergeron Joseph Henrich Nathan Nunn Jonathan L. Weigel



We study the evolution of belief systems that suppress productive effort. These include concerns about the envy of others, beliefs in the importance of luck for success, disdain for competitive effort, and traditional beliefs in witchcraft. We show that such demotivating beliefs can evolve when interactions are zero-sum in nature, i.e., gains for one individual tend to come at the expense of others. Within a population, our model predicts a divergence between material and subjective payoffs, with material welfare being hump-shaped and subjective well-being being decreasing in demotivating beliefs. Across societies, our model predicts a positive relationship between zero-sum thinking and demotivating beliefs and a negative relationship between zero-sum thinking (or demotivating beliefs) and both material welfare and subjective well-being. We test the model’s predictions using data from two samples in the Democratic Republic of Congo and from the World Values Survey. In the DRC, we find a positive relationship between zero-sum thinking and the presence of demotivating beliefs, such as concerns about envy and beliefs in witchcraft. Globally, zero-sum thinking is associated with skepticism about the importance of hard work for success, lower income, less educational attainment, less financial security, and lower life satisfaction. Comparing individuals in the same zero-sum environment, we observe the divergence between material outcomes and subjective well-being predicted by our model.

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