May 02

In game theory, a zero-sum game is the situation in which one person’s gain is equal and opposite to their opponent’s loss. For one to win or advance, the other must lose or retreat. There are situations in life where the zero-sum game is undeniable. These typically have to do with dividing up commodities (money, time, property, etc.). However, most problems in life have less to do with commodities and more to do with what those commodities represent. Hence thinking beyond the zero-sum game can be one of the most power tools to resolving conflicts.

When we assume that a situation has fixed parameters, we limit our brain’s ability to think of creative solutions. In a previous post I talked about how the way in which we think about a problem will have a direct effect on our ability to solve it. If we limit our thinking by erecting artificial boundaries to our solutions, such as a zero-sum game, we resign ourselves to operating within those boundaries and potentially miss out on a whole array of creative solutions.

As I mentioned above, one way to think beyond the artificial boundaries we often impose is to not only ask what each party wants, but to follow it up with asking what each desired outcomes represents to each party. For example, during a divorce proceeding the conflicting parties often have intense feelings about certain assets. The values of those assets might not equal the expense of battling over them in court, yet the battle persists. This is a clear example of there being a more important factor underneath or represented by that asset. I have heard divorce attorneys talk about how their clients argue over items that they really do not want, where the battle does not make logical sense, but it makes emotional sense. When pressed for a reason why, they usually admit that their battle isn’t over the item itself but in fact it is about wanting to feel respected and their opinion valued. They fear being taken advantage of or being disrespected by a spouse who has acted contentiously toward them.

If the divorce attorneys limit themselves to the framework of a zero-sum game, they are forced to figure out how to “divide” the item. Needless to say, any division of an asset might still leave the underlying emotional issue unresolved. As any good divorce mediator will tell you, an upfront investment of time, active listening, and fostering understanding across the table will pay off big dividends in time, money, and peace of mind.

So whether or not you are working with divorcing clients, the fact remains that freeing yourself from the boundaries of the zero-sum game will unlock your brain’s ability to problem solve more efficiently. Or in other words, as the Oracle’s kid said, “there is no spoon”.


Shawn Healy, PhD



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