Game Theory and Social Emotions


by Richard Landes

Game theory examines the ways that various people “play” their interactions with others. All games take place on at least two levels. The first is material gain or loss (often quantifiable, and the focus of most formal game theory), and the second, psychological perception of having won or lost (rarely quantifiable until recently, ignored). In honor-shame cultures, the perception of others’ actions plays a much stronger role than “rational” concerns about material gain and loss regardless of relative advantage which, in principle, governs civil society behavior (rational choice theory). Rational choice theory, focused on quantifiable self-interest as a motivation, tends to downplay emotional components of game playing. It discusses fixed- and variable-sum games. The following discussion analyzes the cultural and emotional dimensions of a player’s preference for one strategy over another, and focuses on zero-, positive- and negative-sum games.

ZERO-SUM GAMES are games in which one side wins and the other loses. Hard zero-sum insists that only when the other loses can one win. Hard zero-sum reflects an emotional demand that a victory can only be savored when the defeated one knows himself to be defeated. All sports and gambling games are zero-sum. War, theft and raiding are hard zero-sum. The dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled” takes zero-sum relations at a political level as axiomatic. I must dominate lest you do the same. “Do onto others before they do onto you.” The joke about the peasant whom the genie offers one wish, but whatever he asks for his neighbor gets double illustrates the zero-sum mentality to perfection: “Poke out one of my eyes.”

POSITIVE-SUM GAMES are games in which both sides win. In closed positive-sum transactions, although both parties may “win”, one side is guaranteed a significantly greater victory (noblesse oblige, or British imperialism). Open-ended positive-sum is based on a voluntary agreement to interact (contract, joint venture, constitution) on rules that apply equally to both sides, and an agreement that whatever results from the interaction, both sides will accept no matter how diverse the end result (civil society, meritocracy). Rationality and “rational choice theory” assume that actors will work to maximize their own advantage, with minimal concern for how it might help someone else even more. As opposed to the mutilated kingship and dominion of zero-sum, democracy and civil society derive from the extremely rare accomplishment of a positive-sum mentality among a critical mass of citizens.

NEGATIVE-SUM GAMES are games in which both sides lose. This represents the height of irrationality to positive-sum players, but it proves a surprisingly durable choice of game-players. The self-destructive element in conjunction with aggression often derives from losing a hard zero-sum game and not accepting an offer to switch to positive-sum. In terms of the zero-sum genie joke above, negative-sum thinking — illustrated with deep poignancy by the Palestinian ruling elites — runs along the lines of “poke out both of my eyes if only I can get one of my enemy’s.”

THE EMOTIONS AND LOGIC OF ZERO-SUM: I win, you lose; or, you win, I lose. In modern society, these interactions get played out in sports. When played out in economic life, however, zero-sum assumes a fixed set of resources (no economic growth). Therefore, whatever has worked to the advantage of the other has diminished the self. In its harshest forms, zero-sum holds that not only does one person win and the other lose, but in order for one to win, the other must lose. Zero-sum emotions include:

  • total scarcity — if you gain (wealth, status), I lose
  • Schadenfreude — your misfortune brings me gladness;
  • envy — your success diminishes me;
  • triumphalism — I’m bigger because you are smaller; and
  • resentment — as long as you have more success than me, I despise you, if necessary in secret.

The appeal of these emotions — risking all to feel triumphalism and dominion — is well-nigh universal. Hence, in civil societies, zero-sum games are delegated to sports and gambling. In prime divider societies, they invade the realm of real life: “war is the sport of kings.”

In order to understand this mentality, we have to put aside cognitive egocentrism. We are raised in a culture that places heavy emphasis on positive-sum relations, or on the notion of mutually beneficial win-win. We consider positive-sum so obviously appropriate that it is virtually synonymous with rationality. When our economists assume rationality as their axiomatic understanding of individual decision-making, they reflect this widespread cultural assumption that, at least formally, dates back to Adam Smith. And not surprisingly, the mentality of zero-sum – one wins, one loses – strikes us, as self-destructive.

Let us consider the nature and logic of zero-sum interactions, especially in terms of the emotional pay-offs. The basic rule of human interaction in many honor-shame cultures holds that honor is a limited commodity, that one person’s honor means the loss of honor of another. Politically this leads to what Eli Sagan has termed the “paranoid imperative”: rule or be ruled. “If I don’t rule over you, you will rule over me. I must therefore try to dominate you lest you dominate me. If you win, I lose; in order for me to win, you must lose.”

(I prefer the designation “dominating imperative” for this set of beliefs. The paranoid imperative I prefer to reserve for: exterminate or be exterminated. Hence the distinction in matters of Judeophobia between, for example, zero-sum anti-Judaism and paranoid anti-Semitism.)

This attitude of rule-or-be-ruled justifies what Mao used to call “pre-emptive retaliation strikes.” They happen all the time, from international relations to familial ones. The classic expression of this attitude comes in two forms: 1) the more basic “honor-shame” culture of the tribal warrior, where honor comes from dominion (that is, the Germanic, Celtic, and Mediterranean subterranean levels of European culture), and 2) the “civilized empires” in which a certain degree of restraint in the exercise of immediate dominion opened up both a space for an expanding “middle class”, largely urban, and for a much wider range of conquest and dominion for a small elite.

As the Romans liked to tell themselves, the first Romans quickly understood that they could either be masters or slaves, so they chose to be masters, and did it so well that they conquered the world. Rome is the poster boy forlibido dominandi (the lust to dominate). Roman imperialism illustrates the accuracy of the Athenian remark to the Melians ca. 416 BCE that it had been a law long before their time and would be long after, “that those who can do what they will and those who can’t suffer what they must.”

This statement helps us understand the emotional and strategic logic of zero-sum in what seemed like a negative-sum choice in the genie-peasant joke cited above: “Poke out one of my eyes.” If this were a chess move (i.e. a zero-sum game) rather than a joke, you’d put two exclamation points after it. In one deft move, this man has turned around a painful dilemma into a spectacular “win” for himself. The peasant’s dilemma was that anything that benefited him, made his neighbor twice as well off: a thousand head of cattle for him meant two thousand for his neighbor. In the world of the dominating imperative, one assumes that if one’s neighbor is twice as wealthy as oneself, that neighbor will use his superiority to try to control you. Our peasant resolves the dilemma with a dramatic queen sacrifice: “in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed is king.” He has bought his dominion at the price of his self-mutilation. Envy unchecked is one of the key components of a culture of impoverishment.

THE LOGIC AND EMOTIONS OF POSITIVE-SUM: The logic of positive-sum seems clear to people brought up in civil society. Compromise is the essence of democracy; going for hard zero-sum blights growth and mutual prosperity. But the emotions of zero-sum can be quite demanding. In order to neutralize Schadenfreude, especially in a modern society where individuals’ conditions change rapidly, one has to learn to tolerate, even take pleasure in other people’s success, even success in direct comparison with one’s own choices. The “rational” response to the genie’s dilemma — one might call it the modern liberal’s response — is to say, “give me ten million bucks and good for my neighbor who gets twenty.” But being rational is not that easy.

To accept defeat without scape-goating, cheating, or using force to redress the imbalance, to accept the occasional public humiliation for the sake of integrity rather than saving face at the cost of honesty, requires a commitment to fair-play and self-criticism (e.g., to accepting the “bad” news that one has lost). This generous attitude towards others and modesty towards oneself are not easy and natural emotions. They must be fostered. Both civil society and demotic millennialism nurture these emotions, and great men like the Englishman William Blake can “root” for the Americans in their support of experiments in freedom even against their “own side.”

The emotional dimensions that determine these two worlds of social interaction also substantiate the emotional attachments some of us have either to the Politically-Correct Paradigm (PCP (we are all committed to positive-sum games) or the Honor-Shame Jihad Paradigm (JP) (they are, alas, committed to hard zero-sum desires). Our ironic dilemma is that the more those who favor the naturally generous view of positive-sum adhere to PCP, the more they contribute to the zero-sum behavior of demopaths and the hard-zero-sum players, whose intentions they systematically misinterpret. Without understanding the interplay between the logic and emotions of zero- and positive-sum strategies, we will have difficulty figuring a way out of the current dilemma of the thrash of cultures.

Further Reading

Alexander, J. McKenzie, “Evolutionary Game Theory“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Stable URL:

Wormuth, Francis D, “The Politics of Bedlam“, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (December 1963).

Original Source:

(Artwork: Schizophrenia by Mimika Papadimitriou)

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