Zero-sum thinking, which says one group’s gains come at the expense of another’s, is associated with the perception that tomorrow’s generations will have less opportunity to succeed than previous generations.

American Aspirations research has found that people who have a zero-sum mindset are less likely to support measures to address inequality and other social problems in the world today.

You can fight this mindset by communicating about concrete, achievable ideas, not just the problems that stand in the way. Showing how solutions create greater opportunity for everyone can make people more optimistic about the future and inspire them to support you work.


In our first American Aspirations blog post, we introduced Betty—a 66-year-old African-American woman living in Nashville, Tennessee.

Asked to describe her view of the state of opportunity in America, Betty saw an ever-growing number of racial and ethnic groups struggling over a limited amount of wealth and resources. Here is the picture she drew to express this idea:

Betty expressed zero-sum thinking, in which one group’s gains come at the expense of another’s.

In our research, zero-sum thinking was associated with the perception that opportunity is contracting in America—that tomorrow’s generations will have less opportunity to succeed than previous generations.

American Aspirations research has found that people who share this zero-sum mindset are less likely to support measures to address inequality and other social problems in the world today.

In a survey of 2,000 adults representing the nation’s full diversity, we found that Americans are split on whether the next generation will have more opportunity than previous ones. 37 percent of Americans say the next generation will have more opportunity, 33 percent say less, and 30 percent say about the same.

In the same survey, we asked people to rate the importance of goals like supporting human rights, treating immigrants fairly, helping people get out of poverty, and increasing pay and benefits for working people.

As the chart below shows, across the board, people were more likely to support goals like these if they were “expanders”—that is, if they thought the next generation of Americans would have more opportunity. The “contracters” who felt the next generation would have less opportunity were less likely to support these goals.

Negative narratives can have real consequences. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump painted a dark vision of the country, and won the votes of those who were pessimistic about the future, according to exit polls. Those who said that “life for the next generation of Americans will be better than today” voted 59 percent to 38 percent for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, while those who said that life will be worse voted 63 percent to 31 percent for Trump.

This dynamic poses a quandary to those advocating policies and programs to address the many manifestations of inequality in America. We can’t necessarily fight fire with fire. More negativity can lead to more zero-sum thinking—and less support for measures that make the future brighter for everyone.

Cognitive science suggests that the best way to fight a negative narrative is to offer a positive alternative. Of course, social movements must educate the public about social and economic problems. But the key to motivating people to solve problems is to offer inspiring solutions.

For example, organizations fighting injustice and inequality can offer a message about how reducing inequality promotes growth that benefits everyone:

“When everyone has the tools to build a good life, we’re all better off. Policies like raising wages and paying employees sick leave puts more money in the pockets of working people, who drive economic activity.”

As another example, organizations working to promote fair treatment of immigrants can offer a message about how immigration makes all of us better off:

“Forty percent of America’s top companies were started by immigrants. When hard-working immigrants come to America, they bring their new perspectives and skills, and start businesses and create jobs for everyone.”

To fight the zero-sum mindset and build support for social change, we need to communicate our concrete, achievable ideas, not just the problems that stand in the way. By showing how our solutions create greater opportunity for everyone, we can not only make people more optimistic about the future—we can help inspire more of them to support us.

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