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Zero-Sum Aversion: The Fear of Conflict Leads People To Systematically Avoid Potentially Valuable Zero-Sum Situations
From interpersonal interactions to international arms-races, game theorists and social scientists have long studied decision-making in zero-sum situations. Yet, what happens when people can freely decide whether to enter zero-sum situations in the first place? Thirteen studies (including five pre-registered) consistently document evidence for zero-sum aversion—the desire to avoid situations that are (or are believed to be) zero-sum. Across different contexts (economic games, market-entry decisions, performance reviews, negotiations, job applications), samples (online participant pool, MBA students, community sample), and designs (within- and between-participant, real and hypothetical decisions), people avoid zero-sum situations that inversely link their and others’ outcomes as well as refrain from putting others in such situations. Because people fear that zero-sum situations will be rife with conflict, they exhibit zero-sum aversion, even when doing so is costly. Finally, we find that people require zero- sum situations to provide substantially higher expected payoffs (e.g., compensation) to overcome their zero-sum aversion. We conclude with a discussion of the implications for interpersonal and intergroup conflict.