Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Zero-sum bias

From the always interesting (when I remember to read it) Less Wrong (an offshoot of Overcoming Bias):
One of the most pernicious of all human biases is zero-sum bias. A situation involving a collection of entities is zero-sum if one entity's gain is another's loss, whereas a situation is positive-sum if the entities involved can each achieve the best possible outcome by cooperating with one another. Zero-sum bias is the tendency to systematically assume that positive-sum situations are zero-sum situations. This bias is arguably the major obstacle to a Pareto-efficient society.
(From Wikipedia: "Given a set of alternative allocations of goods or outcomes for a set of individuals, a change from one allocation to another that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off is called a 'Pareto improvement' or a 'Pareto-optimal move.' An allocation is defined as 'Pareto efficient' or 'Pareto optimal' when no further Pareto improvements can be made.")

Zero-sum bias is a variation on the perception that resources are more scarce than they actually are -- an example would be someone who is unhappy with their job but refuses to look for new work (current economy notwithstanding), or someone who is unhappy with their relationship but refuses to end it until they meet and secure someone new.

This is an interesting framework for recent (and not-so-recent) controversies over submissions, to lit mags in particular. I'm thinking specifically of this type of reaction to submission policies:
  • When it's easier for other people to submit their work to a given magazine, my own (awesome) submission is more likely to get lost in the noise.*
  • When a given magazine makes an effort to include more women writers, writers of color, disabled writers, etc., it's unfair to the potentially awesome able writers, white writers, and men who then lose those spots.
These reactions seem suggestive of a zero-sum mentality, i.e., if women have more opportunities, men have fewer. I don't think that's the case (more open opportunities create new markets), but even if it were, you have to ask: Why does your submission deserve more attention than anyone else's? (If it deserves more because it is better, it should rise above the noise.)

*Not a judgment on editors who limit submissions by charging a submission fee, having a short submission period or other means. I'm looking at this issue from the perspective of the submitting writer.


  1. I think Zero-sum does applies to a fix page count situation. Has there ever really been a fixed page count, however?

    In reality I suspect this other model reflects the reality that conversation creates more conversation, and in this way, publication can to some degree accommodate the growth in submissions. For example, even in the old days of just paper mags, when writers faced closed doors, they created their own magazines and tried to find audiences for those magazine, increasing the overall page count. I think.

    A good post. Zero-sum mentality is totally at play in submissions, and really it is false. While a single magazine may have a fixed size (Zero-sum applies), the overall discourse of lit can grow to accommodate any writing.

  2. Hi, Matt,

    Exactly -- there may be a limited number of spaces in any one magazine, but I think we have to take a bigger-picture view. Otherwise we're all just fighting over a tiny piece of territory.