Scarcity to abundance: A mindset shift

I cannot be the only freshman who has felt resentful towards the student in front of me in line at Marketplace for taking the last of the scrambled eggs in the morning — that is, just to feel embarrassed immediately after as a new pan, reaping of freshly scrambled eggs, is brought out.

In game theory, a zero-sum game is one where the payoffs of the two opponents are equal and opposite — namely, the gain of one is the loss of the other. An example of this is poker, where the money one wins is directly correlated to how much the other players lose.

While this concept rightly concerns professors of decision science, stock market investors and professional gamblers, it can be highly detrimental both to individuals and society when applied to daily life.

Through this lens, it becomes clear why some believe that loyalty to one religious or ethnic group excludes one from agreeing with or belonging to other groups. They view the formation of social groups as a zero-sum game when this isn’t the case. In fact, it would be greatly beneficial to society and to themselves if they didn’t view the world that way.

Zero-sum bias occurs when individuals mistakenly expect the gain of one to be directly at the expense of another. Consequently, this can lead to some deep-rooted negative feelings of unfairness, jealousy and discontentment. While, theoretically, it makes sense that this bias exists and should be avoided, it can apply to ourselves in ways we might not expect.

One classic example of zero-sum bias (those of us with siblings all have experienced it) is the assumption that children believe their parent’s love towards their sibling comes at the expense of that parent’s love for them. Any parent, of course, knows this isn’t the case: This flawed attitude is born on the assumption that a parent’s love is a finite resource, and must therefore be split between the two siblings.

While most of us grow out of that specific instance of zero-sum bias, other forms of it can take control of our lives without our notice.

In the same way that our parents are figures we tend to look up to, and from whom we seek approval, our professors here at Duke play a similar role — they are the ones we seek praise from, albeit in “grade” form, and whose respect we are trying to win. It therefore follows that the same zero-sum fallacy can be applied to most classes here at Duke, especially those where grades are forced into a curve — the success of one student is the failure of the next. Or, at least, it feels that way sometimes.

Thus, tensions between students arise since every student in a class can be assumed to have the same interest (i.e. getting an “A” in the class) and every other student is seen as a direct competitor for that top grade. I’ve seen it firsthand. An interesting dynamic is for instance created when Calculus II problem sets are graded on accuracy: Math work that leads to correct answers is sometimes jealously protected, for it is, in a sense, a finite resource. While I too am a player in the Calculus II game, I have decided to let go of that jealousy. For one, helping another student arrive at the correct answer is extremely rewarding, and has in the past helped me in understanding the problem better. For two, I have been graciously blessed with math help numerous times this semester, and it would feel wrong not to pay this kindness forward to another struggling Calculus victim at Duke. Yes, helping another student will lead to a lower curve, and in turn, a lower grade for me. But this doesn’t make it right to not help them.

This isn’t the only way that zero-sum thinking can become detrimental to our Duke community. Feelings of scarcity can lead students to engage in behaviors that are harmful to the whole campus as well as to themselves. Just as the initial feeling of scarcity of scrambled eggs led to my taking two or three servings of eggs, causing me to feel uncomfortably full after breakfast, misbelieving the zero-sum bias in social or pre-professional situations can lead to worse outcomes than a stomach too full of eggs.

Feelings of jealousy of one’s physical possessions is a direct result of zero-sum thinking: When we believe that we alone should benefit from our possessions and resources, we develop a scarcity mindset, and we become unwilling to share. Just as children are taught to share crayons before they can even speak, we too as college students should practice this good habit.

Not only can we as college students share pens, paper and correct math homework answers, we can also learn to share wisdom. Just as freshmen might ask upperclassmen for tips on how to survive at Duke, they should return this favor — for instance by taking these upperclassmen to Marketplace using their guest swipes. I say this not only because sharing is “the right thing to do” but because the scarcity mindset has a crucial fallacy: It disregards the feel-good feelings we experience when we share our goods with others, and it preserve our moral justice.

Like with Calculus, I have seen generosity paid towards me ever since the start of the semester. When I arrived back to campus after five days of hiking in P-WILD, I needed to do some laundry. You can then imagine my disappointment in finding out that my DukeCard was not working in the Southgate laundry room. Laundry basket in hand, I was about to turn back empty-handed when I was offered to have my laundry paid by one student and given two Tide Pods by another. These small favors made my day and were the start of two friendships.

Our minds are sometimes fogged when we try to make decisions restricted by the scarcity mindset, and we can no longer act in our own self-interest in the way that would genuinely benefit us in the long run. If acting generously towards another gains us a friend, then nothing should logically stop us from wanting to act generously. To de-fog our minds and make our interests become clear again, we must then shift to a mindset of abundance.

As the word itself suggests, living in abundance is being willing to give and share — knowing our own worth, rejoicing in others’ happiness as much as we rejoice in our own and going forward with the knowledge that our own success is not dependent on that of those around us.

Living in abundance, then, is living with peace of mind. Only by defying the scarcity mindset — by sharing our knowledge with others, by helping one-another and by letting go of feelings of jealousy and remorse — can our Duke community live in harmony.

Anna Garziera is a Trinity first-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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