We started in the primitive era as beings who saw the world as a "zero sum game". Many centuries and lots of education and "progress" later… we still think that world and life is a zero sum game! We still face the same issues.. the same wars.. the same threat of epidemics! What has changed?
Our primitive ancestors lived in a world that was essentially static; there was little societal or technological change from one generation to the next. This meant that our ancestors lived in a world that was zero sum — if a particular gain happened to one group of humans, it came at the expense of another.
This is the world our minds evolved to understand. To this day, we often see the gain of some people and assume it has come at the expense of others. Economists have argued for more than two centuries that voluntary trade, whether domestic or international, is positive sum: it benefits both parties, or else the exchange wouldn’t occur. Economists have also long argued that the economics of immigration — immigrants coming here to exchange their labor for money that they then exchange for the products of other people’s labor — is positive sum. Yet our evolutionary intuition is that, because foreign workers gain from trade and immigrant workers gain from joining the U.S. economy, native-born workers must lose. This zero-sum thinking leads us to see trade and immigration as conflict ("trade wars," "immigrant invaders") when trade and immigration actually produce cooperation and mutual benefit, the exact opposite of conflict.
Conflict was common in the environment in which humans evolved. As primates, which are a very social order, our ancestors lived in relatively small groups in which everyone knew everyone else. Our minds are adapted to deal with populations of that size. Our ancestors made strong distinctions between members of the in-group and outsiders, and we still make such distinctions today — social psychologists can create in-group and out-group feelings based on virtually any arbitrary difference between populations.
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