One thing nearly all utopian societies have in common is the elimination of scarcity. For them, limited resources are usually an antiquated concept, because everyone has enough. Unfortunately, one study shows that people in utopia might very well be the same grasping, avaricious jerks we know them to be right now.

Zero-Sum Thinking

Zero-sum thinking isn't particularly attractive, but in many situations it's appropriate. Every one person's gain is another person's loss. There's only so much food, money, or space in the world, and people are competing for as much of it as they can get. When I eat an apple, I'm taking it out of the hand of another person who could eat it. When I lose my house, another person gets it. What I pay out, another person earns. There's one big pie, and it's just a matter of how the pieces are distributed.


Now, there are those who argue that there is already enough pie, and if we could just accept that and get ourselves organized, everyone would get enough. That's a philosophy that may eliminate hunger or homelessness, but it's not quite getting away from zero-sum. In utopian societies, there is no pie, no pool of resources, no question of divvying anything up. There is just more of whatever is needed, whenever more is needed. Unfortunately, those doing the needing are still human.

The Experiment

One experiment was meant to determine whether people could let go of zero-sum thinking. Participants were asked to predict the grade of a group of students. Until the last pencil on Earth is snapped in frustration, grades can be an unlimited resource. Participants were told that the groups of students — who had to give presentations — were graded based on an absolute system. No one was being graded on a curve, and everyone in the class could have gotten an A.


The study participants were then shown the grades of a few past presentations. One group of experimental participants had every reason to believe that the entire class did get an A, as the grades were always on the high side. Another group was shown the grades of either an exacting teacher, or a dishearteningly incompetent body of students. They all had relatively bad grades. If you were told by a fellow student that nearly everyone walked out of Mr. Smith's class with an A, while almost everyone barely scraped a C- out of Mr. Jones, you would quickly reason out which class you wanted to take if you wanted an easy A.

The experimental participants did not come to that conclusion. They predicted that the group in the "easy" class were about to run into an A scarcity. Not everyone could possibly get good grades, right? It was only when another experiment was performed, and the group was directly reminded as they were predicting the grade for the hapless students, that there were an unlimited number of As to be given, that they slightly modified their predictions. Even then, the lower grades, the Ds and Fs, were most effected. Students stopped believing that the group would fail, but they didn't tend to believe that the students would get As.


On the other hand, the experimental participants who saw that terrible grades were handed out to group after group were much more likely to judge realistically the chances of the group they observed. The zero-sum bias, then, doesn't come into play in every scenario. People will believe that disaster comes to everyone — it's only when they see good things handed out that they start thinking that there's a limited quantity of potential happiness in the world.

Can We Get to a Post Zero-Sum Society?

When we can extract transportation from matter and antimatter, as well as food and clothing from replicators, will we finally stop biting and clawing at each other to get things? Quite possibly not. For one thing, there will always be something that's comparatively rare. If it's not gold, silver, food, or shelter, it will be the attention of the other jumpsuit-wearing miracles of dentistry that share the same utopia. People might claw each other for fame, or number of spouses, or anything else that they see as not being ubiquitous enough.


More importantly, the urge to worry that the "best stuff" is running out will always be there. There couldn't possibly be enough As; there are only enough Ds. Therefore, if we want to avoid chaos in our future utopias, we'll have to downgrade what we worry about now — education, health care, food, and shelter — from As and Bs to Ds and Fs. So the people of the future might live in a utopia with food, and water, and stretch-cotton. And although they'll have perfect teeth, I won't see their teeth because they won't be smiling. All the necessities we worry about now will be worthless, and therefore not worth fighting over.

[Via Zero-Sum Bias: Perceived Competition Despite Unlimited Resources]