The Fallacy of the Zero-Sum Academic Competition

Posted January 29, 2018 by Travis Pulver

Article highlights:

  • We're trained to think of winners and losers in competitions.
  • The main benefit from academic competition comes not from winning, but from the experience gained in playing against others.
  • It is the educators and coaches responsibility to make sure students don't fall into the "zero-sum fallacy." 
  • For educators, focusing your students on how to improve can keep them away from a zero-sum fallacy and not tying their self-worth to whether they win or lose. 

Everybody loves a winner. It’s why the New England Patriots have so many fans and why NBA fans are so enamored with the Golden State Warriors. More often than not, they win; not just games but championships. So, they don’t just win—they win what matters most.

Consequently, we also love to revel in the misery of the loser. We question Cam Newton’s maturity and sportsmanship because he’s in a bad mood while talking to the press shortly after losing the Super Bowl. We don’t celebrate the Cleveland Cavaliers as the second-best team in the NBA. Instead, we question everything about the team and dissect/criticize their every move as to why they didn’t win it all.

We appreciate winners, as we should, but we fail to appreciate the excellence required just to have the opportunity to play for a championship. We don’t think of the value gained in learning how to make a great move on the court by playing against the best team out there. We don’t remember the 15-1 regular season the 2015 Carolina Panthers had. We remember Peyton Manning winning the Super Bowl and retiring while Cam Newton pouted.

This is the very essence of zero-sum thinking, where one person’s gain equals another person’s loss. Competitive sports are based on this structure - someone must win, and someone must lose. But in reality, that train of thought is quite limited in its depiction of the competition. Competitions, sports included, are not closed systems. After a competition the participants don’t automatically forget everything they have learned from participating. And the fans and communities involved don’t forget the social benefit they got from cheering on their favorite team.

Introductory game theory describes zero-sum games as the most basic closed system game. What one player wins, another player must lose. However, in reality competitions are not closed systems. The rewards or benefits earned from playing are not limited to the points on the scoreboard or the win-loss record at the end of the season. This is especially important in academic competitions where the ultimate goal is not winning or losing, but is the educational benefit derived from playing the game.


In Well-Designed Academic Competitions There is No Zero-Sum Game.

Because we are so used to thinking of sports as a zero-sum competition, we often consider academic competitions in the same manner. Parents and educators sometimes say that they don’t want to have competitions with their students because they don’t want to separate winners and losers in the classroom. They are afraid that these labels will be detrimental to their children.

The fear is that if a student loses they will become depressed, their sense of self-worth could be affected, and they will become disillusioned with the idea of learning. Parents fear that a student may react to a loss by giving up on studying the material altogether thinking that they just aren’t good enough to compete in that field.

So, how do we recognize the winners while not making the losers feel like—well, losers? How do we allow the benefits of competition to thrive while mitigating the negative aspects of it? First, we need to get away from zero-sum thinking.

Some would say protecting the self-esteem of students is worth making competitions and their awards “participation-based.” They would say there is nothing wrong with recognizing the effort everyone made and not creating an award for the best performance. Well, we know now from competition science, that this is not the way to go about it.

Ashley Merryman, author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, notes that losing will only damage a child’s self-esteem if their parents, coaches, and teachers teach them that it will. In an interview by the New York Times, Merryman notes, “A recent study found if parents thought failure was debilitating, their kids adopted that perspective. If parents believed overcoming failure and mistakes made you stronger, then their children believed it, too.”

She went on to explain how there is nothing wrong with losing and kids should be taught that it is okay to do so. It is actually a critical part to learning resiliency and improving social and emotional learning (SEL). As Merryman notes, “letting kids lose, or not take home the trophy, isn’t about embarrassing children. It’s about teaching them it can take a long time to get good at something, and that’s all right. Kids need to know they don’t have to win every time. It’s O.K. to lose, to make a mistake.”


The key to breaking the zero-sum fallacy is to have educators focus on how to improve after every game, not whether they won or not. Have a specific session after your Robotics Tournament, or Debate Club Match, or any other competition and ask students - what could we do better?


So when we look at competitions, having a zero-sum mindset about the challenge is really what is bad for students, not the challenge itself. It is only if teachers and coaches say that the only thing that is important is winning, that student take on a zero-sum mentality. Rather than let student dwell on the fact that they did not win, teachers and coaches need to help their students maintain a sense of perspective. No one likes losing and they shouldn’t. But losing is not the end of the world, nor does it define who they are.

It is one game or one competition out of many. Rather than let them worry about the results, teachers and coaches need to emphasize how well a student did perform. Help them understand what they did right, but at the same time go over what mistakes and errors were made so they can learn and improve upon them.

Make sure students understand what went wrong and how they can do better next time. Use the defeat as a learning experience, and it can become even more valuable than any trophy. This is why academic competitions are not zero-sum games unless we make them that way. But if we encourage students to learn from the challenge and take away benefits beyond just winning the trophy, every student wins in their competitions.

Imagine if we feared that sports would do the same thing to students that we fear academic competitions will do. We would never let our students play little league or pick-up basketball games again! And yet they persist. And for good reason. Academic competitions must be viewed in this same manner. Educators and parents must present academic competitions as a fun experience in which they can pit themselves against others to test their skills, but if they don’t win, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it might just be the best learning opportunity the students will get.

Heck— training students to look at competitions this way could even help them win the big one next time! So don’t fret the zero-sum game for your students because in reality, they don’t exist in academic competitions if we coach our students well.