Zero-sum gamesmanship

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)


Wrong system of rewards at school habituates wrong attitudes in adulthood.

A competition for grades in youth becomes a rat race in adulthood

Rewards in society

An ageless human problem is to find out how to optimally reward people for their contributions to society. My communist upbringing may have contributed to my stubborn stance that we should all contribute maximally and consume minimally. However, rewards in proportion to needs or equal rewards do not seem to work well in society. We might want to re-habituate upbringing to live well with more humanistic mentality, but I do not see a good transition trajectory towards that new society. This is a vicious circle of wrong habits born at school, generating wrong thinking that requires imperfect social model that hits back with re-establishment of wrong habits.

For anyone growing up in and enjoying the benefits of market economy, equal reward is often abhorred and labelled "communist". However, little do we realize that we do practice equal reward in our approach to the environment. We all take from the environment as much as we want, and we destroy it as much as our conscience permits (both processes partially limited by the law and resource pricing). As a result, the efforts of millions of children in energy saving or in collecting plastic waste is destroyed with a single signature of Saddam Hussain who opts to spill oil in the Gulf or set oil rigs on fire. Does it not drive you mad?

In a socialist society, it is hard to stomach individuals who benefit and do not care about their contribution. This is the emotional side effect of equality, which we experience often in modern economies when we see soulless polluters of the earth. Even petty litterers can take one's peace of mind away.

As much as I support basic income to protect creative youth in their endeavors, we should also let greedy billionaires thrive (within the bounds of honesty). This seems like an inevitable byproduct of human psyche.

A happy mind will happily contribute and stay happy on minimal consumption

Rewards in competition

Alfie Kohn criticizes competition as a way to condition the mind to treat life as a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all. My own level of competitiveness is deemed obsessive. I cannot exactly point to the source of my never-ending desire to win. I can hardly participate in sports without coming up with some idea about determining the winner. Perhaps this was the impact of my older brother who organized mini-competitions for me from as early as my memory can reach. At school my competitiveness was rather tempered. All my early efforts to come to front, to win, or to show off were stifled. However, Alfie Kohn claims that in American schools, the competitive spirit is fostered and driven to pathological levels. I believe that it is always possible to compete in a way to make everyone win. For example, in jogging competitions I organize for kids, I always set handicaps based on prior performance. This way, on the starting line, the weakest or the youngest kid got the exactly same odds as the strongest. I believe in de Coubertin's idea that participation is the priority. In any competition, everyone can always focus on improving her own performance (see: The case for competition).

Every competition can be made into a win-win contest

However, if I look at kids of older ages, I see that the competitive spirit is still there but it gradually becomes masked by appearances. The games are played secretively along the must-win principle. Even worse, the pattern that emerges at school seems to drive adults to a single-minded strategy: "if I cannot win, let at least my opponent lose". Society is tainted with the need to keep up appearances, to show off, to ooze the status, to win, and to demonstrate superiority. Some of that we inherit in the genes common to all social animals. However, we drive the status contest to pathological levels. This carries a major mental health cost to society.

Rewards at school

One of the main sins of school is the system of reward and penalties that is supposed to induce better learning. In reality, the system incentivizes short-term learning, asemantic learning, cramming, and many other short-sighted strategies discussed in this book. To spur kids to action, one of the key weapons used by parents and teachers is the comparison. The best student is used as an example to follow, and the rest of the class or school is made to feel inferior by not being able to live up to the glorious standard (see: 50 bad habits learned at school).

I was pretty shocked when my close friend commented that I should have been retained in the last grade of high school. My lovely teacher of Polish, one Roza Strozik, knew exactly I did not read a single piece of compulsory reading set in Polish literature. She knew I should repeat the grade. However, she also knew about my passion for human biology and concluded that my brain would better be spent pursuing passions rather than just hating school. She gave me an undeserved pass. That was one of the best teacher decisions I know! Thank you Roza! For my friend however, this was an unfair verdict. It was unfair to all students who worked hard to get the right to take the final high school exam. This is the exact zero-sum thinking in which we do not hope to maximize social benefit. Instead, we focus on imaginary fairness in furtherance of absurd goals of schooling. My success did not take anybody's food, did not force anyone to work any harder, and did not prevent anybody's graduation. Allegedly, my pass should be nullified on the mere grounds of fake equality habituated by the struggle for fake rewards.

We can see a habit of zero-sum gamesmanship permeate society. We envy the neighbor. We gossip about celebrity rise and downfall. We put fake vacation photos on Facebook to impress our Facebook friends. We use Photoshop at Instagram to make friends green with envy. We aim at the flashiest car that would make heads turn in the neighborhood. This perpetual effort at keeping up with the Joneses takes away from one's true ability to creatively contribute to society.

The game of comparisons played by teachers becomes a zero-sum game of life in adulthood


A healthy human brain develops a healthy set of utilitarian and altruistic attitudes in conditions of freedom. Those attitudes emerge from natural predispositions for empathy, and the rules of game theory. The main destroyer of a productively contributing mind is a childhood based on the bondage of daycare, school, and authoritarian parenting.

Freedom is essential for creating happily productive societies

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru