You and your partner get along pretty well, but lately you’ve noticed that your relationship is more competitive than it was in the past. Perhaps you have a beloved niece who suddenly seems to be favoring your partner. Both of them have developed an interest in a new leisure pursuit, and now instead of spending time as a threesome, you’re left to fend for yourself on a Sunday afternoon while the two of them go out for several hours at a time.
Trying to figure out how to restore the equilibrium of the past, you decide that maybe you need to point out some of your partner’s weaknesses to your niece. Your partner doesn’t help around the house, wastes money on lottery tickets, or didn’t pass eleventh-grade science. Such observations may take away some of the shine from your partner’s seemingly perfect image. But by reporting these to your niece, would you end up looking bad?
The Psychology of Loss Spirals
According to a 2023 set of studies headed by the University of Chicago’s Christoper Hsee (conducted when he was at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business), “Many important social interactions are characterized by competition over limited resources.” In some cases, the wins of Person A can completely negate the wins of Person B, but only Person B stands to lose out; this constitutes a zero-sum game. In a “negative sum game (NSG),” when A tries to beat B, both actually lose out compared to what would happen if they didn’t compete at all. If the NSG happens repeatedly, both A and B will head toward a “loss spiral” in which their relationship, and benefits, deteriorate.
One might argue that competing for a niece’s affection doesn’t fit either of these models, because if you thought about it rationally, you’d realize that there can be no limit to the love children can feel for the multiple people in their lives. However, you feel so threatened that you don’t let this fact keep you from trying to grab the brass ring of her affection and attention.
Hsee and his coauthors propose the NSG as a model of competition that can apply to relationships, regarding it as a way of understanding why, for example, political candidates get into mud-slinging contests. While trying to gain votes by disparaging their rival, they also can make themselves look bad by being so negative. Yet, they do it anyway.
The underlying reason that people become drawn into loss spirals, the authors argue, has to do with “shallow thinking.” Even nice people can put themselves first when they engage in a potential competition with someone else. The shallowness comes about when those nice people focus on immediate gain rather than long-term consequences. Yes, you might get your niece to decide to hang out with you instead of your partner on one of those weekends, but at what cost? Your partner may decide to retaliate, or your niece may decide that this is all too messy and exit both relationships.
Testing the Limits of Shallow Thinking
Across a series of experiments pitting participants against each other, Hsee et al. set the stage for NSG’s to occur under varying conditions. In one, a participant received 100 cents and was told that the partner did as well. Over the next 100 seconds, they had the option of typing in a meaningless code (“111222”) on their keyboard, and every time they did so, they would gain 1 cent and the partner would lose 2 cents (and vice versa). Clearly, if both participants entered the code, neither could possibly win. If they just sat still and did nothing, they’d leave with their original 100 cents. All this time, they could see on the screen how many times each typed in the code and what sum both were getting.
This basic paradigm, replicated across online and in-person lab experiments, indeed produced a loss spiral. In the in-person experiment, where $100 was supposedly at stake, participants typed in the code, on average, 34 times, and both (including the “winner”) lost $34 (the median was actually $66).
Next, with $1000 on the line, the research team created a condition intended to induce deeper thinking by instructing participants in one group that “When making your decision, don’t just think about its immediate outcome… (think about)… what the consequences of these decisions are.” This simple intervention cut down the number of times participants typed in the code and consequently caused both to lose less than in the non-deep-thinking condition.
A final manipulation, called the “discretized” condition, permitted participants to type in the code only once during each of 25 rounds of the game. They stood to gain 2 points compared to the loss of 20 they would incur on their partner, but they had to make separate decisions instead of being able to type in as fast as they could over the period of one minute. In this final study, the researchers also kept the deeper-thinking manipulation as one of the experimental conditions. As predicted, both manipulations reduced the number of typed-in codes as well as the amount that each participant lost.
In summing up their findings, the authors noted that the NSG reflected “the frenzied nature of many real-world competitive situations that lead to loss spirals.” Once involved in the dynamics of this search for victory, in other words, it’s hard to pull out. The good news, though, is that these tendencies can be tamed. A simple reminder that you should think about the consequences, as well as a chance to reflect before you act (as in the discretized condition), can take the edge off the “dark side of competition.”
Stopping the Loss Spiral
It’s clear from the Hsee et al. study that, when given the right circumstances, people will readily engage in the kind of shallow thinking that hurts everybody. However, even slight modifications of NSG-type situations can interrupt the spiral and bring “deep thinking” rationality into everyone’s mind.
Returning to the example of your niece, you can now gain some insight into how a plan of mutual self-destruction with your partner will only backfire, but you can also see how to stop that from happening. Before you’re tempted to blurt something out that is intended to give you an edge, hold back and think about the overall framework of these relationships. Your niece loves both of you and, for the time being, is choosing to pursue one interest with your partner. At some point, the pendulum may swing back, especially if you remain positive and supportive.
Similarly, if you find yourself constantly competing with your partner in other situations, don’t get caught up in the “frenzy” that Hsee and his colleagues created in their first experiments. Is it really worth it for you to show that you’re the better photographer, for example, by pointing out the flaws in your partner’s selfies? In the long run, who cares?
To sum up, there is such a thing as “friendly” competition, but if it continues to spiral so much that your relationship suffers, take a beat and step back. Your fulfillment will come not from winning, but from turning the negative into a positive-sum game.