While reading Richard Dawkin’s wonderful book The Selfish Gene I’ve started to wonder if envy isn’t an evolutionary response to “harmful” zero-sum games. Dawkins hints at envy coming in to play when or even causing people to mistake positive-sum games for zero-sum games. Perhaps I haven’t gotten to Dawkin’s full treatment of the topic yet.

But I see envy, which I’ll just say is the feeling of someone else having something at my expense, as protection from getting the shaft in zero-sum games. It is the controlling emotion for making sure that “I get mine”. It will motivate me to make sure that, say food, is apportioned such that I’m satiated or at least no one else is more satiated than me. It makes sure that no one else’s ability to reproduce his genes is any greater than mine.

The problem that envy causes in game theory, Dawkins writes, is that in situations that are otherwise positive-sum, like common negotiations, human envy kicks into gear and can give the desire for at-least-equal or close-to-equal outcomes over the desire for gain. This has been shown in numerous simple psychology experiments. One person is given a pot of money and allowed to divide it between himself and the second person, and the second person can only accept the disbursement or veto the disbursement, leaving each player with zero. The greater the disparity the greater the likelihood that the second person vetoes.

I guess what I haven’t decided then is whether envy is the curse of our bias for seeing zero-sum games, or if it is the cause of the bias. I would say that if it is a bias that it is an adjustable bias based on the degree of disparity or the degree of “close-to-zero-sum” (if that’s a tenable concept). The closer to zero-sum the game appears the more we are susceptible to our envy.

The German sociologist Helmut Schoeck developed an entire theory of sociology based on human envy. I think more than ever that it would make a compelling read.