To avoid de-motivating your audience, inspire them with a positive vision of the future.

The American Aspirations blog shares learning you can use to connect your cause to hopes and values that motivate people—and create communications that inspire and engage them. Sign up to learn more.


In our first American Aspirations blog post, we introduced Betty—a 66-year-old African-American woman living in Nashville, Tennessee.

pie chart

Asked to describe her view of the state of opportunity in America, Betty saw an ever-growing number of racial and ethnic groups struggling over a limited amount of wealth and resources. Here is the picture she drew to express this idea:

Betty expressed zero-sum thinking, in which one group’s gains come at the expense of another’s.

In our research, zero-sum thinking was associated with the perception that opportunity is contracting in America—that tomorrow’s generations will have less opportunity to succeed than previous generations.

American Aspirations research has found that people who share this zero-sum mindset are less likely to support measures to address inequality and other social problems in the world today.

In a survey of 2,000 adults representing the nation’s full diversity, we found that Americans are split on whether the next generation will have more opportunity than previous ones. 37 percent of Americans say the next generation will have more opportunity, 33 percent say less, and 30 percent say about the same.

In the same survey, we asked people to rate the importance of goals like supporting human rights, treating immigrants fairly, helping people get out of poverty, and increasing pay and benefits for working people.

As the chart below shows, across the board, people were more likely to support goals like these if they were “expanders”—that is, if they thought the next generation of Americans would have more opportunity. The “contracters” who felt the next generation would have less opportunity were less likely to support these goals.

Negative narratives can have real consequences. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump painted a dark vision of the country, and won the votes of those who were pessimistic about the future, according to exit polls. Those who said that “life for the next generation of Americans will be better than today” voted 59 percent to 38 percent for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, while those who said that life will be worse voted 63 percent to 31 percent for Trump.

This dynamic poses a quandary to those advocating policies and programs to address the many manifestations of inequality in America. We can’t necessarily fight fire with fire. More negativity can lead to more zero-sum thinking—and less support for measures that make the future brighter for everyone.

Cognitive science suggests that the best way to fight a negative narrative is to offer a positive alternative. Of course, social movements must educate the public about social and economic problems. But the key to motivating people to solve problems is to offer inspiring solutions.

For example, organizations fighting injustice and inequality can offer a message about how reducing inequality promotes growth that benefits everyone:

“When everyone has the tools to build a good life, we’re all better off. Policies like raising wages and paying employees sick leave puts more money in the pockets of working people, who drive economic activity.”

As another example, organizations working to promote fair treatment of immigrants can offer a message about how immigration makes all of us better off:

“Forty percent of America’s top companies were started by immigrants. When hard-working immigrants come to America, they bring their new perspectives and skills, and start businesses and create jobs for everyone.”

To fight the zero-sum mindset and build support for social change, we need to communicate our concrete, achievable ideas, not just the problems that stand in the way. By showing how our solutions create greater opportunity for everyone, we can not only make people more optimistic about the future—we can help inspire more of them to support us.

In our next post, we’ll share insights and ideas for talking about creating “opportunity” in America—with words that speak to people from all walks of life and motivate them to support positive change.


9 thoughts on “Think Beyond Zero-Sum”

  1. Fourth, Afghanistan and its neighbors have a historic opportunity to move beyond zero-sum politics to find a regional framework for cooperation on political, security, and economic tracks, and cease to use one territory to destabilize another.

  2. I like what you guys are up also. Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the excellent works guys I have incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it’ll improve the value of my website 🙂

  3. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Genuinely rarely can i encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and without a doubt, you could have hit the nail about the head. Your notion is outstanding; the catch is an element that inadequate persons are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy we stumbled across this in my seek out something concerning this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up to learn more—and join forces with others to drive new narratives that inspire and engage people in your cause.