Commons Dilemma

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The commons dilemma, also known as the tragedy of the commons, is a type of social dilemma which was first discussed in Hardin’s (1968) “Tragedy of the Commons”. The dilemma is “whether to reduce their individual rates of consumption, sacrificing their own desires, freedom to consume, and perhaps personal well-being for the future of the group, or to continue using the resources at the same rate, risking the common pool” (Edney, 1980). Hardin describes a pasture open to all, where herdsmen can keep as many cattle as they desire. There are two choices in this commons dilemma. Each herdsman may pursue his own interest by keeping as many cattle as he wants on the pasture and maximizing his gains. The other choice is for all herdsmen to limit the number of cattle they put on the pasture, resulting in gains for everyone. The tragedy occurs when all herdsmen pursue their own interests, and the community is harmed by the depletion of the resource (such as overcrowding of the pasture). Hardin (1968) writes, “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.” The payoff for defecting behavior is higher than the payoff for cooperative behavior (Dawes 1980).


There are many theories about the causes of the commons dilemma. A biosocial theory is the selfish gene theory (Dawkins, 1976), which states that people aid only those who carry their genes. Thus, unless all of the individuals are related, they will act selfishly. Platt’s (1973) social trap theory involves reinforcement, with the reward for greedy behavior immediate, whereas the reinforcement for public interest behavior not immediate. An individual is likely to choose the immediate reward. The reward is positive in the short-run but negative in the long-run. Dawes’s (1980) limited processing theory states that people have limited abilities to process information accurately, efficiently, and completely (Gifford and Hine, 1997). The dilemma may be too complex, so one is not sure that a behavior constitutes a defection. People are also not able to judge the full consequences of their actions. Another theory is Pruitt and Kimmel’s (1977) goal/expectation theory. According to this theory, cooperation may occur in situations similar to prisoner’s dilemmas, such that individuals want to cooperate and expect others to do so as well. The Three-Factor Theory (Messick et al., 1983) assumes that individuals’ decisions are based on self interest, a desire to act responsibly, and conformity. It is clear that attitudes, expectations, attributions, and biases about self and others have a significant effect on cooperation (Gifford and Hine, 1997).


There has been research on over thirty variables that contribute to cooperative behavior. They include characteristics of the harvester and resource and external forces or structural features of the dilemma, such as rules, interventions, and consequences. The variables can be categorized into cognitive and behavioral approaches. Cognitive, or motivational, approaches focus on the framing and communication of information. Behavioral, or structural, approaches identify the situational factors that accompany and reinforce the behavior (Winter, 2004). In general, there are seven strategies that elicit cooperation. They include (1) the provision of physical alternatives, (2) regulation and enforcement, (3) financial-economic stimulation, (4) provision of information and education, (5) social modeling and support, (6) organizational change, and (7) changing values and morality. Strategies 1, 2, and 3 are behavioral approaches, while strategies 4, 5, 6, and 7 are cognitive approaches. Behavioral approaches are generally more effective but are often not available or not easily implemented. Some cognitive approaches are more easily designed and applied but are not as effective (Schmuck and Vlek, 2003).


Experimenters define “cooperation” differently. It refers to different amounts of the resource that the individual takes. He or she may not take any of the resource or may take fewer than his or her fair share (Gifford and Hine, 1997). It must be assumed that the psychological and social factors that influence social dilemmas in small-scale experiments have an equal effect on large groups (Dawes, 1980). One must also consider the effect of time on the variables, and how the variables may become stronger or weaker with time. Finally, the experiments are only simulations of the social dilemmas that occur in the real world. Field research is needed to determine if results of computer stimulations generalize to the real world. (Hine and Gifford, 1997)


Dawes, R.M. (1980). Social dilemmas. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 169–193.

Edney, Julian J. (1980) “The Commons Problem,” American Psychologist, 35, 2, 131-150.

Gifford, Robert and Hine, Donald W. Toward Cooperation in Commons Dilemmas. (1997) Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science,29:3, 167-178

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162,1243-1248.

Hine, D.W. & Gifford, R. (1997) What harvesters really think about in the commons dilemma simulations: A Grounded Theory Analysis. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 29:3,178-192.

Schmuck, Peter and Charles Vlek. (2003) Psychologists Can Do Much to Support Sustainable Development. European Psychologist, 8, 2, 66-76

Winter, Deborah Du Nann. (2004). Shopping for sustainability. American Psychological Association, 69-88.

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