Social Dilemmas

Social Dilemmas Definition

A social dilemma is a situation in which a group of people must work together to achieve some goal that no one person could easily meet alone. However, if the goal is met, all group members, even those who did not help toward the goal, can enjoy its benefits.

This feature introduces a temptation to let others do the work and then enjoy the fruits of their labors after the goal is met. However, this same temptation exists for all other group members, and if everyone succumbs to it, then no one will be working toward the goal: The goal will not be met, and everyone will be worse off than if everyone had contributed effort. Thus the dilemma: Should you do what’s best for yourself and hope that others work hard, or do what’s best for the group and hope that others don’t take advantage of your efforts? Social dilemmas are generally separated into two types: commons dilemmas (also called resource dilemmas or social traps), under which a short-term gain may lead to a long-term loss, and public goods (or social fences), under which a short-term loss may lead to a long-term gain.

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Commons Dilemmas

Social DilemmasThe commons dilemma has its roots in a famous 1968 article in Science, “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin. Imagine that all houses in a neighborhood have access to a water table. Economically, the ideal strategy for each household is to use as much water as the family desires; all of their needs will be met. However, if all households do this, the water will deplete more quickly than rain and snowmelt can replenish it, and eventually the table will go dry. At that point, the neighbors will have to begin purchasing all their water, which will be a considerable expense. Thus, the people realized an immediate benefit but suffered a long-term loss. If all households had instead forgone some luxuries and curbed their water use, the table could have replenished at an adequate rate and would have lasted much longer, perhaps indefinitely. However, if everyone else is indeed conserving, the temptation will be strong to not do one’s part and revert to maximum-use behavior—how much damage can one abuser cause? Unfortunately, this temptation usually proves to be so strong that most people eventually succumb to it, and the resource eventually dies; hence, the tragedy.

Research on Commons Dilemmas

Research clearly shows that people are not good at maintaining a resource over a long period. Psychologists have tried to identify factors that encourage people to be better resource managers. Some of these factors are internal to the person, and some are external. Much work on internal characteristics has centered on social value orientation, and this remains a popular topic. There is also quite a bit of research on situational perceptions. Many have been studied, and a good number seem to be important in the odd situation, but far fewer have broad impact. The best evidence shows that people are generally likely to be conserving if they feel the need to offset overuse by others, perceive conformity pressure to conserve, believe that the resource is inadequately sized, have previously caused (rather than merely experienced) resource failure, and socially identify with the group.

Regarding external factors, research has concentrated on the effectiveness of leader-based (rather than free-choice) systems of resource sampling, under which a single person determines how much of the resource each person receives. Though the leader system is typically more effective at resource maintenance than free choice, group members generally dislike it, so much so that they will abandon it at first opportunity, all the while acknowledging its effectiveness. Emerging evidence indicates that the leader can develop a sense of entitlement and start to claim a disproportionate amount of the resource for himself or herself.

An emerging issue is the amount of information group members have, and how specific that information is, regarding the commons. In real commons dilemmas, group members almost always lack some information about the commons, their fellow group members, or both, and researchers are trying to understand the impact of this uncertainty. A general finding is that people become more consuming as the specificity of commons information gets less, and this is magnified if some people get to sample the commons before others. Early samplers will be especially abusive (and interestingly, people seem to expect this will happen).

Public Goods

A public good is an entity that exists only after a sufficient number of group members contribute toward its provision; hence, the social fence: You must give up something now to experience the benefit later. However, once the good is provided to all members, contributors and noncontributors alike can share in it. Thus, the dominant motive is to let others work to provide the good, and then take advantage once they succeed. This is termed free riding. But if everyone responds to this motive, then no effort will be put forth, and everyone will be denied the good. Public television is a well-known example. Stations solicit funds during pledge drives, but everyone can access its shows, so there is no obvious incentive to give money. However, low donation levels will force the station to forgo expensive programs, and as expensive shows are usually the most popular, it follows that everyone will be denied the opportunity to watch their favorite programs. Researchers distinguish between a discrete good, which is provided only after a minimum total contribution has been reached, and a continuous good, which is provided in proportion to the total amount given. Small amounts of the good are available when contributions are few, and large amounts are available when contributions are plentiful.

Research on Public Good Dilemmas

Public goods have been studied by economists since at least the 1930s, and their work has largely focused on external influences. Psychologists began systematically investigating internal factors in the 1970s. Of these, strong support exists for self-efficacy, and especially criticality, as a key factor. People who believe that their efforts will make a difference in determining whether the good is provided are much more likely to help than are people who do not. The best-case scenario is when people believe provision will fail without their involvement. All else being equal, efficacy goes down as group size increases, so this is a very real problem in large groups. Evidence shows that discussion of the dilemma among group members enhances contributions, though it is not clear why; group identity, promise making, coordination of actions, and normative influence have all been suggested as explanations. Research also supports the value of a sanctioning system for increasing contribution. Under such a system, group members socially punish noncontributing others, usually by criticizing or stigmatizing them. People are also influenced by the knowledge of how many others have already declined to contribute. As that number increases, people become more likely to give, possibly because they feel they do not have a choice, possibly because their sense of efficacy increases.

Other factors have also been shown to influence public goods behavior, but the nature of the influence is not yet understood. For example, a person’s wealth is predictive of whether he or she will contribute, but some studies show wealthy people to be more likely to give than poor people (because the wealthy can more easily afford a contribution), whereas others show the reverse (the public good may be the poor person’s only means of realizing the benefit associated with the good, whereas the wealthy person may have many alternatives; hence, the poor person has greater incentive to see the good provided). Also, greed is definitely a motivator of noncontribution, though whether it is the dominant motive or secondary to a fear of being exploited by free riders is not clear.

An interesting relationship exists between willingness to accept a leader-based solution and dilemma type. At the start, people in a public goods problem are even less supportive of a leader than are those in a commons problem because the leader will be taking some of their personal property. In the commons problem, the leader simply restricts access to the commons. However, in the wake of a failed public goods problem, people are more supportive of a leader system than are those experiencing failed commons management. This is because a failed public good produces a net loss for contributors: Something was given up, but nothing was received in return. By contrast, a failed commons still produces a net gain; the dilemma is simply that the gain is not as large as it could have been. The specific experience of loss seems to be crucial for gaining support for a leader-based system.


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