Social dilemma

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A social dilemma is a situation in which an individual profits from selfishness unless everyone chooses the selfish alternative, in which case the whole group loses.[1] Problems arise when too many group members choose to pursue individual profit and immediate satisfaction rather than behave in the group’s best long-term interests. Social dilemmas can take many forms and are studied across disciplines such as psychology, economics, and political science. Examples of phenomena that can be explained using social dilemmas include resource depletion, low voter turnout, and overpopulation.


Prisoner's Dilemma[edit]

The prisoner’s dilemma is a simple game that serves as the basis for research on social dilemmas.[2] The premise of the game is that two partners in crime are imprisoned separately and each are offered leniency if they provide evidence against the other. As seen in the table below, the optimal individual outcome is to testify against the other without being testified against. However, the optimal group outcome is for the two prisoners to cooperate with each other.

Prisoner B does not confess (cooperates) Prisoner B confesses (defects)
Prisoner A does not confess (cooperates) Each serves 1 year Prisoner A: 3 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A confesses (defects) Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 3 years
Each serves 2 years

Public Goods[edit]

A public goods dilemma is a situation in which the whole group can benefit if some of the members give something for the common good but individuals benefit from “free riding” if enough others contribute.[3] Public goods are defined by two characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry—meaning that anyone can benefit from them and one person’s use of them does not hinder another person’s use of them. An example is public broadcasting that relies on contributions from viewers. Since no single viewer is essential for providing the service, viewers can reap the benefits of the service without paying anything for it. If not enough people contribute, the service cannot be provided. In economics, the literature around public goods dilemmas refers to the phenomenon as the free rider problem. The economic approach is broadly applicable and can refer to the free-riding that accompanies any sort of public good.[4] In social psychology, the literature refers to this phenomenon as social loafing. Whereas as free-riding is generally used to describe public goods, social loafing refers specifically to the tendency for people to exert less effort when in a group than when working alone.[5]

Replenishing Resource Management[edit]

A replenishing resource management dilemma is a situation in which group members share a renewable resource that will continue to produce benefits if group members do not over harvest it but in which any single individual profits from harvesting as much as possible.[6]

Tragedy of the Commons[edit]

The tragedy of the commons is a type of replenishing resource management dilemma. The dilemma arises when members of a group share a common good. A common good is rivalrous and non-excludable, meaning that anyone can use the resource but there is a finite amount of the resource available and it is therefore prone to overexploitation.[7]

Atlantic cod stocks were severely overexploited in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to their abrupt collapse in 1992.[8]

The paradigm of the tragedy of the commons first appeared in a 1833 pamphlet by English economist William Forster Lloyd. According to Lloyd, "If a person puts more cattle into his own field, the amount of the subsistence which they consume is all deducted from that which was at the command, of his original stock ; and if, before,there was no more than a sufficiency of pasture, he reaps no benefit from the additional cattle,what is gained in one way being lost in another. But if he puts more cattle on a common, the food which they consume forms a deduction which is shared between all the cattle, as well that of others as his own, in proportion to their number, and only a small part of it is taken from his own cattle".[9]

The template of the tragedy of the commons can be used to understand a myriad of problems, including various forms of resource depletion. For example, overfishing in the 1960s and 1970s led to depletion of the previously abundant supply of Atlantic Cod. By 1992, the population of cod had completely collapsed because fishers had not left enough fish to repopulate the species.[8]

Social Traps[edit]

Pollution in the sky of Athens, Greece.

A social trap occurs when individuals or groups pursue immediate rewards that later prove to have negative or even lethal consequences.[10] This type of dilemma arises when a behavior produces rewards initially but continuing the same behavior produces diminishing returns. Stimuli that cause social traps are called sliding reinforcers, since they reinforce the behavior in small doses and punish it in large doses.

An example of a social trap is the use of vehicles and the resulting air pollution. Viewed individually, vehicles are an adaptive technology that have revolutionized transportation and greatly improved quality of life. But their current widespread use causes negative externalities. In many places air pollution continues unabated because the convenience of driving a car is immediate and the environmental costs are distant and often do not become obvious until much later.

Perceptual Dilemma[edit]

A perceptual dilemma arises during conflict and is a product of outgroup bias. In this dilemma, the parties to the conflict prefer cooperation while simultaneously believing that the other side would take advantage of conciliatory gestures.[11]

In Conflict[edit]

The prevalence of perceptual dilemmas in conflict has led to the development of two distinct schools of thought on the subject. According to deterrence theory, the best strategy to take in conflict is to show signs of strength and willingness to use force if necessary. This approach is intended to dissuade attacks before they happen. Conversely, the conflict spiral view holds that deterrence strategies increase hostilities and defensiveness and that a clear demonstration of peaceful intentions is the most effective way to avoid escalation.[12]

An example of the deterrence theory in practice is the Cold War strategy (employed by both the United States and the Soviet Union) of Mutually assured destruction (MAD). Because both countries had second strike capability, each side knew that the use of nuclear weapons would result in their own destruction. While controversial, MAD succeeded in its primary purpose of preventing nuclear war and kept the Cold War cold.

Conciliatory gestures have also been used to great effect, in keeping with conflict spiral theory. For example, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat's 1977 visit to Israel during a prolonged period of hostilities between the two countries was well-received and ultimately contributed in the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.


Game Theory[edit]

See also: Game theory

Social dilemmas have attracted a great deal of interest in the social and behavioral sciences. Economists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists alike study behavior in social dilemmas. The most influential theoretical approach is economic game theory (i.e., rational choice theory, expected utility theory). Game theory assumes that individuals are rational actors motivated to maximize their utilities. Utility is often narrowly defined in terms of people’s economic self-interest. Game theory thus predicts a non-cooperative outcome in a social dilemma. Although this is a useful starting premise there are many circumstances in which people may deviate from individual rationality, demonstrating the limitations of economic game theory.

Evolutionary theories[edit]

Biological and evolutionary approaches provide useful complementary insights into decision-making in social dilemmas. According to selfish gene theory, individuals may pursue a seemingly irrational strategy to cooperate if it benefits the survival of their genes. The concept of inclusive fitness delineates that cooperating with family members might pay because of shared genetic interests. It might be profitable for a parent to help their off-spring because doing so facilitates the survival of their genes. Reciprocity theories provide a different account of the evolution of cooperation. In repeated social dilemma games between the same individuals, cooperation might emerge because participants can punish a partner for failing to cooperate. This encourages reciprocal cooperation. Reciprocity serves as an explanation for why participants cooperate in dyads, but fails to account for larger groups. Evolutionary theories of indirect reciprocity and costly signaling may be useful to explain large-scale cooperation. When people can selectively choose partners to play games with, it pays to develop a cooperative reputation. Cooperation communicates kindness and generosity, which combine to make someone an attractive group member.

Psychological theories[edit]

Psychological models offer additional insights into social dilemmas by questioning the game theory assumption that individuals are confined to their narrow self-interest. Interdependence Theory suggests that people transform a given pay-off matrix into an effective matrix that is more consistent with their social dilemma preferences. A prisoner’s dilemma with close kin, for example, changes the pay-off matrix into one in which it is rational to be cooperative. Attribution models offer further support for these transformations. Whether individuals approach a social dilemma selfishly or cooperatively might depend upon whether they believe people are naturally greedy or cooperative. Similarly, goal-expectation theory assumes that people might cooperate under two conditions: They must (1) have a cooperative goal, and (2) expect others to cooperate. Another psychological model, the appropriateness model, questions the game theory assumption that individuals rationally calculate their pay-offs. Instead many people base their decisions on what people around them do and use simple heuristics, like an equality rule, to decide whether or not to cooperate. The logic of appropriateness suggests that people ask themselves the question: "what does a person like me (identity) do (rules/heuristics) in a situation like this (recognition) given this culture (group)?" (Weber et al., 2004) [13] (Kopelman 2009)[14] and that these factors influence cooperation.

Factors promoting cooperation in social dilemmas[edit]

Studying the conditions under which people cooperate can shed light on how to resolve social dilemmas. The literature distinguishes between three broad classes of solutions—motivational, strategic, and structural—which vary in whether they see actors as motivated purely by self-interest and in whether they change the rules of the social dilemma game.

Motivational solutions[edit]

Motivational solutions assume that people have other-regarding preferences. There is a considerable literature on social value orientations which shows that people have stable preferences for how much they value outcomes for self versus others. Research has concentrated on three social motives: (1) individualism—maximizing own outcomes regardless of others; (2) competition—maximizing own outcomes relative to others; and (3) cooperation—maximizing joint outcomes. The first two orientations are referred to as proself orientations and the third as a prosocial orientation. There is much support for the idea that prosocial and proself individuals behave differently when confronted with a social dilemma in the laboratory as well as the field.[citation needed] People with prosocial orientations weigh the moral implications of their decisions more and see cooperation as the most preferable choice in a social dilemma. When there are conditions of scarcity, like a water shortage, prosocials harvest less from a common resource. Similarly prosocials are more concerned about the environmental consequences of, for example, taking the car or public transport.[15]

Research on the development of social value orientations suggest an influence of factors like family history (prosocials have more sibling sisters), age (older people are more prosocial), culture (more individualists in Western cultures), gender (more women are prosocial), even university course (economics students are less prosocial). However, until we know more about the psychological mechanisms underlying these social value orientations we lack a good basis for interventions.

Another factor that might affect the weight individuals assign to group outcomes is the possibility of communication. A robust finding in the social dilemma literature is that cooperation increases when people are given a chance to talk to each other. It has been quite a challenge to explain this effect. One motivational reason is that communication reinforces a sense of group identity.[16]

However, there may be strategic considerations as well. First, communication gives group members a chance to make promises and explicit commitments about what they will do. It is not clear if many people stick to their promises to cooperate. Similarly, through communication people are able to gather information about what others do. On the other hand, this information might produce ambiguous results; an awareness of other people's willingness to cooperate may cause a temptation to take advantage of them.

Strategic solutions[edit]

A second category of solutions are primarily strategic. In repeated interactions cooperation might emerge when people adopt a Tit for tat strategy (TFT). TFT is characterized by first making a cooperative move while the next move mimics the decision of the partner. Thus, if a partner does not cooperate, you copy this move until your partner starts to cooperate. Computer tournaments in which different strategies were pitted against each other showed TFT to be the most successful strategy in social dilemmas. TFT is a common strategy in real-world social dilemmas because it is nice but firm. Consider, for instance, about marriage contracts, rental agreements, and international trade policies that all use TFT-tactics.

However, TFT is quite an unforgiving strategy and in noisy real-world dilemmas a more forgiving strategy has its own advantages. Such a strategy is known as Generous-tit-for-tat (GTFT).[17] This strategy always reciprocates cooperation with cooperation, and usually replies to defection with defection. However, with some probability GTFT with forgive a defection by the other player and cooperate. In a world of errors in action and perception, such a strategy can be a Nash equilibrium and evolutionarily stable. The more beneficial cooperation is, the more forgiving GTFT can be while still resisting invasion by defectors.

Even when partners might not meet again it could be strategically wise to cooperate. When people can selectively choose who to interact with it might pay to be seen as a cooperator. Research shows that cooperators create better opportunities for themselves than non-cooperators: They are selectively preferred as collaborative partners, romantic partners, and group leaders. This only occurs however when people’s social dilemma choices are monitored by others. Public acts of altruism and cooperation like charity giving, philanthropy, and bystander intervention are probably manifestations of reputation-based cooperation.

Structural solutions[edit]

Structural solutions change the rules of the game either through modifying the social dilemma or removing the dilemma altogether. Field research on conservation behaviour has shown that selective incentives in the form of monetary rewards are effective in decreasing domestic water and electricity use.[citation needed] Furthermore, numerous experimental and case studies show that cooperation is more likely based on a number of factors, including whether or not individuals have the ability to monitor the situation, to punish or "sanction" defectors, if they are legitimized by external political structures to cooperate and self-organize, can communicate with one another and share information, know one another, have effective arenas for conflict resolution, and are managing social and ecological systems that have well-defined boundaries or are easily monitorable.,[18][19] Yet implementation of reward and punishment systems can be problematic for various reasons. First, there are significant costs associated with creating and administering sanction systems. Providing selective rewards and punishments requires support institutions to monitor the activities of both cooperators and non-cooperators, which can be quite expensive to maintain. Second, these systems are themselves public goods because one can enjoy the benefits of a sanctioning system without contribution to its existence. The police, army, and judicial system will fail to operate unless people are willing to pay taxes to support them. This raises the question if many people want to contribute to these institutions. Experimental research suggests that particularly low trust individuals are willing to invest money in punishment systems.[20] A considerable portion of people are quite willing to punish non-cooperators even if they personally do not profit. Some researchers even suggest that altruistic punishment is an evolved mechanism for human cooperation. A third limitation is that punishment and reward systems might undermine people’s voluntary cooperative intention. Some people get a "warm glow" from cooperation and the provision of selective incentives might crowd out their cooperative intention. Similarly the presence of a negative sanctioning system might undermine voluntary cooperation. Some research has found that punishment systems decrease the trust that people have in others. Other research has found that graduated sanctions, where initial punishments have low severity, make allowances for unusual hardships, and allow the violator to reenter the trust of the collective, have been found to support collective resource management and increase trust in the system.,[21][22]

Boundary structural solutions modify the social dilemma structure and such strategies are often very effective. Experimental studies on commons dilemmas show that overharvesting groups are more willing to appoint a leader to look after the common resource. There is a preference for a democratically elected prototypical leader with limited power especially when people’s group ties are strong.[23] When ties are weak, groups prefer a stronger leader with a coercive power base. The question remains whether authorities can be trusted in governing social dilemmas and field research shows that legitimacy and fair procedures are extremely important in citizen’s willingness to accept authorities. Other research emphasizes a greater motivation for groups to successfully self-organize, without the need for an external authority base, when they do place a high value on the resources in question but, again, before the resources are severely overharvested. An external "authority" is not presumed to be the solution in these cases, however effective self-organization and collective governance and care for the resource base is.[24]

Another structural solution is reducing group size. Cooperation generally declines when group size increases. In larger groups people often feel less responsible for the common good and believe, rightly or wrongly, that their contribution does not matter. Reducing the scale—for example through dividing a large scale dilemma into smaller more manageable parts—might be an effective tool in raising cooperation. Additional research on governance shows that group size has a curvilinear effect, since at low numbers, governance groups may also not have the person-power to effectively research, manage, and administer the resource system or the governance process.[24]

Another proposed boundary solution is to remove the social from the dilemma, by means of privatization. This restructuring of incentives would remove the temptation to place individual needs above group needs. However, it is not easy to privatize moveable resources such as fish, water, and clean air. Privatization also raises concerns about social justice as not everyone may be able to get an equal share. Privatization might also erode people’s intrinsic motivation to cooperate, by externalizing the locus of control.

In society, social units which face a social dilemma within are typically embedded in interaction with other groups, often competition for resources of different kinds. Once this is modeled the social dilemma is strongly attenuated.[25]

There are many additional structural solutions which modify the social dilemma, both from the inside and from the outside. The likelihood of successfully co-managing a shared resource, successfully organizing to self-govern, or successfully cooperating in a social dilemma depends on many variables, from the nature of the resource system, to the nature of the social system the actors are a part of, to the political position of external authorities, to the ability to communicate effectively, to the rules-in-place regarding the management of the commons.[26] However, sub-optimal or failed results in a social dilemma (and perhaps the need for privatization or an external authority) tend to occur "when resource users do not know who all is involved, do not have a foundation of trust and reciprocity, cannot communicate, have no established rules, and lack effective monitoring and sanctioning mechanisms." [27]


Close examination reveals that social dilemmas underly many of the most pressing global issues, from climate change to conflict escalation. Their widespread importance warrants widespread understanding of the main types of dilemmas and accompanying paradigms. Fortunately, the literature on the subject is expanding to accommodate the pressing need to understand social dilemmas as the basis for real-world problems.

Research in this area is applied to areas such as organizational welfare, public health, local and global environmental change. The emphasis is shifting from pure laboratory research towards research testing combinations of motivational, strategic, and structural solutions. It is encouraging that researchers from various behavioral sciences are developing unifying theoretical frameworks to study social dilemmas (like evolutionary theory; or the Social-Ecological Systems framework developed by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues). For instance, there is a burgeoning neuroeconomics literature studying brain correlates of decision-making in social dilemmas with neuroscience methods. The interdisciplinary nature of the study of social dilemmas does not fit into the conventional distinctions between fields, and demands a multidisciplinary approach that transcends divisions between economics, political science, and psychology.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Allison, S. T., Beggan, J. K., & Midgley, E. H. (1996). The quest for “similar instances” and “simultaneous possibilities”: Metaphors in social dilemma research. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 979-497.
  2. ^ Van Vugt, M., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2006). Psychological adaptations for prosocial behavior: The altruism puzzle. In M. Schaller, J. A. Simpson, & D. T. Kenrick (Eds.), Evolution and Social Psychology (pp. 237-261). New York: Psychology Press.
  3. ^ Allison, S. T., & Kerr, N.L. (1994). Group correspondence biases and the provision of public goods. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 688-698.
  4. ^ Baumol, Willaim (1952). Welfare Economics and the Theory of the State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. ^ Karau, Steven J.; Williams, Kipling D. (1993). "Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65 (4): 681–706. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.65.4.681. ISSN 0022-3514.the reduction in motivation and effort when individuals work collectively compared with when they work individually or coactively
  6. ^ Schroeder, D. A. (1995). An introduction to social dilemmas. In D.A. Schroeder (Ed.), Social dilemmas: Perspectives on individuals and groups (pp. 1-14).
  7. ^ Brechner, K. C. (1977). An experimental analysis of social traps. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 552-564.
  8. ^ a b Kenneth T. Frank, Brian Petrie, Jae S. Choi, William C. Leggett (2005). "Trophic Cascades in a Formerly Cod-Dominated Ecosystem". Science 308 (5728): 1621–1623. doi:10.1126/science.1113075. PMID 15947186. 
  9. ^ W F Lloyd - Two Lectures on the Checks to Population (1833)
  10. ^ Platt, J. (1973). Social traps. American Psychologist, 28, 641-651.
  11. ^ Wallace, M.D. (1979). Arms races and escalations: some new evidence. In J.D. Singer (Ed.), Explaining war: Selected papers from the correlates of war project (pp. 24-252). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  12. ^ Tetlock, P. E. (1983). Policy-makers' images of international conflict. Journal of Social Issues, 39, 67-86.
  13. ^ Weber, M., Kopelman, S., & Messick, D. (2004). A conceptual Review of Decision Making in Social Dilemmas: Applying the Logic of Appropriateness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8 (3), 281-307.
  14. ^ Kopelman, S. (2009). The effect of culture and power on cooperation in commons dilemmas: Implications for global resource management. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 108, 153-163. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2008.06.004
  15. ^ Van Vugt, M.; Meertens, R. & Van Lange, P. (1995). "Car versus public transportation? The role of social value orientations in a real-life social dilemma" (PDF). Journal of Applied Social Psychology 25 (3): 358–378. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1995.tb01594.x. 
  16. ^ Orbell, John M.; Dawes, Robyn M. & van de Kragt, Alphons J. C. (1988). "Explaining discussion-induced cooperation". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (5): 811–819. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.54.5.811. 
  17. ^ Nowak, M. A.; Sigmund, K. (1992). "Tit for tat in heterogeneous populations" (PDF). Nature 355 (6357): 250–253. doi:10.1038/355250a0. 
  18. ^ Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons:The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press. 
  19. ^ Poteete, Janssen, and Ostrom (2010). Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice. Princeton University Press. 
  20. ^ Yamagishi, T. (1986). "The Provision of a Sanctioning System as a Public Good". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 51 (1): 110–116. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.51.1.110. 
  21. ^ Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons. 
  22. ^ Poteete; et al. (2010). Working Together. 
  23. ^ Van Vugt, M. & De Cremer, D. (1999). "Leadership in social dilemmas: The effects of group identification on collective actions to provide public goods". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76 (4): 587–599. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.4.587. 
  24. ^ a b Ostrom, Elinor (24 July 2009). "A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems". Science 325: 419–422. doi:10.1126/science.1172133. PMID 19628857. 
  25. ^ see for example Gunnthorsdottir, A. and Rapoport, A. (2006). "Embedding social dilemmas in intergroup competition reduces free-riding". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 101: 184–199; also contains a survey of the relevant literature. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2005.08.005. 
  26. ^ Ostrom, Elinor (25 September 2007). "A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas". PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences 104 (39): 15181–15187. doi:10.1073/pnas.0702288104. Retrieved 10 December 2011. 
  27. ^ Poteete, Janssen, and Ostrom (2010). Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice. Princeton University Press. p. 228. 

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