Factors Influencing Cooperation in Commons Dilemmas: A Review of Experimental Psychological Research

Summary of: Factors Influencing Cooperation in Commons Dilemmas: A Review of Experimental Psychological Research

While much of the economic research of commons dilemmas has explored the big-picture effects of rules, institutions, and payoff structures on cooperative behavior, experimental psychological research has uncovered crucial factors of its own, suggesting that the best commons institutions of the future will seek the best fit between top-down institutional rules and the bottom-up individual psychological effects.

Disciplines

Publication Reference

Published in/by
National Academy Press
Date
2002

Findings

  • Many perceptual factors of the commons situation had significant influence over the choice behavior of individuals. Differences in the form of power and status of administrative parties, for example, may dictate the effectiveness of rewards and punishments. Managers of a chemical plant, given the option of short-term monetary advantage (waste storage) versus long-term environmental advantage (waste treatment), were more likely to choose the long-term option if the rewards and punishment came from the parent corporation rather than from the government.

Social psychological research has a long tradition of interest in cooperative behavior and commons dilemmas, beginning with Von Neumann and Morgenstern's 1944 book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. It is convenient to summarize the way psychological studies have attacked the commons problem through nine variables (social motives, gender, payoff structure, uncertainty, power, status, group size, communication, causes, frames) divided into three groups (individual differences, situational factors of the task structure, and the perceived effects of situational factors.) Although behavior elicited in a controlled lab environment is never the same as that observed in field research, lab research is an indispensable tool for teasing out causal relations from the larger number of interacting influences. Attention to the findings of psychological research relevant to the specific instance of a commons dilemma can make the difference in generating positive collective action.

Studies on social motives have found correlations between motives and choice behavior and interpretation of others' behavior. Liebrand et al. (1986) demonstrated that "people with individualist social motives tend to interpret behavior along the might dimension (what works), whereas cooperators tend to view cooperation and competition as varying on the moral dimension (what is good or bad)." Less intuitive findings have come out of research into social rewards for cooperative behavior. Gachter and Fehr (1999) conducted a study around public goods dilemmas with an anonymous group, a group that met beforehand to establish a group identity, a group that had a chance to interact after playing, and a group that met before and after. They found that neither the second nor the third groups had significant improvements in cooperation, but that the fourth option resulted in "significantly higher levels of contribution."

Uncertainty of resource size may play a detrimental role in commons dilemmas for multiple reasons. Any factor which threatens to bring an end to the resource will decrease interest in one's reputation and therefore with the relations that support the resource's maintenance. Uncertainty also helps diffuse personal responsibility, since overusers can try to justify their actions through their ignorance of the current resource size.

Experimenters have also uncovered interesting effects from varying groups size on self-efficacy, an individual's sense of their own competence in taking effective action. Smaller groups were found by Kerr (1989) to have higher averages when testing "collective" efficacy, the sense that the group could carry out effective actions to achieve a desired outcome. In groups with a relatively low provision point, the percentage of cooperating members necessary to support the public good, small group size was associated with a sense of "collective" efficacy.

Voting can significantly improve efficiencies in commons dilemmas by acting as a form of communication. Collective learning of general information "extends to subsequent situations and enables people to coordinate their activities even in rounds when no proposals are made."