The tragedy of the commons is a term coined by scientist Garrett Hardin in 1968 describing what can happen in groups when individuals act in their own best self interests and ignore what’s best for the whole group. A group of herdsmen shared a communal pasture, so the story goes, but some realized that if they increased their own herd, it would greatly benefit them. However, increasing your herd without regard to the resources available also brings unintentional tragedy — in the form of the destruction of the common grazing area.
Being selfish by using a shared group resource can hurt others. But it doesn’t always have to.
Since that time, we’ve had a great deal of research into this phenomenon that’s resulted in a few common solutions, as outlined by Mark Van Vugt (2009). These solutions include providing more information in order to reduce uncertainty about the future, ensuring people’s need for a strong social identity and sense of community is met, the need for being able to trust our institutions that we put in charge of our “commons,” and the value of incentives for improving oneself and responsible use, while punishing overuse.
As Van Vugt notes, “people have a fundamental need to understand their environment” in order to help them understand what happens in the future or in times of uncertainty. The more information a person has, the more secure they feel in making rational decisions that may impact the environment they live in. We listen to the weather forecast to know whether to pack an umbrella which will keep us dry.
Van Vugt gives an example of local water usage. People conserve more when they understand that their usage can directly help alleviate a water shortage or drought. He also emphasizes that simple messages are the most effective. The energy efficiency rating on a major appliance purchased in the U.S. tells consumers exactly where that appliance stands in comparison to other appliances the consumer could alternatively purchase, as well as telling them how much money they’re likely to spend on using that appliance. Such clear, simple messages can impact consumer behavior.
We humans, as Van Vugt notes, have a deep need to belong to social groups. We’re inherently social creatures and crave group acceptance and group belonging. We’ll go to some effort to staying within our chosen group and to increase our feelings of belongingness.
An example given in the article is that in fishing communities where the fisherman have a good social network going, they exchange catch information informally and more frequently than in communities where such networks don’t exist. Guess what? Such an information exchange results in more sustainable fishing.
Belonging to a group also means being more concerned about your reputation within that group. Nobody wants to be an outcast of the society they’ve chosen to be a part of. Knowing where you stand within a group – even in the form of a simple smiley or frowney face on your electric bill, based upon your energy usage compared to that of your neighbors’ – can change individual behavior.
Often times we imagine that if we simply policed the commons, that would be sufficient to ensuring fair use of the shared resource. However, policing is only as good as the institution charged with it. If it is corrupt and trusted by no one, policing is a part of the problem, not the solution. Look at virtually any dictatorship to see how this plays out in the real world. Citizens who live in such societies recognize there is little fairness in how shared resources are distributed.
Authorities gain users’ trust by employing fair decision making rules and procedures, according to Van Vugt. “Regardless of whether people receive bad or good outcomes, they want to be treated fairly and respectfully.” People have little incentive to participate in a group process if they believe the authorities or institutions running the process are corrupt or play favorites. Authorities can often encourage feelings of trust in their users or citizens by simply listening to them, and providing accurate, unbiased information about the resources.
The last component of helping people avoid the tragedy of the commons is incentives. Humans can be motivated by a marketplace that rewards positive environmental behavior, and punishes unwanted, harmful behavior. Van Vugt cites the pollution credit market in the U.S. as being a successful example of incentivizing “green” behavior.
Van Vugt also points out that financial (or other) incentives aren’t always needed when other factors, such as a strong group identity, are in place. In fact, incentive schemes can be counterproductive if they directly undermine other core needs, such as information, identity or institutions. Littering fines, for instance, while well-intentioned might undermine a person’s trust in the authorities (because they’re suggesting littering is more of a problem than it really is), or transform it in our minds from an ethical issue or one of helping the environment, to an economic issue (the government needs another way to get our money).
The amount of research conducted over the past 40 years suggests that we have a much greater understanding of the tragedy of the commons. But we also have a greater understanding of ways to avert it, or to limit people’s self-interests at the expense of their neighbors.
Van Vugt, M. (2009). Averting the tragedy of the commons: Using social psychological science to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(3), 169-173.