Tragedy of the Commons

Week 4 in Howard Rheingold’s  Towards a Literacy of Cooperation course focuses on The Commons and Institutions for Collective Action.

The Tragedy of the Commons is the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests. In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in “The Tragedy of the Commons”, published in the journal Science.

For an understanding of what this means, play this simple game which emphasizes the occurrence of Tragedy of the Commons in a public setting.

Hardin believed in the inevitability of people despoiling common pool resources through self-interest and argued strongly for population control, ending his paper with the following sentences:

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity” — and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

But Elinor Ostrom did not agree. Through extensive research into examples of the use of common pool resources such as fishing, water and forestry, she concluded that a significant minority of groups will find ways to manage the commons and overcome social dilemmas. Humans do not have to be prisoners of the Prisoner’s Dilemma – they can break out of becoming their own jailors.

Ostrom identified eight design principles of stable local common pool resource management

  • Group boundaries are clearly defined.
  • Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
  • Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
  • A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
  • A graduated system of sanctions is used. (Shame and rewards  have been found to be effective in policing the commons.)
  • Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
  • For common-pool resources that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

Ostrom also came up with a simple matrix to explain the relationship between private goods, public goods, common goods and club goods and defines what she means by the commons in this short video

Excludable Non-excludable
Rivalrous Private goods
food, clothing, cars, personal electronics
Common goods (Common-pool resources)
fish stocks, timber, coal
Non-rivalrous Club goods
cinemas, private parks, satellite television
Public goods
free-to-air television, air, national defense

Peter Kollock believed that a Prisoner’s Dilemma is a result of mistrust.  An assurance of trust can transform a social dilemma into a stag-hunt

Some people are, by nature, more likely to trust others. In order to solve both the first-order dilemma (how to agree to organize collective action) and the second order dilemma (who’s going to police the agreement), you need both kinds of people: the more trusting people are necessary in order to make an agreement, and the less trusting people are necessary in order to police the agreement.

A wonderful example of a how a group of students used their understanding of these principles and game theory to get the best exam result for the whole cohort has recently been published by the New York Times

So it seems that Elinor Ostram’s faith in the ability of humans to cooperate was not misplaced.

Introduction to Social Dilemmas

This is the focus for Week 3 in Howard Rheingold’s course – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation

We have been introduced to social dilemmas principally through the excellent work of Peter Kollock, whose writing and speaking was clarity personified. See

Peter Kollock on YouTube … and

Kollock, P., 1998. Social Dilemmas: The Anatomy of Cooperation. Annual Review of Sociology, 24(1), pp.183–214.

For a more basic introduction to Social Dilemmas – this website is useful

What is a social dilemma?

In the abstract of his article Kollock defines social dilemmas as follows

The study of social dilemmas is the study of the tension between individual and collective rationality. In a social dilemma, individually reasonable behavior leads to a situation in which everyone is worse off..

A classic example of a social dilemma often seen in the UK is the temptation to continue to water  gardens or wash cars during a hose-pipe ban instigated during drought conditions.

A key two person social dilemma can be studied through the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game. For our course mission this week we have been asked to play 3 online Prisoner’s Dilemmas Games and reflect on the outcomes.

Play all three of these versions of Prisoner’s dilemma and write a reflective blog post:  A simple Java-based game.  Prisoner’s dilemma game set in cyberspace – nice instruction and simulation  Simple interface for playing the game and a bit more complicated charts to run simulation by varying the number of rounds, customized strategy, etc.

What is the Prisoner’s Dilemma ?

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

See Richard Dawkins videos for a demonstration of how to play the game –  and  

Playing The Games

Game 3

I only spent a short time on this game – but I found the simulations interesting. Here are the results I got from two.

1. Always Cooperate – the results suggest that this is a good strategy, but it depends on what your opponent does.

Game 3 always cooperate

2. True Peacemaker  – This would appear to be a bad strategy.

Game 3 True peacemaker

Game 2 

This site has lots of fascinating information in addition to the game.

A brief time playing this game suggested that if your motive is to increase the pay-off for your partner as well as for yourself, then some competitive behaviour will increase the benefits for both you and your opponent. This is suggestive of ‘Coopetition’ – Coopetition occurs when companies interact with partial congruence of interests. They cooperate with each other to reach a higher value creation if compared to the value created without interaction, and struggle to achieve competitive advantage.

Game 1 –

I spent the most time playing this game and tried to test it in the following ways:

1. Play Tit-for-Tat right through the game, i.e. start by cooperating and thereafter follow your opponent’s moves. This is thought to be the ‘best’ strategy for assuring an equal or almost equal outcome, although you cannot beat your opponent (win) using this strategy.

Tit-for Tat after 1st coop

In the first 3 rounds my opponent cooperated after the opening cooperative move, and the Tit-for-Tat strategy resulted in an equal outcome. But in the final two rounds my opponent defected on following the opening cooperative move, resulting in a slightly negative outcome for me.

2. Play Tit-for-Tat, but defect on the first move

Tit for Tat defect first

On all rounds I either won or came out equal, confirming the finding that defection/cheating pays!

3. I then tried the strategy of always cooperating no matter what my opponent did – which turned out to be a very poor strategy

Game 1 -always cooperate

4. And finally I tried always defecting – right from the first move – no matter what my opponent did. If you want to win – this is the way to go. Even if your opponent also always defects from the first move you will draw even.

Game 1 - Always defect

All this could be seen as a rather depressing picture, so it’s worth remembering that metaphors are dangerous.

‘Metaphors are not to be trifled with’  Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984)

Peter Kollock urges us to remember that ‘An eye for an eye makes everyone blind’. He writes: Tit for tat is a very hard nosed strategy with no slack in for forgiveness or generosity.  It is a strategy that responds immediately and in kind, and admits no credit. Tit for Tat can end up in cycles of recrimination and get you into a lot of trouble.  He suggests four key ways of cultivating cooperation:

  1. Don’t be envious
  2. Encourage durable and frequent interactions
  3. Improve recognition and recall
  4. Be generous

But ultimately it comes down to whether individuals fundamentally believe that cooperation will lead to the best outcomes.  The Prisoner’s Dilemma game doesn’t appear to support this.