Cooperation and the tragedy of the commons

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 1, 2008
Filed in Collaboration

One of our regular commenters, ken, has directed me to an interesting article in the Washington Post equating Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton’s race for the Democratic nomination to the classic tragedy of the commons scenario. That’s when the individual actors operate to maximise their self interest and in the process ruin things for the wider group.

Here’s how the tragedy of the commons (TOTC) scenario played out for a group of people playing the role of timber companies.

He asked volunteers to play the role of timber companies in a forest. The volunteers were told they could harvest a certain number of acres each year, and were also told how quickly the forest could replenish itself. The question was whether volunteers — thinking on their own and without discussions with other volunteers — would restrict themselves to taking less than half the timber that they were allowed. If everyone did this, the forest would replenish itself in perpetuity, creating the greatest wealth in the long term.

But because the volunteers did not know whether their kindness would be reciprocated by others or exploited by competitors, people raced to cut as much timber as they could and quickly razed the forests to the ground. Groups with volunteers more willing to think about the collective good preserved their forests longer. But selfish people within these groups had a field day exploiting the altruists — and the forests perished anyway.

Unfortunately TOTCs are played out in organisations everyday, especially by managers who haven’t worked out that their role is to help their staff succeed. And this problem is being exacerbated by the trend of people moving from one job to another and only sticking around for the short term. This is a problem because TOTCs are only avoided if people are working for the longer term.

the only way to prevent tragedies of the commons is to set up structures in advance that reward long-term thinking and punish short-term selfishness. This happens mostly among competitors who share long-term interests and have social relationships of trust (emphasis added): If you and I are Maine lobstermen, we are likely to agree to set up limits on the overall catch each year because we see our future, and our children’s future, inextricably linked. In the absence of trust and long-term relationships, the only way to prevent these tragedies is to have an outside regulatory agency step in to establish — and enforce — limits.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Hi Shawn
    You might be interested to look at this video from the recent Resilience Conference I attended in Stockholm. Systems ecologist Elinor Ostrom, together with colleagues, has some 40 years on, turned Hardin’s classic Tragedy of the Commons model on its head. They started by going back to Hardin’s original assumptions – including critically the absence of communication between the actors . To cut a long story short, recreating the resource dilemma in an experimental laboratory setting shows that ‘predictions by Gordon and Hardin ARE correct when participants interact anonymously and cannot communicate!’ . But simply by ‘introducing communication changes outcomes substantially without an external enforcer’. By enabling participants to communicate, much trust and reciprocity was achieved which in turn delivered higher payoffs. Surprise Surprise! We deal with this briefly in a coauthored book to be published later this year by EarthScan titled Kitchen Table Sustainability. (note you need to forward to 12:30 for the discussion on Hardin)
    bye for now

  2. June 2008 – Carnival of Trust

    Shawn, on the Anecdote blog, writes about cooperation and the tragedy of the commons which is what happens when individuals compete for the use of a share a resource and, in their attempts to self-optimise they sub-optimise the use of the resource, s…

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