of the choices made by others; (2) a noncooperative choice is always harmful to others compared to a cooperative choice; and (3) the aggregate amount of harm done to others by a noncooperative choice is greater than the profit to the individual. Commons dilemmas (also called resource dilemmas) are a subset of social dilemmas that have traditionally been defined as situations in which collective noncooperation leads to a serious threat of depletion of future resources (Hardin, 1968; Van Lange et al., 1992a). They can be categorized as “social traps” because behavior that is personally gratifying in the short term can lead to long-term collective costs (Cross and Guyer, 1980; Platt, 1973). Although we focus on commons dilemmas, we also draw on relevant research on other types of social dilemmas such as the prisoners’ dilemma and the problem of public goods.

The first part of this chapter places recent research in a historical perspective lays out our framework and provides basic definitions. The second part provides a critical review of the recent literature within a categorical framework we developed. The third part concludes by linking the issues raised in our review to the other chapters in this volume.


Historical Roots of Experimental Research on Commons Dilemmas

The modern history of social psychological research on common property management, commons dilemmas, resource dilemmas, or social dilemmas—as the field is variously labeled—began in the 1950s. In their path-breaking book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), Von Neumann and Morgenstern introduced a specific class of models that outlined a theory of individual decision making (with the axiomatization of preferences and utilities) and proposed a theory of social interdependence for both zero-sum and nonzero-sum games. Although economists had been studying departures from competitive equilibrium since the turn of the century, this book spurred a flurry of empirical investigations that explored decision making and utility functions. By the late 1950s, the general ideas of game theory had been introduced to social psychologists in a formal manner by Luce and Raiffa (1957) and in terms of psychological theory by Thibaut and Kelley (1959).

The 1960s saw the proliferation of experiments on two-person games, largely prisoners’ dilemma games, and, more importantly, on the generalization of the prisoners’ dilemma idea to applied multiperson situations. Two of the important publications of this time, Olson’s (1965) The Logic of Collective Action and Hardin’s (1968) celebrated article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” highlighted the issues for the scientific community. During this period, the interests of experimental psychologists and experimental economists diverged. Economists continued to focus on rules and institutions, as well as payoff structures (for an excellent account of the early development of experimental economics, see Davis and

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