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The Drama of the Commons
the likelihood of coalition formation (Mannix, 1993:2). Mannix argues that when imbalances exist, individual group members have a harder time focusing on mutual gains, and instead focus on protecting their own interests. Coalitions can have significant negative effects on a group’s overall outcomes because they can deprive individuals and subgroups of access to the resources they require to succeed or survive. Consistent with her hypotheses, Mannix found that, relative to groups with equalized power relations, groups with power imbalances: (1) made less efficient use of available resources; (2) were more likely to begin the exercise distributing resources to a subset of the group; (3) included fewer people in resource utilization across multiple rounds; and (4) took more effort to reach agreements on resource distributions. Power imbalance was manipulated by assigning different profit percentages to divisions in a decentralized organization (equal versus unequal). In addition, members of groups with power imbalances were more likely to see the group as competitive, be motivated by individual gains, and retaliate against those who omitted them from a coalition. Evidently it also was easier for groups with power imbalances to form small coalitions rather than large ones.
Mannix (1993:16) concludes that power imbalance can be detrimental to group outcomes, noting that “power imbalance appears to encourage competition and a focus on individual outcomes resulting in less integrative agreements.” She does, however, offer a possible prescription for better functioning groups: “One of the ways to balance power is to assemble group members from the same position in the hierarchy who have various sources of expertise that are all necessary to the functioning of the group. This way, although the group members would still have their own interests and goals, they might not be as threatened by the positions of other group members” (pp. 18-19).
Wade-Benzoni et al. (1996) offer some important insight into both asymmetric power distributions between people in a commons dilemma and the role of egocentrism (the tendency to see the world only from one’s own point of view) in commons management. In an elaborate study that simulated a real-world fishstock dilemma, they found that levels of egocentrism affect individuals’ and groups’ perceptions of fairness in asymmetric dilemmas. Next, and more importantly, they found that overharvesting behavior was positively correlated with levels of egocentrism. These two findings naturally lead to the question of whether anything can be done to decrease egocentric biases in dilemma settings. By examining egocentrism before and after discussion, the investigators learned that discussion appeared to decrease egocentric biases. This suggests that the reduction of egocentrism may be one of the reasons why communication has a positive effect on cooperation in social dilemmas in general (see section on communication later in this review). In keeping with Mannix’s (1993) conclusions, the study’s results suggest that overharvesting tendencies are greater in asymmetric than in symmetric dilemmas. Finally, overharvesting behavior also is related to participants’ beliefs about what other participants are likely to do.