those who stand to suffer first or most from the depletion of a resource may have advantageous consequences.

Perceptual Factors

In this section we review recent studies that have questioned the effects of manipulating perceived causes and cognitive frames on cooperation in resource dilemmas. The general methodological structure of these studies is to hold constant the basic economic structure of the decision problem (or to manipulate it systematically) and to systematically change the reasons why things are as they are—the framing, verbal description, or context of the problem. The goal is to determine if these noneconomic and noninstitutional variations influence cooperation in the social dilemmas and if so, how.


Hoffman and Spitzer (1985) were perhaps the first researchers to show that the reason given for people’s priority position with regard to access to a shared resource made a difference in how much of the resource they claimed for themselves. When the researchers told their participants that they had “earned the right” to go first, to be the “controller,” people took more of the resource than when they were told they had been “designated” as the controller by the experimenter. This study was followed by Samuelson and Allison (1994), who systematically varied, among other things, the reasons participants were given for having been assigned a priority position with regard to a resource presumably shared with five other participants. All participants were told they had been assigned to be the first of the six-member group to extract resources from a common pool. However, four groups of participants were given different descriptions about how they achieved this position. The underlying idea of the experiment was that a legitimate method for assigning a privileged position would lead the people to believe they were justified to take more than an equal share of the resources, whereas an illegitimate or questionable procedure would not support such justification. The better the “fit” between the means of getting the privilege and the justification, the more likely it is that people will depart from a “share equally” rule that allocation tasks evoke (Messick, 1993).

According to Samuelson and Allison (1994), this fit is maximal when the process resulting in the first position is a good example of a fair mechanism, which is to say when it is a good prototype of a selection process that leads to a “first come, first served” rule. Two such mechanisms, they propose, are flipping a coin and excelling on an achievement test. Roughly a quarter of their participants were told that they got first position by means of a coin toss, and a quarter were told that they got first position because they answered the most questions

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