The Tragedy of the Commons theory is as old as Aristotle, who said: “That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.”
What Is the Tragedy of the Commons?
The tragedy of the commons presents a conflict over resources between individual interests and the common good. Commons dilemmas describe conflicts resulting from free access and unrestricted demand for a finite natural resource. This ultimately threatens the resource and leads to exploitation. The benefits of exploitation go to individuals, each of whom is motivated to maximize his or her use of the resource, while the costs of exploitation are distributed among all who share the resource.54 Overfishing of the world’s fish populations and pollution of the earth’s atmosphere are modern day examples of a “tragedy of unmanaged commons.”
Environmental decisions pose a similar dilemma to the tragedy of the commons scenarios, in that an individual’s benefit may or may not be the same as what benefits society. In other words, deciding to engage in behaviors that help mitigate climate change, a benefit for society, may seem more of a cost than a benefit to the individuals who would engage in them, at least in the short term. Climate change communicators need to recognize this dichotomy and address it by tapping into multiple identities in their audiences, creating a sense of affiliation with each other, the environment, and the society that enjoys the benefits of its natural resources.
How To Tap into Group Identity to Create a Sense of Affiliation and Increase Cooperation
An individual comprises numerous roles and identities, each of which has its own set of goals. In any given situation, an individual may call into play multiple identities (household member, town resident, CEO, parent, member of religious organization), even when the goals of the various identities may conflict with each other. To resolve that conflict, an individual has to decide which identity is most relevant in a situation.55 The strength of affiliation that someone feels toward other members of a group (or the people that may be affected by a decision) can determine which identity that person chooses to apply in a particular situation.
When people make decisions, they recognize the situation, their identity in that situation, and the rules that are most appropriate given the situation and their chosen identity.56 CRED research suggests that group affiliation may influence whether an individual decides to cooperate in a group decision or not for several reasons:57
• Group affiliation can activate social goals (i.e., concern for others, maximizing the good of the group);
• Participating in a group allows group norms to exert a stronger influence on individuals;
• Participating in a group also leads to greater intrinsic reward for individuals when group goals are achieved.
People who feel an affiliation with a group are thus more likely to cooperate in environmental decisions, such as joining a town’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Further, people may continue such behaviors due to the “reward” found in helping the group reach its climate change goals, as demonstrated in the first example above-left. Although any appeal to group identity can help trigger group goals and cooperation, affiliations with smaller groups, such as a sorority or house of worship, can be stronger than those with larger groups, such as a political party or country.58 Communicators will find it effective to create a sense of group affiliation within an audience, and they should try to find the most common yet smallest affiliation that the audience can identify with.
The second example above-left illustrates the power of a local organization tapping into area residents’ identity with the city to motivate new behaviors to help mitigate climate change. It also shows the importance of rewarding individual actions taken toward a group goal to reinforce such behaviors. The example below illustrates the power of tapping into social identities and creating “green” social norms.
54 Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162 (3859), 1243-1248.
55 Weber, J. M., Kopelman, S., Messick, D.M. (2004). A conceptual review of decision making in social dilemmas: Applying a logic of appropriateness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(3), 281-307.
56 March, J. G. (1994). A Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen. New York: Free Press.
57 Arora, P., Peterson, N., Krantz, D.H., et al. When is a Social Dilemma not a Dilemma? Group Affiliation and Social Goals: Transform Current and Future Payoffs for Cooperation (working paper).
Dawes, R. M. & Messick, D. M. (2000). Social dilemmas. International Journal of Psychology 35, 111-116.
Jackson, J.W. (2008). Reactions to Social Dilemmas as a function of group identity, rational calculations, and social context. Small Group Research, 39, 673-705.
Krantz, et al. (2008). Individual values and social goals in environmental decision making. In T. Kugler, J. C. Smith, T. Connolly, Y. Son (Eds.), Decision modeling and behavior in complex and uncertain environments (pp. 165-198). New York: Springer; Science+Business Media, LLC.
58 Brewer, M. B. & Kramer, R. M. (1986). Choice behavior in social dilemmas: Effects of social identity, group size, and decision framing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 543-549.
59 Arora, P., Peterson, N., Krantz, D.H., et al. When is a Social Dilemma not a Dilemma? Group Affiliation and Social Goals: Transform Current and Future Payoffs for Cooperation (working paper).
60 City of Knoxville Tennessee. (2009, April 30). Downtown Green Power Initiative Reaches Goal of 400 Blocks Sold. Retrieved from http://www.cityofknoxville.org/Press_Releases/Content/2009/0430e.asp