Social Dilemmas

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Social Dilemmas are social problems without technical solution and where difficult trade-offs have to be made.

Two examples of social dilemmas are the Tragedy of the Commons and the Prisoner's Dilemma


"The health and vitality of relationships, groups, and the society at large is strongly challenged by social dilemmas, or conflicts between short-term self-interest and long-term collective interest. Pollution, depletion of natural resources, and intergroup conflict, can be characterized as examples of urgent social dilemmas. Social dilemmas are challenging because acting in one’s immediate self-interest is tempting to everyone involved, even though everybody benefits from acting in the longer-term collective interest. For example, relationships are healthier if partners do not neglect one another’s preferences, organizations are more productive if employees spontaneously exchange one another’s expertise, and nations fare better to the extent that they show respect for one another’s values, norms, and traditions. Similarly, in the long run everyone would benefit from a cleaner environment, yet how many are prepared to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprint by saving more energy or driving or flying less frequently?" (


"Social dilemmas are formally defined by two outcome-relevant properties: (1) each person has an individual rational strategy which yields the best outcome (or pay-off) in all circumstances (the non-cooperative choice, also known as the dominating strategy); (2) if all individuals pursue this strategy it results in a deficient collective outcome–everyone would be better off by cooperating (the deficient equilibrium). Researchers frequently use the experimental games method to study social dilemmas in the laboratory. An experimental game is a situation in which participants choose between cooperative and non-cooperative alternatives, yielding consequences for themselves and others. These games are generally depicted with an outcome matrix representing valuable outcomes for participants like money or lottery tickets." (


Axelrod on Social Dilemmas in Cooperation

Axelrod's rules of cooperation, summarized by Peter Kollock, expert in 'social dilemma's' affecting cooperating individuals and communities

"Axelrod identifies three conditions that are necessary for even the possibility of cooperation. In other words, without these three elements there is little or no hope that cooperative relationships will emerge and persist. The first condition is that it must be likely that two individuals will meet again in the future. If this is the only time someone will be interacting with another person, or if this is the last time, there will be a great temptation to behave selfishly. Successful communities, in other words, must promote ongoing interaction. Godwin (1994) makes a similar point in his essay on principles for making virtual communities work when he stresses the importance of promoting continuity in online groups. The second condition is that individuals must be able to identify each other. The third condition is that individuals must have information about how the other person has behaved in the past. If identity is unknown or unstable and if there is no recollection or record of past interactions, individuals will be motivated to behave selfishly because they will not be accountable for their actions." (


Types of social dilemmas

"The literature on social dilemmas has historically revolved three metaphorical stories, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons (see Commons Dilemma) and each of these stories has been modeled as an experimental game.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma Game was developed by scientists in the 1950s. The cover story for the game involved two prisoners who are separately given the choice between testifying against the other (non-cooperation with one’s partner) or keeping silent (cooperation with one’s partner). The outcomes are such that each of them is better off testifying against the other but if they both pursue this strategy they are both worse off than by remaining silent.

The Public Goods Game has the same properties as the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game but captures a public good, or a resource from which all may benefit regardless of whether or not they contributed to the good. For instance, people can enjoy the city parks regardless of whether they contributed to their upkeep through local taxes. Most public goods are collectively shared, and are non-excludable. That is, once these goods are provided nobody can be excluded from using them. As a result, there is a temptation to enjoy the good without making a contribution. Those who do so are called free-riders (like taking a free-ride on public transportation), and while it is rational to free-ride, if all do so the public good is not provided and all are worse off. Although public goods are often defined in terms of non-excludability, it is true that in real life some people can be excluded from using some public goods – for example, recognized hooligans are sometimes penalized by a ban on entering the football stadium of their favorite club. Researchers mostly study two public good dilemma games in the laboratory. Participants get a monetary endowment to play these games and decide how much to invest in a private fund versus group fund. Outcomes are such that it is individually rational to invest in the private fund, yet all would be better off investing in the group fund because this yields a bonus. In the continuous game the more people invest in the group fund the larger their share of the bonus. In the step-level game, people get a share of the bonus if the total group investments exceed a critical (step) level.

The Commons Dilemma Game is inspired by the metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons. This story is about a group of herdsmen having open access to a common parcel of land on which their cattle grazes. It is in each herdman’s interest to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons, even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herdsman receives all the benefits from the additional cows and the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. Yet if all herdsmen make this individually rational decision, the commons is destroyed and all will suffer.

Compare this with the use of non-renewable resources like water or fish: When water is used at a higher rate than the reservoirs are replenished or fish consumption exceeds its reproductive capacity then we face a tragedy of the commons. The experimental commons game involves a common resource pool (filled with money or points) from which individuals harvest without depleting it. It is individually rational to harvest as much as possible, but the resource collapses if people harvest more than the replenishment rate of the pool.

There are numerous types of social dilemmas, and how they can be presented to people. For example, a take-some dilemma is one where cooperative actions involve exercising restraint on taking from shared resources; the give-some dilemma is one where cooperative actions involve contributing to a shared resources or good. Such situations can also be presented in terms of “leave-some” dilemmas and “keep-some” dilemmas. Also, the outcomes for others and self can be presented in various ways, and people may themselves interpret the same social dilemma in different ways – for example, as doing business or interpersonal exchange. Typically, the ways in which a social dilemma are presented to people makes a big difference in terms of what people expect others to do, and what they do themselves." (

Theories of social dilemmas

Game Theory

Social dilemmas have attracted a great deal of interest in the social and behavioural sciences. Economists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists alike are studying when people are selfish or cooperative in a social dilemma. The most influential theoretical approach is game theory (i.e., rational choice theory, expected utility theory). Game theory assumes that individuals are rational actors motivated to maximize their utilities. Utility is often narrowly defined in terms of people’s material self-interest. Game theory thus predicts a non-cooperative outcome in a social dilemma. Although this is a useful starting premise there are many circumstances in which people may deviate from individual rationality, demonstrating the limitations of economic game theory.

Evolutionary theories

Biological and evolutionary approaches provide useful complementary insights into decision-making in social dilemmas. According to selfish gene theory, individuals may pursue a seemingly irrational strategy to cooperate if it benefits the survival of their genes. The concept of inclusive fitness delineates that cooperating with family members might pay because of shared genetic interests. It might be profitable for a parent to help their off-spring because doing so facilitates the survival of their genes.

Reciprocity theories provide a different account of the evolution of cooperation. In repeated social dilemma games between the same individuals cooperation might emerge because people can punish a partner for failing to cooperate. This encourages reciprocal cooperation. Reciprocity can explain why people cooperate in dyads but what about larger groups? Evolutionary theories of indirect reciprocity and costly signaling may be useful to explain large-scale cooperation. When people can selectively choose partners in social dilemmas, it pays to develop a cooperative reputation. Through cooperating people signal to others that they are kind and generous which might make them attractive group members.

Psychological theories

Psychological models offer additional insights into social dilemmas by questioning the game theory assumption that individuals pursue their narrow self-interest. Interdependence theory suggests that people transform a given outcome matrix into an effective matrix that is more consistent with their social dilemma preferences. A prisoner’s dilemma with close kin, for example, changes the outcome matrix into one in which it is rational to be cooperative. Attribution models offer further support for these transformations. Whether individuals approach a social dilemma selfishly or cooperatively might depend upon whether they believe people are naturally greedy or cooperative. Similarly, goal expectation theory assumes that people might cooperate under two conditions: They must (1) have a cooperative goal, and (2) expect others to cooperate. Another psychological model, the appropriateness model, questions the assumption that individuals rationally calculate their outcomes before reaching a decision. Instead many people base their decisions on what people around them do and use simple heuristics, like an equality rule, to decide whether or not to cooperate." (


"Social dilemmas are ubiquitous and essential to social life. Theoretically, social dilemmas are important because they capture a strong conflict of motives. Also, what people do matters to other people in important ways. In many ways, social dilemmas address questions as basic as is human nature, including human motivation and adaptability, as well as the evolution of cooperation. Societally, social dilemmas are important because they often create or lead to social issues, problems, or even disasters – as illustrated by the Tragedy of the Commons or the Winter in Groningen – that could have been prevented, or that can still be resolved in a powerful way. In addition to our dealing with our environment, interpersonal issues in marriage, friendship, or organizations, negotiation processes among individuals, groups, and nations, can easily escalate in divorce, interpersonal struggle, enduring conflict or warfare.

As social dilemmas in society become more pressing there is an increasing need for policies. It is encouraging that much social dilemma research is applied to areas such as organizational welfare, public health, local and global environmental change. The emphasis is shifting from pure laboratory research towards research testing combinations of motivational, strategic, and structural solutions. It is also noteworthy that social dilemmas is one of the most interdisciplinary research fields with participation from researchers from, among others, antropologists, biologists, economists, mathematicians, neuroscientists, political scientists, and psychologists who are developing unifying theoretical frameworks to study social dilemmas (like evolutionary theory). For instance, there is a burgeoning neuroeconomics literature studying brain correlates of decision-making in social dilemmas with neuroscience methods. Finally, social dilemma researchers are increasingly using more dynamical experimental designs to see, for instance, what happens if people can voluntarily or involuntarily enter or exit a social dilemma, or play different social dilemmas at the same time within different groups. It is a field that has always been very important, but it seems that this is now more strongly recognized than ever before by theorists and those who seek to use this knowledge to address urgent social issues. We are looking forward to a bright future of social dilemmas." (

More Information

A more thorough examination of social dilemma's can be found at

A thesis on the voluntary provision of public goods, and the attending dilemma’s, at

An introduction to the theory of social dilemmas, at

Source: Social Dilemmas: The Anatomy of Cooperation. Kollock, Peter. Annual Review of Sociology, 24: 183-214, August 1998


Essay: Social Dilemmas: The Anatomy of Cooperation. Kollock, Peter. Annual Review of Sociology, 24: 183-214, August 1998

Summary at