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How the Social Situation Creates Conflict: The Role of Social Dilemmas

15 January, 2016 - 09:23

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the concepts of public goods and social dilemmas, and how these conflicts influence human interactions.
  2. Describe the principles of the prisoner’s dilemma game that make it an effective model for studying social dilemmas.
  3. Review the different laboratory games that have been used to study social dilemmas.
  4. Summarize the individual difference and cultural variables that relate to cooperation and competition.

If human beings are well equipped to cooperate with each other, and if morality, social fairness, and other human features favor cooperation, why are so many social relationships still competitive? If you guessed that the competition comes not so much from the people as it does from the nature of the social situation, then you would be correct. In short, competition is often caused by the social dilemma itself—the dilemma creates patterns whereby even when we want to be good, the situation nevertheless rewards us for being selfish. Ross and Ward (1995) found that participants played a game more competitively when it was described as a “Wall Street broker game” than when the same game was called a “community game.” And other studies have found that subliminal priming of money or business materials (e.g., boardroom tables and business suits) increases competition (Kay, Wheeler, Bargh, & Ross, 2004; Vohs, Meed, & Goode, 2006).

Social dilemmas occur when the members of a group, culture, or society are in potential conflict over the creation and use of shared public goods. Public goodsare benefits that are shared by a community at large and that everyone in the group has access to, regardless of whether or not they have personally contributed to the creation of the goods (Abele, Stasser, & Chartier, 2010). In many cases, the public good involves the responsible use of a resource that if used wisely by the group as a whole will remain intact but if overused will be destroyed. Examples include the cod off the coast of Newfoundland, water in local reservoirs, public beaches, and clean air. In other cases, the public good involves a service—such as public television or public radio—that is supported by the members of the community but that is used freely by everyone in the community.

Let’s consider first a case in which a social dilemma leads people to overuse an existing public good—a type of social dilemma called a harvesting dilemma. One example, called the commons dilemma, was proposed by Garrett Hardin (1968). Hardin noted that in many towns in Europe, there was at one time a centrally located pasture, known as the commons, which was shared by the inhabitants of the village to graze their livestock. But the commons was not always used wisely. The problem was that each individual who owned livestock wanted to be able to use the commons to graze his or her own animals. However, when each group member took advantage of the commons by grazing many animals, the commons became overgrazed, the pasture died, and the commons was destroyed.

Although Hardin focused on the particular example of the commons, he noted that the basic dilemma of individual needs and desires versus the benefit of the group as whole could also be found in many contemporary public goods issues, including the use of limited natural resources and public land. In large cities, most people may prefer the convenience of driving their own car to work each day rather than taking public transportation. Yet this behavior uses up public goods (roads that are not clogged with traffic, and air that is free of pollution). People are lured into the dilemma by short-term self-interest, seemingly without considering the potential long-term costs of the behavior, such as air pollution and the necessity of building even more highways.

Social dilemmas such as the commons dilemma are arranged in a way that make it easy to be selfish because the personally beneficial choice (such as using water during a water shortage or driving to work alone in one’s own car) produces benefits for the individual, no matter what others do. Furthermore, social dilemmas tend to work on a type of “time delay.” Because the long-term negative outcome (the extinction of fish species or dramatic changes in the climate) is far away in the future, and yet the individual benefits are occurring right now, it is difficult to see how many costs there really are. The paradox, of course, is that if everyone takes the personally selfish choice in an attempt to maximize his or her own rewards, the long-term result is poorer outcomes for every individual in the group. Each individual prefers to make use of the public goods for himself or herself, whereas the best outcome for the group as a whole is to use the resources more slowly and wisely.

Another type of social dilemma—the contributions dilemma—occurs when the short-term costs of a behavior lead individuals to avoid performing it, and this may prevent the long-term benefits that would have occurred if the behaviors had been performed. An example of a contributions dilemma occurs when individuals have to determine whether or not to donate to the local public radio or television station. If most people do not contribute, the TV station may have lower quality programming, or even go off the air entirely, thus producing a negative outcome for the group as a whole. However, if enough people already contribute, then it is not in anyone’s own best interest to do so, because the others will pay for the programming for them. Contributions dilemmas thus encourage people to free ride, relying on other group members to contribute for them.