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Practical example of a social dilemma

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2820 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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A social dilemma in practice.

A social dilemma (SD) is characterized by the conflict of two possible behavioral properties. In the first one a person is acting in self interest and gains the best outcome for themselves in the short run even though in the long run it will affect them and everyone else. This is referred to as non co-operation. In the second possibility, everyone co-operates to benefit in the long run even though they are tempted to think about just the present moment and that it can give them more as individuals (Van Vugt, Lange et.al 1996).In other words, an individual is tempted to perform a certain behavior, which would profit them in that very moment or give them more in comparison to others, despite the fact that in the long run it would be probably damaging to them and others. Examples of social dilemmas that are quite often mentioned in the media are global warming, water shortage, food shortage and overpopulation. In this essay the main concentration is on overpopulation with factors such as food shortage and water shortage having a great influence on the development of this social dilemma. The concentration of this essay will be on trying to understand how different psychological, structural factors such as cooperation/no-cooperation, group formation, motivation and different theories/games can be of use in understanding or to trying to solve social dilemmas such as overpopulation.

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Overpopulation is one of the most serious social dilemmas and one which is growing every day. The word overpopulation sounds as if there is not enough space on the planet; in fact there is plenty of space, however it is space that is not sufficient for living or for producing food or water. The issue is in that overpopulation is responsible for a number of problems in the world today. Problems such as food shortages, air pollution, water pollution and water shortages, amongst many others, influence our quality of life (Sample 2007). The question is, how can the scarce resources be used to provide satisfactory lifestyles, or a lifestyle that is deemed to be at least average, for everyone on this planet if the resources are limited and the population is increasing all the time? How can we prevent the population running out of drinking water due to overpopulation? At present there are around 7 billion people on this planet (Rosenberg 2010). The number of people being born is higher than the number of people dying (Sample 2007). In order to solve the problems that overpopulation is causing, it is necessary to look at how to solve the social dilemma of overpopulation.

There are numbers of unpalatable ways that give the possibility of the population being reduced. These are catastrophes such as a natural disaster, war or disease. One less drastic or controlled way to reduce population is to introduce certain rules which would maintain the population. It would mean that the number of people being born and the number of people dying is around the same, without going to extremes one way or the other.

The very important, and at the same time very difficult if not impossible task, that is facing societies today is how to manage the social dilemma of overpopulation in a way where both collectivists and individuals understand the importance of co-operation. There are a number of possible outcomes in trying to co-operate or not cooperate. The first one is when everyone co-operates and the expected outcomes are accomplished. So with this situation it would mean that every person on the planet would co-operate. The second outcome is where most people co-operate and small number do not. This would mean that depending on the number of people co-operating there is still a chance of getting closer to the desired outcome. In this case, the people who do not co-operate are better off because in our example of overpopulation they would have more children and still have a lifestyle that is acceptable and resources are not depleted. Whereas the people who do co-operate are worse off because they are sacrificing the number of children they have to save depleting resources and the lifestyle people should, on average, have. The last possible outcome is where no one co-operates and the resources are completely used and humanity suffers (Kolloc 1998).

The way social dilemmas are presented to people has a strong influence on their views and approach to it. Literature and research related to SD quite often uses tree mythical stories such as The Prisoners Dilemma, The Public Goods Dilemma and The Commons Dilemma to gain and to provide understanding of how people behave. These three stories explain SD in simple but still striking way (Kollock 1998).

The Prisoner Dilemma is a simple but very effective example of social dilemma. It involves two prisoners that have the option of co-operating with each other by not being aware of the other prisoners’ decision or defecting without talking to one another. Their sentence depends on their level of cooperation. The first option is of both of them having the highest sentence due to defecting (not cooperating with each other), the second is splitting it between both of them by cooperating and the last possible outcome is when one of them is cooperating and the other defecting and therefore the one who was cooperating ends up with a longer sentence than the one who was defecting (Daniel, Arce & Sandler 2005). As mentioned above, in the overpopulation dilemma there are four possible outcomes when it comes to cooperation. In the Prisoner Dilemma the best possible outcome is to cooperate, however the fact that other people do not know what others would do tempts them to defect and come out with the best possible outcome for themselves.

The Public Goods Game is a SD in which everyone can use public goods regardless of whether they contribute or not towards it. People who do not contribute but still use public goods are called free riders. As long as there are only a few free riders it is manageable, but if most people turn into free riders there is no contribution towards maintaining the public goods and the system collapses and everyone is worse off (Dawes 2000). In the overpopulation dilemma the goods would represent for example the limited water or the limited food on the planet to be used by everyone. Rational thinking would say that everyone should be careful with limited resources and use it wisely. This means that everyone has a certain responsibility to produce or provide a certain amount of food and use only the equivalent to what they produce. Therefore if someone uses more public goods then they produce they would be seen as free riders. If there are too many free riders, then this would lead to either other people producing even more then they should to produce for the free riders or eventually there would be not enough food left to keep an acceptable lifestyle.

The Commons Dilemma Game is where a group of herdsmen are using common land for their cows. Every herdsmen benefits from using that land even though by all of them using it the same way the land gets destroyed and they won’t be able to use it again (or at least not for a long time), therefore all of them will suffer (Dawes 2000). In overpopulation for example it can be compared to people using water without any restrictions and wasting it even when not needed. If all seven million (Rosenberg 2010) people on this planet have the same approach and use water even if not needed then the water becomes scarce and the acceptable lifestyle of people on the planet gets affected, or the water just gets all used and people would not be able to live without it.

Game theory argues that individuals are selfish actors that are motivated to utilize as much as possible for themselves. Therefore game theory predicts no-cooperation of an individual in social dilemmas and supports the Prisoners dilemma (Weber et.al.2008). Psychological theories question game theory by suggesting interventions that influence people’s attitudes and beliefs that would guide ones co-operative or non cooperative behavior (Van Vugt et.al. 1996). This could be done by increasing awareness of the problem and educating people on possible outcomes of that problem.

Attribution models argue that peoples’ selfish or co-operative approach to social dilemma depends on how they in general view other people. Their approach depends on whether they believe that people are naturally greedy or cooperative (Weber, Kopelman & Messick 2004), whereas appropriateness models question the fact that people analyze the outcome before deciding on their action. It argues that people tend to make their decisions depending on what other people around them and people important to them do (Weber et.al. 2004). Therefore, the influence would be on motivating people through suggesting that people are naturally caring, cooperative and that the individual’s decision can have either a negative or positive influence on people important to them.

Another powerful predictor is group formation and situation. The way certain groups are run can influence how people behave in a social dilemma. When people feel like they are part of a group and that they are appreciated or have a certain function in within the group, they tend to contribute more towards positive outcomes of their group and consume less from common resources that are scarce (Van Vugt & De-Cremer, 1999, Kramer & Brewer, 1984). The problem is that when social dilemmas involve two or more groups, the likelihood of cooperation is weak (Kerr, 1999). In situations where there are too many groups, electing a leader for each group is of benefit. These leaders would form a group on its own where co-operation and communication is important. These leaders are assigned to control the goods and to effectively communicate within the groups that they are leaders of as well as communicate with the group of the leader that they are part of. While there are plenty of goods, the leaders tend to be voted democratically, however when the resources are scarce, leaders with tough rules tend to be voted for (De-Cremer & Van Vugt 1999). Therefore in the overpopulation dilemma the problem is in how to manage the groups. The importance in managing a high number of groups is in communication and building trust (Osrom 1990). Constant communication within the group and in between the groups reinforces group identity. People are more likely to cooperate if they don’t feel excluded from decision making.

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Another possible explanation of why communications seems to be of benefit to co-operation is that it provides moral support and reminds the reasons why cooperation is important and what the benefits of cooperation are (Kollock 1998). However there is a negative side to communication as well. It is possible that certain groups can use communications to find out what the other groups are doing and to promise what they won’t deliver or to mislead the other groups (Osrom 1990). This can lead to selfish behavior of certain individuals or groups.

Reciprocity is a possible strategic solution to social dilemmas. Axelrod in 1984 in his The Evolution of Co-operation supported the benefits of reciprocity by providing support for the Tit-For-Tat strategy. Axelrod argued that enhancing the cooperation and positive long term outcome of people involved eliciting patterns of co-operation (Parks, Sanna & Posey 2003). It is argued that it is wise and that it pays off to co-operate. Research shows that co-operation pays off by creating better opportunities for oneself; people who cooperate are more likely to be preferred as leaders (Dawes et.al. 2000). Individuals tend to differ in whether they prefer to gain by being a part of a group (pro-socials) or if they prefer to be themselves and all gain goes to them (pro-selfers). Pro-socials tend to be more co-operative and less self concerned. They tend to help others and are less likely to cheat (Dijk, Cremer & Handgraaf 2004). Therefore pro-social people are more favorable in being the leaders.

Approaching social dilemma from a structural understanding would mean attempting to solve the dilemma by interventions that change the incentives one gets when co-operating or not co-operating (Van Vugt et.al. 1996). Interventions would involve rules, which would be expected to be followed by everyone (e.g. strict about food waste). By adjusting the environment (trying to come up with solutions for food, water etc.) and by providing reward for those who follow the rules and strict punishment for those who do not.

The dilemma is in making sure that everyone is following these rules. Taking into consideration that it would be impossible to solve the dilemma if we only ask seven billion people to control the population, the more likely way to achieve it as mentioned above is tough group formation. Groups such as continents and countries that would be broken down into smaller groups with assigned leaders to be in charge of controlling the population.

Furthermore, if the members of a group have the ability to punish defectors, it is more likely that people cooperate (Horne & Cultip 2002). Members would not want to be seen as defectors and have everyone against them, therefore they are more aware of what they should do to follow the rules of their group. However, the costs of having someone in place to monitor members’ behavior and to reward or punish them can be quite costly (Horne et.al. 2002). Research (Osrom 1990) shows, that people who tend not to trust others are willing more to invest into regulatory systems and that a considerable number of people do not mind to punish person who defect even if it does not affect their profit (Camerer & Fehr 2006). Some researchers even suggest that the need to punish is an evolved mechanism in humans (Dawkins 1990). Studies show that when there are plenty of goods, groups tend to appoint a leader since they want someone to have a control over the distribution of the goods (Van Vuht et.al. 1999). As mentioned before, when there is an abundance goods, democratic leaders tends to be appointed, whereas when the resources are limited, a stronger leader is appointed (Daniel et.al. 2005). It is important to have a leader that people trust and who is fair in order for the members of the group to accept the leader (Daniel et.al. 2005). Camerer and Fehr (2006) in their research on games related to social dilemmas found that when the games are at the end the co-operation decreases. For example, people would co-operate all the way through with food and water waste, so they are seen as good members, or not defectors. However the closer to the end of the resources they get, they would become selfish and want to accumulate as much for themselves as possible.

Another effective way of co-operation is to keep the groups small. In larger groups members can feel less responsible and can get away with defecting (Kollock 1998). As noted, overpopulation involves around seven billion people from which most of them have to co-operate and as mentioned before a number of groups have to be formed. However, if major groups, for example, are continents and these groups have their own groups of countries, cities etc. than with all the rules followed solving overpopulation should be possible. Another possibility is look at the impacts overpopulation has on water, food etc and divide these into groups of concentration but that would be a completely different approach.

In conclusion social dilemmas provide deeper understanding of human nature and behavior. Through social dilemmas and through the problems that arise with them, humanity learns how to deal with difficult situations and what to expect from people in certain situations, such as when the goods are scarce. In order to solve social dilemmas it is important to consider all the above mentioned factors. The emphasis is on moving from laboratory testing to real life, to look at psychological, structural and strategic solutions all together; to realize that in dilemmas such as overpopulation, rules, groups and understanding how people think play a crucial role without which positive outcomes would not be possible. Both structural and psychological features are important in solving social dilemma of overpopulation. It is not enough to just apply rules and threat as well as it is not enough to just try to educate people, these features have to be combine in order to get close to solving the overpopulation dilemma. Overpopulation is a social dilemma because in theory it is easier to plan how it should be solved, however in real life it is much more difficult if not impossible.


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