Trust, Fairness, Shared Identity

Writing in The New Scientist, Mark van Vugt of the VU University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands examines the social psychology of successful commons. His piece, "Triumph of the Commons: Helping the World to Share," proposes "four key conditions for the successful management of shared environmental resources: information, identity, institutions and incentives," or what he calls the 4i framework. (Thanks to Silke Helfrich of for passing this along!)

If the recurring problem with the commons is "free riders" who use or abuse a common resource at the expense of everyone else, then the commoners need to devise better antidotes to free-riding.

In industrialized countries, we have historically turned to institutional solutions: government regulation. But the problem with regulatory agencies — or other institutional remedies — is that they simply push the free-rider problem back to another level. "Who watches the watchdog?" becomes the new challenge — and corporate scofflaws end up being successful free riders (by emitting more pollution, failing to ascertain chemical risks, etc.). There appears to be no enduring structural solution to the problem of institutional oversight — just greater vigilance.

Another important tool for securing the commons, writes van Vugt, is information. Information can help dispel uncertainties and in so doing, improve decision-making. But again, information is no panacea. It needs to be presented properly.

For example, when people are presented with local information about an environmental problem — rather than complex information about a global problem — they are more likely to change their behavior. Simple ratings systems for the energy efficiency of household applications are more likely to change consumer buying habits than more complex research.

The third key factor in managing a commons is social identity. I find this one the most compelling. When people have trust in each other and a sense of fairness about decisions made (partly because of transparency of process), they are more likely to support the final decisions and call out cheaters. Social norms affect how we behave.

Utilities have shown that people will decrease their electricity usage when their monthly bills shows how their usage compares to their neighbors. If people feel connected to their communities, they are more likely to use less water during a drought.

Finally, there are incentive. Van Vugt notes that subsidies and fines can encourage people to protect the environment. But incentives can be tricky, he writes:

My own research on domestic water use indicates the economic incentives make little difference when people are already prepared to do their bit for the environment. Sanctions can even be counterproductive if they are considered unfair and distort people’s understanding of an environmental problem as essentially an economic one. For example, if people feel that they pay through the nose to run a car, they may be more likely to believe that they should be able to drive as much as they like.