Voluntary cooperation and monitoring lead to success

Nov 11, 2010

Many imminent problems facing the world today, such as deforestation, overfishing, or climate change, can be described as commons problems. The solution to these problems requires cooperation from hundreds and thousands of people. Such large scale cooperation, however, is plagued by the infamous cooperation dilemma.

According to the standard prediction, in which each individual follows only his own interests, large-scale is impossible because free riders enjoy common benefits without bearing the cost of their provision. Yet, extensive field evidence indicates that many communities are able to manage their commons, albeit with varying degrees of success. How do we explain this variation in management outcomes? How do different levels of cooperation emerge and what contributes to their success?

The economist Prof. Michael Kosfeld examined these questions together with his colleagues Devesh Rustagi and Prof. Stefanie Engel from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich. The answer: The degree of voluntary cooperation together with the monitoring of free riders plays a key role in the success of commons management.

In their field study, details of which are published in the November 12 issue of the journal Science, the researchers analyzed a major forest commons management program launched to save the biodiversity rich Afro-montane ecosystem and the livelihood of the Bale Oromo pastoralists in Ethiopia. The team was particularly interested in the degree of conditional cooperation in a group. This means that group members are willing to cooperate voluntarily provided that others cooperate as well. Numerous behavioral experiments with student participants have shown that conditional cooperation plays a significant role in solving the dilemma of cooperation. However, so far no evidence exists which corroborates the relevance of conditional cooperation in the field with actual commons users. The researchers' objective was to provide exactly this evidence.

The economists conducted behavioral cooperation-experiments with 679 members from 49 different forest user groups in which they elicited the group members' willingness to cooperate voluntarily. They found that groups differ widely in their share of conditional cooperators, from 0 % to 88 %. In groups with lower share of conditional cooperators, free rider share was high. To examine how this impacts forest management success, the team ran a variety of statistical analyses which showed that groups with larger share of conditional cooperators were much more successful in managing their forests. The success of a group was determined by the number of trees of intermediate height per hectare. Trees of this kind are vital for the sustainable growth of the forest.

But why are groups with larger share of conditional cooperators more successful at forest management? To entangle this puzzle, the trio looked at the time spent by group members in monitoring their forest. They found that groups with higher share of conditional cooperators not only cooperate more but also monitor more by conducting patrols through the forest. Such patrols are important for the detection and deterrence of free riding. A group with 60 % conditional cooperators was likely to spend on average 14 hours more per month in monitoring than a group without any conditional cooperators. Devesh Rustagi, a post-doc at the Institute for Environmental Decisions, says "this finding is interesting, as it shows that conditional cooperators are willing to spend resources to detect individuals who free ride at their expense. It provides a behavioral link in explaining monitoring as a success mechanism in commons management".

"The results of our study provide first-time evidence that conditional cooperation which has been identified in many laboratory experiments before plays a key role in a concrete case of commons management in the field," explains Michael Kosfeld, Director of the Frankfurt Laboratory of Experimental Economics at Goethe-University. "Our findings fill a long-standing gap between field and laboratory studies on human cooperation."

The results also shed light on the evolution of human cooperation. They show a positive co-variation between conditional cooperation and costly monitoring. This is in line with the theory of gene-culture evolution, which predicts higher cooperation in groups where enforcement of cooperation is prevalent.

"The results yield important policy implications for the governance of human collective action", explains Rustagi. "Because humans differ in their motivation to cooperate, an effective solution to commons problems should not be based on incentives for purely self-regarding individuals alone but needs to explicitly take into account the complex interplay of heterogeneous motivations and behavioral norms to cooperate voluntarily".

Prof. Stefanie Engel from the Institute for Environmental Decisions at ETH Zurich concludes: "Given that the UN has declared 2010 as the year of biodiversity and 2011 the year of forests, the results may in fact open new doors to find solutions to commons problems, which house nearly 18% of the world's forests and a large share of biodiversity".

Explore further: Less privileged kids shine at university, according to study

Provided by Goethe University Frankfurt

1 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Statistcal Physics Offers Insight Into Moral Behavior

May 06, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- It seems a little strange for statistical physicists to consider questions of morality in behavior. However, that is is just what a study at ETH in Zurich, Switzeralnd, is doing. Led by Dirk Helbing, the ...

Moralists have the last laugh

May 11, 2010

Over-fishing, tax evasion, freeriding: the Tragedy of the Commons happens again and again. A computer model now offers new insights into the way our society functions.

Marching to the beat of the same drum improves teamwork

Jan 28, 2009

Armies train by marching in step. Religions around the world incorporate many forms of singing and chanting into their rituals. Citizens sing the National Anthem before sporting events. Why do we participate in these various ...

How to create less selfish societies?

Feb 06, 2009

(GPEARI, Portugal) -- Cooperation, despite being now considered the third force of evolution, just behind mutation and natural selection, is difficult to explain in the context of an evolutionary process based on competition ...

Nepotism has its benefits when it comes to survival

Oct 26, 2009

While nepotism may have negative connotations in politics and the workplace, being surrounded by your relatives does lead to better group dynamics and more cooperation in some animals. That certainly seems ...

Recommended for you

Why are UK teenagers skipping school?

Dec 18, 2014

Analysis of the results of a large-scale survey reveals the extent of truancy in English secondary schools and sheds light on the mental health of the country's teens.

Fewer lectures, more group work

Dec 18, 2014

Professor Cees van der Vleuten from Maastricht University is a Visiting Professor at Wits University who believes that learning should be student centred.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.