A short piece in the New York Times by Harvard economists and Yale psychologists has a suggestion that may surprise you – or maybe not – about people’s motivation to cooperate.

The authors focus on the “tragedy of the commons” which is the situation “where individuals acting independently and rationally according to each’s self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource.”

They argue that for people faced with a choice that would benefit them at the expense of the whole group, reputational concerns generally have greater impact than material incentives.

They write, “When your choices are observable by others, it makes it possible for good actions to benefit your reputation.  Similarly, norms make you feel you’re expected to cooperate in a given situation, and that people may think poorly of you if they learn you are not doing your part.”

By contrast, they argue that material incentives often are too small to make a difference and that getting material benefits “muddies the reputational benefits of cooperating.”

These are very broad generalizations and, even in their own terms, the effects depend on the amount of the respective benefits and costs.

Moreover, the authors don’t discuss other possible motivations, such as a desire to act consistently with one’s values and self-image.

Consider a Concrete Example

To test the authors’ theory, consider what affects your decisions about what cars you choose.

Consider the common need to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.  If all drivers used more fuel-efficient cars, that would benefit us all.  Yet there seems to be a taste in the US for less efficient cars despite their effect on the environment.

When gas prices go up dramatically and stay high for a while, I think there is a trend toward buying more efficient cars.   When the prices recede, we seem to return to choosing less efficient cars.

If you have a relatively efficient car, how much of your choice was due to your financial self-interest and how much was due to a desire to be seen as environmentally-sensitive (or to gain some other positive reputation)?   Did you choose that car because it makes you feel good because you are acting consistently with your values?

Conversely, if you have a relatively inefficient car (and you don’t have to regularly haul around lots of people or stuff), how much more would you have to pay to acquire it or fuel it before you would consider getting a more efficient car?  Do you care if others view you negatively for being wasteful?  Do you feel that you get a positive reputation for having a bigger car?   Never mind how others think of you, did you choose that car because it makes you feel good about yourself?

How do you think that others in your social circles view these choices? What about various segments of the American population?

Getting back to the NYT article, do you agree with the authors’ general theory?


John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus and former director of the LLM Program in Dispute Resolution, at the University of Missouri, School of Law. He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an avid writer and contributor to Indisputably.org