Such individualism is not unique to the individualistic culture of America. Edney’s findings are supported in other cross cultural studies. In Japan, a collectivistic culture, Kaori Sato (1987)vii gave participants opportunities to plant and harvest trees from a simulated forest for money. When the students shared the costs of planting the trees, the result was much like those in Western (individualistic) cultures: trees (the stock) were prematurely harvested before they had grown to their most profitable size.
What many studies seem to point out, is that lack of regulations and partitioning of resources, the resource pool – the commons – more often than not tends to be abused.
As a bag of sweets is passed between a group of ten children in the playground, it is likely that some children will take more – or less – than some others, than when a bunch of 10 lollipops is shared. Another popular example to illustrate the social dilemmas is the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Rapoport, 1969)viii.
It is similar in the way that cooperation and communication is needed in order to achieve the most desirable outcome, or the outcome with the least loss.
The name is derived from an imaginary situation between two suspects questioned separately while awaiting trial. They are both as guilty as the other, and they have the option to confess and inform on the other, so as to receive a lighter sentence. If neither suspect confesses, each will receive a light sentence. If both confess, both will receive a moderately severe sentence.
However, if one confesses and the other doesn’t, the other will be severely sentenced while the confessor walks free. Both prisoners understand this, and the obvious solution is that neither of them confesses. And here lies the social trap: they have no chance of communication so each will have to make their decision independently; the dilemma is this: can they trust their accomplice not to inform? Their predicament is outlined in a matrix.
The outcome of each suspect is dependant on both his own behaviour, and that of his accomplice’s. As they have no way of guaranteeing that their accomplice would not inform on them, they would confess to minimize their own sentence, despite the fact that joint confessions brings forth more severe sentences than neither confessing at all. If one studies the matrix, one can see that no matter what the other prisoner decides, one would be better off confessing i.e. the one confessing would either have a lighter sentence than the other, or the same sentence as the other – no loss. Again, cooperation and communication are the key factors in achieving a desirable mutual – and individual – goal.
So how can these social traps and dilemmas be resolved, so as to protect our natural environment? In the case of the commons dilemma, one solution is the organisation of group action, and putting in place regulations and other external controls. When reflecting on the tragedy of the Commons, Hardin wrote: Ruin is the destination to which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. (1968)
Studies and history shows that when faced with an overused resource, people tend to elect a leader and restrict individual choices for the good of the collective group. Example: The International Whaling Commission sets an agreed-upon “harvest” that enables whales to regenerate. Another solution is to educate people about the future consequences of their actions upon the natural environment, but this has limited effectiveness, depending on the media of information and the way education is delivered. Also, subdivision of the commons, or resource pool is proven to be effective, as it decreases the diffusion of responsibility. Communication is also a key factor in changing the people’s attitudes to environment. Is there is sufficient communication, they would have trust in one another so they feel like they are competing for resources.