Tragedy of the Commons & Game Theory

Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (

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.

It’s a prisoner’s dilemma and an arms race because two parties use an increasing amount of common resources simply to remain at a competitive advantage.

Conserve Squander
Conserve 3,3 1,4
Squander 4,1 2,2

It can also be displayed as a Hawk-Dove Game where each party hopes to gain through aggressive strategies, but if both (all) act aggressively they cause serious damage. In this table, passive would be conserving and aggressive would be squandering.

Passive Aggressive
Passive 3,3 1,5
Aggressive 5,1 0,0

Hardin offered no technical solutions to the tragedy of the commons and instead argued they require changes in human attitudes and behavior, such as sustainable development of our common resources, rather than neglecting them. This falls in line with the authors of our book who proposed social convention to predict the outcome of the game. By altering the social convention, a dominant strategy can emerge.


One thought on “Tragedy of the Commons & Game Theory”

  1. It seems very interesting that the only proposed ‘solution’ for the Tragedy of the Commons is simply to change social convention. In order for the Tragedy of the Commons to be ‘solved’ social convention would have to shift away from the kind of ‘immediate self-interest’ that many people in today’s world seek; ‘immediate self-interest’ referring to the desires that one may believe to be in their own self-interest (because the benefit to be gained appears to be readily available), though it may actually not be, due to some less immediate cost which that desire would produce (ex: eating a delicious and salty fast-food meal, because its cheap/available/tastes rich, even though there may be consequences/costs to one’s health due to the low quality/nutritional content of the food that may outweigh the benefits). To solve the Tragedy of the Commons the social convention would have to change so that people would believe that investing in common resources would be in their individual self-interest; ‘investing in common resources would allow for a more sustainable/stable social environment, which one would benefit from as a member of that social environment (with the additional externality of helping others members)’ could be a possible explanation for why that behavior would be in one’s self interest. This does appear to outline what would need to be done to inspire that kind of behavior, but I feel that the high value we in the modern world put on individual liberty/choice is inhibiting to the process of shifting social convention. The concepts of individual liberty defends the concept of ‘immediate self-interest’; no one should be able to tell you what’s best for you/what to do, you know what’s best for you/what you want to do. So, while there may be a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons it seems that there is an enormous amount of work to be done in the way people think before it can manifest itself.

Comments are closed.