There are many questions explored in a variety of fields, and one of the most fascinating is the theory known as “game theory”. It is a collection of mathematical models designed to predict human behavior, with emphasis on decision making in an economic relation. The combination of psychology and mathematics brings a fascinating insight into the way we conduct ourselves. One of the ideas behind the game theory is that in many cases our private considerations are in line with broad social interests, however, in other cases private and general interests are seen as contradictory due to the limit of resources and the injustice of distribution. But the approach of game theory takes into account that, with proper management, resources can be a source of abundance – perhaps not infinite, but certainly continuous and growing and then individuals’ interests intersect.
The phenomenon of “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been first introduced in 1968 by Garret Hardin. Simply put, the theory explains how individual psychology leads us to make impulsive decisions that ultimately contradict our personal interests. At the same time, it is clear that humans are also equipped with common sense that can overcome the inherent failures of game theory decision-making models and build stable life systems over time despite behaving contrary to the common good. The beauty of the game theory is that when we are looking to maximizing our personal interests over time, we don’t have to do anything else. The benefit of the whole society will be happening naturally. The equilibrium bar scene in the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’, the famous film about the life of the American mathematician John Nash who made fundamental contributions to game theory, presents a scenario in which by ignoring the blond girl, none of the other girls get offended and that is eventually the ultimate solution.
The Game Theory and the Tragedy of the Commons
The most basic rule of the game theory is that every person is driven by the desire to maximize profits. This assumption makes the world looks like a scene of a constant struggle between individuals. For example, as seen in the video, if a number of fishermen live near a pond where the population of fish is limited, it is in the interest of every fisherman to catch as many fish as possible each working day. But the game theory presents a different logic.
According to the example in the video, there are 12 fish in the pond and 4 fishermen who try to make a living. Every night the fish multiply and each pair add one fish to the pond, so in the morning the four fishermen come to the pool with 16 fish. In this situation, it is in the interest of each fisherman to capture only one fish, in order to keep the original population at 12. In any scenario where someone fishes more, the population will not be able to recover the breeding rate and within a few days, the fish will disappear completely from the pond. The fishermen will remain without any resources, and even if one catches all 16, after two weeks they will be left without food. The conclusion is that when we think of personal interests in relation to finite resources, we must embrace a viable strategy – and this will usually benefit the society as well.
The Tragedy of the Commons begins when every person thinks: “Well, my neighbors will probably want to fish more fish and leave me to die, so I’ll catch as much as I can.” And since all fishermen exercise a similar approach, they fish all fishes and eliminate the population in a short time. This approach, for instance, is one of the major causes of the climate damage caused to our the earth since the beginning of industrialization. This is how forests are cut down, species extinct, air pollution is created, and so on. The nickname for the phenomenon was coined by 19th-century British economist William Foster Floyd, who illustrated how peasants could turn public pasture into a pitted field, each trying to maximize its immediate benefit.
Humans in this context are dual beings. On the one hand, we are the greatest opportunists looking to constantly move forward. Once we recognize that something is a resource that can be used, we go out of our way to make the most of it. Think about – oil, corn, wheat, gas, salt, fabric, meat, milk, cattle, metal, etc. Our opportunism pushes us to take advantage of everything we can, and as quickly as possible. This is our impulsive side.
On the other hand, we are social animals with the highest cognitive functions, including long-term planning ability. When we identify a resource and want to take advantage of it, sometimes we begin to realize that with proper planning, it can be more profitable, certainly when we collaborate with others. While other animals looked at a rock and for millions of years saw rock and nothing else, we looked at the same rock but over time we began to see other things too.
The Tragedy of the Commons is at play – Coronavirus (pandemics), climate change, and global conflicts
The Tragedy of the Commons is at play indeed. The coronavirus, the global climate issues, and the geopolitical tensions have created the distinction of humans from a united social system. The coronavirus is a great example of how the game of theory and the tragedy of commons apply to our society. At the end of the day, any person has the right to choose the way of behavior at times of pandemics, although the actions might harm society. But if one decides to go out and might infect other people, the outcome might end the same as… the tragedy of the commons.
Environmental issues and global conflicts have the same rule of thumb. Conflict can escalate after action by an individual who could not obey the rules set to keep the peace and order. For example, the immediate cause for World War 1 was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his pregnant wife Sophie by a nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip.
A global pandemic such as the coronavirus creates a tragedy of the commons when self-interest contradicts the actions that need to be taken for the greater good. The question is what is the right balance between the social order and the desires of an individual in a society and can it be done in a global system similar to the one that we live in today. Short-term optimization may seem like a good idea at a given moment, but while the motto of “living the moment” is good for some things, it is less appropriate for our biological lives, which are conducted as a continuous process far into the future. There are concrete examples for both sides. A true anarchist individual, for example, might reflect the opposite mindset of the tragedy of the commons by opposing any state institution. But moreover, Capitalist owners have the opposite incentive as they have a goal to maximize their profit regardless of the impact on the commonwealth.
Greed is a common and inevitable part of human nature, and humans’ intentions are not necessarily bad. Like other creatures, we are programmed to use the environment in order to thrive. Would you say about a beautiful big flower that it exploits the services of butterflies to grow and spread? Like any other creature, we have the same qualities and faults. We have received both this and that, and more importantly – the ability to reflect on our various capabilities and examine how to use them wisely. Game theory is a clear expression of the benefits of impulsivity versus long term observation, and the conclusion, according to this approach, is that whatever is good for an individual is good for both the common and the environment.