Alleviating the tragedy of the commons

Measures for protecting common goods – such as mitigating climate change or not overexploiting natural resources – are collectively beneficial, yet costly to the individual stakeholders that must invest in them. Common goods may thus be jeopardized by selfish agents, resulting in social dilemmas that often follow a pattern known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

The tragedy, however, is not inevitable. There are abundant cases of common goods, even with weak regulatory regimes, that are thriving. In 2017, the Equitable Governance of Common Goods (EGCG) project focused on unpacking the complexities that characterize common-good governance based on predictions from game theory, plural rationality, and bounded rationality. This was accomplished through case studies, experimental games, experiential games, and agent-based and stylized models.

EGCG case studies provide evidence for the hypothesis that understanding and resolving the governance challenges associated with common goods require accounting for a plurality of values and preferences among stakeholders. In particular, it necessitates accounting for the four socially determined worldviews suggested by the theory of plural rationality: empirical studies have suggested that worldviews observed across a wide array of thematic domains and social contexts tend to cluster into individualistic, hierarchical, egalitarian, and fatalistic perspectives.

Among many case studies, the EGCG case on forest management in Nepal was one of the project’s highlights in 2017. In 1979, the World Bank predicted that by 2000, ‘no accessible forests will remain in Nepal’ [1]. Today, however, Nepalese forests are flourishing. This success story is attributed to Nepal’s community-based approach to forest conservation, which balances commercial timber interests with community control and entitlement conferred on forest user groups, all subject to stringent government regulation [2]. The Nepalese case study is embedded in a larger effort to rethink development aid in Nepal [3]. The rationale behind this new approach is that constructive and argumentative engagement of stakeholders with their plural rationalities is crucial for the governance of common goods.

With a focus on forest governance, the EGCG project has also devised three experimental games that explore the key predictions on common-good governance from game theory, plural rationality, and bounded rationality.

In 2017, the project highlighted the results from the first of these Forest Games [4]. The game demonstrates differential correlations between the average forest condition resulting from a group’s harvesting and its average rationality or worldview, as revealed through a questionnaire developed by the researchers. The findings indicate that egalitarian worldviews improve a group’s ability to preserve a forest (positive correlation), whereas individualistic and hierarchical worldviews have the opposite effect (negative correlations).

In the absence of options for real-world hands-on learning, ‘serious role-playing games’ can effectively provide simulated real-world experiences. For this purpose, the EGCG project has developed several experiential games related to common-good governance.

The Water-Food-Energy Nexus Game, for example, which was jointly developed by the EGCG project and the IIASA Water Program, is an integrated simulation game that addresses the interrelated challenges of water, food, and energy production [5]. This game not only underscores the social dilemma involved in governing water as a common good, but also shows the added complexity of interrelated (nexus) issues with food and energy production.

In addition to the above, EGCG research strives to elucidate how the four worldviews recognized by the theory of plural rationality interact and how governance regimes – emerging bottom-up or imposed top-down – promote the successful management of common goods.

Another 2017 project highlight was the development and analysis of a first game-theoretical model of social dynamics under plural rationality. The researchers studied governance agendas whose alignments with individualistic, hierarchical, and egalitarian worldviews can change dynamically based on stakeholder influences. While the model is relatively simple, its dynamics are surprisingly rich, exhibiting several phenomena predicted by theory, such as the endogenous self-organized emergence of plural rationalities and cyclic social dynamics. The model results show how insufficiently inclusive governance agendas are constantly being undermined, leading to perpetual social change through which different worldviews become intermittently dominant.


[1] World Bank (1979). Nepal: Development, Performance and Prospects. A World Bank Country Study. South Asia Regional Office, World Bank.

[2] Ojha H (2017). Community forestry: Thwarting desertification and facing second-generation problems. In Gyawali D, Thompson M, Verweij M (eds.) Aid, Technology and Development: The Lessons from Nepal. Earthscan Routledge, pp. 185–200.

[3] Gyawali D, Thompson M, Verweij M (eds.) (2017). Aid, Technology and Development: The Lessons from Nepal. Earthscan Routledge.

[4] Bednarik P, Linnerooth-Bayer J, Magnuszewski P, Dieckmann U (in review). A game of common-pool resource management: The effects of communication, risky environments, and worldviews.

[5] Mochizuki J, Magnuszewski P, Linnerooth-Bayer J (2017). Games for aiding stakeholder deliberation on nexus policy issues. Invited position paper for the Dresden Nexus Conference, 17–19 May 2017, Dresden, Germany.


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