How Do Groups Solve Local Commons Dilemmas? Lessons from Experimental Economics in the Field

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Abstract

The use of experimental settings to observe human behaviour in a controlled environment of incentives, rules and institutions, has been widely used by the behavioural sciences for sometime now, particularly by psychology and economics. In most cases the subjects are college students recruited for one to two hour decision making exercises in which, depending on their choices, they earn cash averaging US$ 20. In such exercises players face a set of feasible actions, rules and incentives (payoffs) involving different forms of social exchange with other people, and that in most cases involve some kind of externalities with incomplete contracts, such as in the case of common-pool resources situations. Depending on the ecological and institutional settings, the resource users face a set of feasible levels of extraction, a set of rules regarding the control or monitoring of individual use, and sometimes ways of imposing material or non-material costs or rewards to those breaking or following the rules. We brought the experimental lab to the field and invited about two hundred users of natural resources in three Colombian rural villages to participate in such decision making exercises and through these and other research instruments we learned about the ways they solve - or fail to - tragedies of the commons with different social institutions. Further, bringing the lab to the field allowed us to explore some of the limitations of existing models about human behaviour and its consequences for designing policies for conserving ecosystems and improving social welfare.