Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 1197–1215 | Cite as

Intergroup Cooperation in Common Pool Resource Dilemmas

  • Jathan SadowskiEmail author
  • Susan G. Spierre
  • Evan Selinger
  • Thomas P. Seager
  • Elizabeth A. Adams
  • Andrew Berardy
Original Paper


Fundamental problems of environmental sustainability, including climate change and fisheries management, require collective action on a scale that transcends the political and cultural boundaries of the nation-state. Rational, self-interested neoclassical economic theories of human behavior predict tragedy in the absence of third party enforcement of agreements and practical difficulties that prevent privatization. Evolutionary biology offers a theory of cooperation, but more often than not in a context of discrimination against other groups. That is, in-group boundaries are necessarily defined by those excluded as members of out-groups. However, in some settings human’s exhibit behavior that is inconsistent with both rational economic and group driven cooperation of evolutionary biological theory. This paper reports the results of a non-cooperative game-theoretic exercise that models a tragedy of the commons problem in which groups of players may advance their own positions only at the expense of other groups. Students enrolled from multiple universities and assigned to different multi-university identity groups participated in experiments that repeatedly resulted in cooperative outcomes despite intergroup conflicts and expressions of group identity. We offer three possible explanations: (1) students were cooperative because they were in an academic setting; (2) students may have viewed their instructors as the out-group; or (3) the emergence of a small number of influential, ethical leaders is sufficient to ensure cooperation amongst the larger groups. From our data and analysis, we draw out lessons that may help to inform approaches for institutional design and policy negotiations, particularly in climate change management.


Cooperation Tragedy of the commons Collective action Sustainability Climate change 



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1134943. The Global Institute for Sustainability at ASU also provided support. We thank Shirley Augustin for coding the data for Fig. 1 and Albert Stanton for research assistance. Two anonymous reviewers provided comments that strengthened the whole article. We’re indebted to David S. Wilson for invaluable feedback on this manuscript as well as to an editor at the magazine Evolution: This View of Life who provided comments on a previous article that explored similar themes. For fruitful conversation we thank: Kyle P. Whyte, Ben Hale, Robb Eason, Larry Nies, Bill Guschwan, Bert Cohen, Jay Banna, Scott McClintock, and Nicholas Hohman.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jathan Sadowski
    • 1
    Email author
  • Susan G. Spierre
    • 4
  • Evan Selinger
    • 3
  • Thomas P. Seager
    • 2
  • Elizabeth A. Adams
    • 2
  • Andrew Berardy
    • 4
  1. 1.Consortium for Science, Policy and OutcomesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built EnvironmentArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  3. 3.Philosophy and Graduate Program Faculty, Golisano Institute for SustainabilityRochester Institute of TechnologyHenriettaUSA
  4. 4.Global Institute of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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