Building Trust to Solve Commons Dilemmas: Taking Small Steps to Test an Evolving Theory of Collective Action

  • Elinor Ostrom
Part of the Springer Series in Game Theory book series (SSGT)


Extensive field research has found that when users of a resource do gain good feedback about the effect of their actions on a resource and can build norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness, they are frequently able to craft new institutions to solve puzzling dilemmas. We need to ask: How do different kinds of institutions support or undermine norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness? The finding from many field studies throughout the world that monitoring and graduated sanctions are close to universal in all robust common-pool resource (CPR) institutions is important as it tells us that without some external support of such institutions it is unlikely that reciprocity alone will allow individuals to solve CPR problems over time. On the other hand, the sanctions are graduated rather than initially severe. The current theory of crime deterrence – based on strict expected value theory – does not explain the graduated nature of these sanctions. But if people can learn to value trust and reciprocity and use them as fundamental norms for organizing their lives, they can agree on a set of rules that they agree to follow. Then graduated sanctions are a way of informing those, who have made an error or faced some emergency temptation, that others are watching and, if someone else were to break a rule, they would likely be observed. Thus, continuing to follow a positive norm of reciprocity is reasonable and it is then feasible to build trust over the long term.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elinor Ostrom
    • 1
  1. 1.Workshop in Political Theory and Policy AnalysisIndiana UniversityINUSA

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