Oxford Martin School Seminar: Robert Rogers and Paul Van Lange on Social Dilemmas

In a joint event on November 15th, Prof Robert Rogers and Prof Paul van Lange presented their scientific work related to social dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are situations in which private interests conflict with collective interests. This means that people facing a social dilemma have to decide whether to prioritise either their own short-term interests or the long-term interests of a group. Many real-life situations are social dilemmas. For example, as individuals we would (economically) benefit from using public motorways without paying taxes to maintain them, but if all acted according to their self-interest, no motorways would be built and the whole society would be worse off. In the academic literature, the three types of social dilemmas that are discussed most prominently are the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons. All three types have been modelled as experimental games, and research from different fields like psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics uses these games to tackle the question of under which conditions people are willing to cooperate with one another in social dilemmas, instead of maximising their self-interest. The ultimate goal of such research is to be able to give recommendations about how to solve social dilemmas in society.

Robert Rogers, who is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Bangor University gave a talk entitled ‘Serotonin influences the use of social norms in resource dilemmas: experimental and clinical observations’. In this work, Prof Rogers focuses on the Tragedy of the Commons, which refers to the depletion of a shared resource by individuals who act according to their own short-term interest, even though they know that depleting the resource conflicts with the long-term interest of the collective. (Overfishing and the overuse of non-renewable energy resources are modern-day resource dilemmas.) Prof Rogers asks the question how physiological factors – in particular serotonin – affect how people manage resources. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates different functions like mood and learning, and alterations in serotonin levels are associated with depression. Building on work that has shown that levels of serotonin in the human body also influence social behaviour, Prof Rogers presented a series of laboratory experiments that demonstrate that lowered levels of serotonin influence people’s behaviour in Tragedy of the Commons situations. In particular, he showed that serotonin influences the degree to which people adhere to social norms in this context: that is, the proportion of a resource that it is seen as socially acceptable to harvest by a certain group determines how much individual group members harvest themselves. This, in turn, means that serotonin levels affect how quickly a resource gets depleted by a group. Prof Rogers’ results allow us to connect an understanding of the neurobiology of social functions to decisions about the use of shared resources and their sustainability.

The second talk, entitled ‘Prosociality and trust’ was given by Paul van Lange, who is Professor of Social Psychology and Chair of the Department of Social and Organizational Psychology at the VU University Amsterdam. (Prof Van Lange’s talk is available on YouTube! Click here.) Complementing the neurobiological perspective on social dilemmas provided by Prof Rogers, Prof Van Lange added a mainly social psychological one. He presented his work on two other factors that can influence how cooperatively people behave in social dilemma situations, namely social value orientation and trust. First, Prof Van Lange showed that people differ systematically in how they approach social dilemmas depending on a basic behavioural tendency regarding how to allocate resources between themselves and others – their social value orientation. People with a prosocial orientation aim for joint outcomes and equality in outcomes, and tend to cooperate in social dilemmas. People classified as individualistic, however, primarily pursue their self-interest and try to maximise their own (absolute) outcome. People with a competitive tendency aim for relative advantage compared to others: like individualists, they try to maximize their own outcomes, but at the same time they also seek to minimize the outcomes for others. About 50-60% of people have a prosocial orientation, 20-30% are individualists, and – quite strikingly – 10-15% are competitors. Prof Van Lange presented a line of research showing that which social value orientation people express varies with life factors like their age and the number of siblings they have. Moreover, he showed that social value orientation is associated with fundamental characteristics like people’s political orientation, their attitude towards procedural justice or (for students) which subject they are studying, but also how “socially mindful” they are in their behaviour towards others. Second, Prof Van Lange introduced trust, which has been defined as “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon the positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another”. In contrast to social value orientation, trust seems to be a more “plastic” variable that is shaped by contextual influences like culture. When they have only incomplete knowledge about the social situation they are in, people tend to overestimate others’ selfish tendencies which, in turn, leads to less cooperative behaviour. Hence, raising trust seems to be a key to enhancing cooperative behaviour in social dilemmas.

Overall, in this seminar we have learned how neurobiological factors like serotonin and psychological factors like social value orientation and trust shape how people behave in social dilemmas. This event was organised by the Oxford Martin School, the Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship, and the Institute of Science and Ethics, and was chaired by Prof Julian Savulescu.

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