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Cooperating with the future

This is a guest post by Oliver P. Hauser & David G. Rand.

“It often strikes me that the complex problems we face in the world – problems of corruption, environment, politics, and so on – almost always indicate a failure of moral ethics and inner values. … The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on the global environment was, sadly, an example of how, when parties fail to look beyond their own narrow self-interest, cooperation becomes impossible.”

— The Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Do we have a moral responsibility to sustain the planet for future generations? The Dalai Lama, in the quotation above, gives an almost unequivocal ‘yes’. But a cursory understanding of economics shows us that it’s not just about morality – or at least, that morality doesn’t always have the final word. We, today’s decision-makers, are simply better off economically if we harvest all resources today without thinking about the future. To state the economic, ‘rational’ argument in bald terms: why leave something for the future if we won’t benefit from it?

This is where our research started. We wanted to find out whether people, when faced with the option to keep resources for themselves or to pass them on to future generations, would look out only for themselves – or if, at their own cost, they would provide for people in the future whom they would never meet. Along with our colleagues Alex Peysakhovich and Martin Nowak of Harvard University, we set up an online experiment to discover the answer.

We recruited approximately 3,000 Americans from the online labour market Amazon Mechanical Turk. Every participant was randomly assigned to a group of 5 people who didn’t know each other. Then everyone in the group (or ‘generation’) had to decide whether they would extract money from a common resource. Extractions were made according to one of two rules: either each person decided how much to extract independently, or extractions for the whole group were determined by a democratic vote. (The first rule is intuitive, and we will get to more details on the second one in a moment.)

In both cases, we summed up how much the generation extracted altogether. If the total amount extracted was below a commonly known threshold (i.e., if people showed enough restraint), the resource would be renewed to full capacity and another group of 5 people (the ‘next generation’) would be faced with the same dilemma. If, however, the total amount extracted was above the threshold, the resource would collapse, leaving all future generations empty-handed. To make sure our participants took this decision seriously, we actually paid them the amount they extracted – so, if all they cared about was their own benefit, they had every incentive to be selfish!

Want to see the game in action? Nature summarised our paper in a handy 3-minute video:

When we let participants make their extraction decisions individually, the resource collapsed quickly and completely. But there was also a glimpse of hope: the majority of participants in each group were making cooperative decisions. Presumably they were hoping that others would do so too. But a minority of selfish people who extracted more than was sustainable ruined the resource for everyone in the future.

Since most people actually wanted sustainability, we thought democracy might result in better outcomes than this free-for-all. So, we recruited more subjects and changed the rules of the game: this time, participants voted on how much each person would extract from the resource. The majority’s vote was then implemented for the whole group. And the result was striking: the resource was almost always sustained generation after generation – sometimes up to fourteen consecutive generations!

What we found particularly fascinating is that voting not only dramatically changed the prospects for future generations – it also influenced how people acted in the present. When voting was implemented, a larger proportion of participants made a cooperative decision. In other words, voting boosted the confidence of the cooperators who might otherwise have been on the fence to join together in helping the future.

Importantly, however, these benefits of voting only occurred when the vote was binding for all parties. We ran another experiment where 3 of the 5 group members voted (and were bound by the vote’s outcome), while 2 people could do whatever they wanted. In this partial voting setting, things were just about as bad as the no voting free-for-all: the resource quickly collapsed.

Overall, we believe our findings are encouraging. They demonstrate that many people are willing to forgo their own benefits in the here and now to give the future a chance. This is in stark contradiction of traditional rational theories of economic thought, and is part of a wave of converging evidence that people have social preferences and care for the wellbeing of others – a finding that can be leveraged in designing policies and institutions for the public good.

Furthermore, our experiments indicate that institutional design can help to shape the decisions people make, when done properly. The fact that more people chose to cooperate when decisions were voted on than made individually, and that this effect was undermined by partial voting, suggests that the full voting institution affected their behaviour. So did the selection of the ‘right’ institution make more people feel a sense of moral responsibility towards the future? Or did we simply give those who already felt morally responsible towards the future the confidence and agency to empower generations to come? Future research will help answer these questions.

At the end of the day, everyone has to decide for themselves what it means to be morally responsible towards the resources we share. But whether or not providing for the future is a moral responsibility, we believe a nudge from the right kind of institutions won’t hurt – and can actually do a lot of good.


Find out more about this research:

Hauser*, Rand*, Peysakhovich & Nowak (2014). Cooperating with the future. Nature 511, 220-223.

Putterman (2014). Behavioural economics: A caring majority secures the future. Nature 511, 165-166.

Nature Videos: Handing on a sustainable future.


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3 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting study…But I think these results aren’t quite so heartening as you make them out to be. You interpret the results as indicating a mere ‘nudge’ can promote sustainability; however, democratic regimes are fare from mere nudges – they are coercive and incredibly difficult to leverage for some of the most pressing problems facing the world today. Indeed, the further finding that *partial* democracy still leads to collapse gives us reason to be very pessimistic about the prospect of global sustainability.

    Consider: there is no world government, nor will there be any time soon. A full-democracy solution to global sustainability would seem to be analogous to such a world government, but that model is unrealistic. More realistic is the partial-democracy model: some governments are democracies, and there are some multi-national democratic bodies (most notably, the EU), but the main fully international body (the UN) is nearly toothless to ensure cooperation of dissenting voices. So, the model fits well with the general failure to secure strong, binding and widely-accepted international accords on climate change and suggests future success to be unlikely.

    But maybe that’s too bleak. This offers some vindication to the cosmopolitans who, despite the difficulty of the position, often aim at something like globally-binding democratic institutions. Radical institutional reform might be the only way institutions can instil global sustainability – so viva la revolucion! Alternatively, it might suggest the focus on institutions is misguided because an institutional solution is impractical; technological solutions look much more appealing/worth investing in from this light.

  2. People can be relied on to be fairly cheap Samaritans – they’re happy to act altruistically if it’s not costly, but once the costs increase the altruism evaporates. In terms of the experiment, one issue with sustainability is that we don’t all start from the same initial conditions – different people have more to win or lose from a move towards sustainability, and this (in view of the cheap altruism thing) makes it harder to get real agreement in lots of environmental settings. Also, groups of 5 are different from 200 groups of 30 million, or from one group pf 7 billion – as you move across the scales there are more and more opportunities to collaborate, and to compete.

    1. I also think the scaling and initial conditions problems means we cannot draw much from this research. However, doing these types of experiment in the final year of schooling or with university students would, I believe, be quite useful to young people because it might help them address their prejudices and understand of rational choice. I used to informally “test” Rawls’ original position theory among undergraduates which we all found interesting because the results varied depending upon group size, prior knowledge, background, etc.. We are perhaps looking at this type of research from the wrong direction.

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