Psychology Of Social Dilemmas Research Paper

Custom Writing Services

View sample Psychology Of Social Dilemmas Research Paper. Browse other social sciences research paper examples and check the list of research paper topics for more inspiration. If you need a religion research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Feel free to contact our research paper writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.

The functioning of societies, groups, and relationships is strongly challenged by social dilemmas, situations in which private interests are at odds with collective interests. Social dilemmas are potentially disruptive for functioning of collectives because the well-being of these larger units is threatened when most or all individuals act in a self-serving manner. For example, during periods of water shortage, it is tempting not to worry too much about how much water to use; but if most people exercise no restraint, this may create severe societal problems. Also, meetings at work would be considerably more productive if all people invest sufficient time and effort in preparing for these meetings. And close partners too, face social dilemmas, such as whether or not one should spend less time with one’s independent friends. In a sense, social dilemmas are so pervasive in everyday life that one can go so far as to claim that the most challenging task governments, organizations, and even partners in a relationship face is to successfully solve social dilemmas. After a brief discussion of the history of social dilemmas, as well as their methodological underpinnings, the basic question of how cooperation between people can be promoted will be addressed.



1. Social Dilemmas: An Historical And Methodological Perspective

The intellectual parents of social dilemmas can be found in early formulations of game theory concerned with the strategic analysis of conflicts of interests (e.g., Luce and Raiffa 1957). Game theory captures decisions in terms of experimental games, that is, situations in which each of the participants has to choose one of two (or more) alternatives, which affect one’s own outcomes as well as the other’s outcomes. The most famous game following from this work is the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game, which represents a true conflict of private interests and collective interests. The prisoner’s dilemma derives its name from an anecdote about two prisoners who were accused of robbing a bank. The district attorney, unable to prove that they were guilty, confronted the prisoners with two options: either confess to the crime (option D), or not confess to it (option C). Paradoxically, option D stands for the Defecting option and option C for the Cooperative option, for reasons which will be apparent by the consequences these choices had for both prisoners. If both confess, each will receive a five-year sentence, whereas if neither confesses each of them receives a one-month sentence. Thus, each prisoner would be better off when neither confesses than when both confess. However, the decision is complicated by the fact that each prisoner has a clear temptation to confess. If one confesses and the other does not, then the prisoner who does not confess will receive a 10-year sentence, while the other will be set free. Thus, in a prisoner’s dilemma, two individuals are interdependent in that each person is better off by behaving noncooperatively, regardless of the other’s behavior (individual rationality). At the same time, both individuals are better of when both behave cooperatively, rather than when both behave noncooperatively (collective rationality).

The interdependence structure underlying prisoner’s dilemmas is characteristic of many dyadic interactions. For example, two neighbors living in apartments with thin walls may wish to play their favorite music at high volume, but they together would probably be better off by playing it at a somewhat lower volume. The conflict between individual and collective rationality apparent in the prisoner’s dilemma can be extended to situations involving many individuals, which are often referred to as N-person prisoner’s dilemmas. For example, trade unions can function considerably better to the extent that a greater number of individuals become members; however, membership requires fees and time and thus is a costly option from an individual perspective. Social dilemmas is a generic concept, embodying both two-person and N-person prisoner’s dilemmas, as well as some situations that are quite similar to prisoner’s dilemmas, and that do represent a conflict between self-interest and collective interest. It is also noteworthy that in everyday life social dilemmas tend to take the form of either a resource dilemma or a public good dilemma. A resource dilemma calls for a decision whether or not to take (or how much to take) from a public resource. An example is the degree to which one uses water during a period of water shortage. A public good dilemma calls for a decision whether or not contribute (or how much to contribute) to a public good. An example is the degree to which one contributes to the maintenance or improvement of public television. Public good dilemmas pose the problem of free-riding, not contributing but still enjoying the benefits of the public good.

In actual research on social dilemmas, researchers often use experimental games, a technique is that closely linked to study of conflict, cooperation and competition, as well as intergroup relations (e.g., conflict and conflict resolution; cooperation and competition, intergroup relations). The experimental game approach has a number of advantages, in that allows researchers to confront participants with a real dilemma, especially when the ‘outcomes’ represent real outcomes (e.g., money). Thus, this approach focuses on actual behavior in a context characterized by high levels of experimental realism—it is an involving experimental task. At the same time, to enhance mundane realism researchers have become increasingly interested in examining simulations of social dilemmas as they appear in the real world. Examples are well-designed simulations of the resource dilemma or the public good dilemma. And there is increasing research which examines social dilemmas directly in the real world, which involves correlational survey research, observational research, and experimental field research (see Komorita and Parks 1995). These multitudes of techniques and procedures are used by not only psychologists, but also by anthropologists, economists, sociologists, political scientists, and even biologists. Many or most of the findings reviewed below are observed in various research paradigms.

2. What Factors Promote Cooperation In Social Dilemmas?

How can one promote cooperation in social dilemmas? One important factor derives from the structure itself; that is, the degree to which self-interest and collective interest are conflicting. Cooperation can be enhanced by both decreasing the incentive associated with noncooperative behavior and increasing the incentive associated with cooperative behavior (Kelley and Grzelak 1972). Generally, the influence of the structure itself has been shown to be strong not only in experimental work on social dilemmas, but also in field studies. For example, it has been found that monetary reward for electricity conservation was one of the most effective means to attaining electricity conservation.

A second factor concerns the possibility of communication. Indeed, one interesting and potentially important way to escape from massive noncooperation is to coordinate the social dilemma in a manner such that people feel committed, or actually promise to contribute to the collective welfare (Orbell et al. 1988). However, opportunities for verbal communication tend to be effective only when individuals indeed discuss their actions relevant to the dilemma at hand. One of the explanations for the fruitful effects of communication is that it enhances trust in others’ cooperative choices, and that it is difficult for people to break a promise.

A third factor derives from the personalities involved, in particular differences among three types of social value orientation: prosocial orientation (enhancement of collective outcomes as well as equality in outcomes), individualistic orientation (enhancement of own outcomes with no or very little regard for others’ outcomes), and competitive orientation (enhancement of relative advantage over others; Messick and McClintock 1968; Van Lange 1999). People with a prosocial orientation exhibit greater cooperation, expect others to behave more cooperatively, are more trusting of others’ intentions and motivations, and interpret the dilemma more strongly as a moral issue and less of an intelligence task than do individualists and competitors. Also, such personality differences tend to be a function of social interaction experiences, in that, for example, prosocials were raised in larger families, having more sisters in particular than individualists and competitors, and people over time tend to become more prosocial and less individualistic and competitive (Van Lange et al. 1997; see also Personality Development in Childhood; Personality Development in Adulthood).

3. From Two-Person Social Dilemmas To N-Person Social Dilemmas

In two-person social dilemmas, individuals may to some degree be able to promote cooperation in the other. In this regard, one of the most effective strategies is the tit-for-tat strategy (Pruitt and Kimmel 1977), a strategy which starts with a cooperative choice, and subsequently mimics the other’s prior choice. Thus, tit-for-tat’s willingness to behave cooperatively is conditional upon the other’s cooperative behavior. Several studies have revealed that tit-for-tat is more effective in eliciting cooperation in the other than a strategy which always makes cooperative choices irrespective of other’s choices (perfect cooperation), which is more effective than a strategy which always makes noncooperative choices irrespective of other’s choices (perfect noncooperation). Tit-for-tat is assumed to be effective because it is nice, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear (Axelrod 1984).

One potential limitation of tit-for-tat is that it can only be effectively used in the context of dyadic relationships or small groups. How is one to pursue tit-for-tat in large groups? Apart from the strategies that people use, there is typically a decline in cooperation as groups become larger in size. More specifically, cooperation typically declines as groups become larger up to about seven or eight persons. However, if groups become larger than seven or eight persons then the level of cooperation is not strongly influenced by a further increase in group size. How can one account for the group-size effect? It has been suggested that, with increasing group size, anonymity is greater, individuals become more pessimistic about the efficacy of their efforts to promote collective outcomes (Kerr 1996), people tend to feel less personally responsible for good collective outcomes. An effective solution might be a structural solution, by which one effectively changes the underlying structure, by implementing a system that rewards cooperation or sanctions noncooperation (Yamagishi 1986). The benefits need not necessarily be financial or even material. For example, reduction of car use (so as to reduce smog or congestion) might be promoted to some degree by establishing carpool priority lanes. Other solutions might derive from strengthening social norms,facilitating effective communication, or enhancing feelings of identity with the group or a sense of ‘we-ness.’

4. From Interpersonal To Intergroup Relations

Interestingly, interactions between groups are characterized by lower levels of cooperation and higher levels of competition than are interactions between individuals (Insko et al. 1998). This individual-group discontinuity effect is accounted for by, first, lower levels of trust in intergroup relations, eliciting fear of being exploited by the other group. Second, individuals within a group are able to support each other in their pursuit of the interest of their own group (and each member’s self-interest) at the expense of the other group. Third, responsibility for self-centered behavior is often shared in intergroup settings but interpersonal settings one is individually responsible for his or her actions. One way to enhance cooperation between groups is when one of both groups follows the tit-for-tat strategy, which yields a level of cooperation comparable to that found among interactions between individuals when one of them follows the tit-for-tat strategy (Insko et al. 1998).

5. Issues For Future Research

Recent approaches to social dilemmas examine the ways in which social-cognitive mechanisms (e.g., construal of social dilemmas) might be associated with behavior in social dilemmas, examine how individuals themselves seek to change features of the social dilemma to enhance cooperation (e.g., excluding members from the group) or to escape from the dilemma (e.g., seeking greater independence), and examine the functionality and evolutionary stability of various strategies in large-scale social dilemmas through computer simulation techniques. These issues are examined by various social and behavioral scientists, and these interdisciplinary efforts should make important contributions to theory regarding cooperation and competition, social dilemmas, and interdependence as well as to providing effective solutions to various complex social dilemmas we face in the real world.


  1. Axelrod R 1984 The Evolution of Cooperation. Basic Books, New York
  2. Insko C A, Schopler J, Pemberton M B, Wieselquist J, Mcllraith S A, et al. 1998 Long-term outcome maximization and the reduction of interindividual-intergroup discontinuity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75: 695–711
  3. Kelley H H, Grzelak J 1972 Conflict between individual and common interests in an n-person relationship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21: 190–7
  4. Kerr N L 1996 ‘Does my contribution really matter?’: Efficacy in social dilemmas. In: Stroebe W, Hewstone H (eds.) European Review of Social Psychology. Wiley, Chichester, UK, Vol. 7 pp. 209–40
  5. Komorita S S, Parks C D 1995 Interpersonal relations: Mixedmotive interaction. Annual Review of Psychology 46: 183–207
  6. Luce R D, Raiffa H 1957 Games and Decisions: Introduction and Critical Survey. Wiley, New York
  7. Messick D M, McClintock C G 1968 Motivational bases of choice in experimental games. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 4: 1–25
  8. Orbell J M, Van der Kragt A J, Dawes R M 1988 Explaining discussion-induced cooperation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54: 811–19
  9. Pruitt D G, Kimmel M J 1977 Twenty years of experimental gaming: Critique, synthesis, and suggestions for the future. Annual Review of Psychology 28: 363–92
  10. Van Lange P A 1999 The pursuit of joint outcomes and equality in outcomes: An integrative model of social value orientation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 337–49
  11. Van Lange P A, Otten W, De Bruin E M, Joireman J A 1997 Development of prosocial, individualistic, and competitive orientations: Theory and preliminary evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73: 733–46
  12. Yamagishi T 1986 The provision of a sanctioning system as a public good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 51: 110–16
Social Evolution Research Paper
Social Demography Research Paper


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655