Tragedy of the Commons
An individual overuses a shared resource for an immediate gain rather than a group’s long-term preservation, leading to a negative communal outcome.
For example, a seaman finds a spot where the fish are plentiful, others hear of the bounty, and soon folks are catching more than can be replenished by the ocean’s ecosystem. After a while, there are no more fish.
The individual’s action fails to consider the long-term consequences of their immediate gain. The actions taken are not a cognitive bias where someone is acting irrationally; it’s the opposite. Someone is acting entirely rationally, and that leads to collective ruin.
Why Use It
Learning to share resources strategically on long time horizons is essential to maintaining and preserving complex systems.
A famous depiction of the tragedy is about the herdsman who wants to possess as many cattle as possible on shared land (the commons). Each herdsman asks themselves as they grow their herds, “what’s the harm in adding one more cow to their herd?” The individual reaps the additional cattle’s profits but fails to recognize that overgrazing has taken a toll on the land.
When to Use It
What causes this problem to exist? Why do individuals act against the common good? The incentives for the group and person differ.
If the group were to act together, they could develop a method to distribute the resource without depleting it. But an individual doesn’t recognize their part in the problem because it’s only a small fraction of it.
Creating awareness and crafting plans to improve those groups that fall short in an interdependent world is necessary.
How to Use It
Taking responsibility for shared resources before they’re depleted is the first step to creating a sustainable system.
By demonstrating leadership and experimenting with your practices, one can encourage others to modify their behaviors.
Allying yourself with others and maintaining rules each member follows ensures an industry doesn’t become a race to the bottom.
Lastly, promote those strategies publicly so others outside an industry understand and affiliate themself with organizations that offer more beneficial outcomes.
How to Misuse It
Misunderstanding how a shared resource works and the best way to maintain it can be the source of conflict.
Knowing the most critical levers by which you can develop a sustainable system is imperative when solutions are malleable.
Keep stock of where these tragedies exist and find ways to help — that’s what good stewards do.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work to change norms, they may stay the same, and you may be the fish swimming upstream against the current.
Regardless of how others behave, it’s important to change yourself and your practices where you can. Be a better person.
Where it Came From
William Forster Lloyd, a Victorian economist, coined the term in 1833. More than a century later, Garrett Hardin, the evolutionary biologist, expanded it to include environmental science and sustainable development. Its use spans several disciplines, including behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, game theory, politics, taxation, and sociology.
What Are Mental Models?
Mental models are thinking tools that help guide and shape our perceptions of the world. They simplify complexity so we can understand life better, make decisions confidently, and solve problems.