Mental Scarcities and Common Pool Resources

Do mental resources affect sustainable management of a shared resource?

Go to the profile of Todd Guilfoos
Apr 19, 2018
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The paper in Nature Sustainability is here:

Collective action demonstrates that individuals can, sometimes, overcome incentives to be myopic and selfish.  There are many examples of collective action in the commons, recently the adjudication of groundwater rights in California and establishment of high priority management districts in Kansas.  Individual farmers form collective groups that impose restrictions on themselves to extend the life of the groundwater commons.  Despite these successes there are also plenty of examples of similar groups whom don’t overcome the tragedy of the commons and have seen their groundwater commons exhausted.

Luminaries in the field of collective action, such as Elinor Ostrom, have clarified how institutions (ex. rules, laws, or social norms) and property rights can be critical to establishing self-governance of the commons.  Recent psychological research has posited that humans use an intuitive cooperative heuristic in social dilemmas formed through evolution. The motivation to undertake the experiment in our new paper published today in Nature Sustainability ( is to examine whether cooperation in a common pool resource depends in part on cognitive thought processes, coupling the two distinct literatures in economics and psychology. We want to understand when and under what circumstances that mental scarcities may affect cooperative behaviour in a common pool resource. In designing this experiment we include the inter-temporal dynamics of common pool resources because it is a critical aspect of the decision process for collective action-restraining behaviour today to improve joint outcomes tomorrow. This is also a crucial difference from other similar experiments.

Our results show that quick and fast cognitive processes have different outcomes than slow and more deliberate cognitive processes in a common pool resource. This demonstrates that institutions, the rules that govern behavior, are not only important to cooperation, but so are the circumstances of when collective action decisions are made and the scarcity of mental resources.  The implications are that promoting practices which support slow and deliberate cognitive processes during decisions about common pool resources can improve outcomes.

Looking to the future we hope that the research community conducts a more thorough investigation of the psychology of mental scarcities and cooperation in the commons.  There is a need to understand the interaction of cognitive processes with other institutions that are important to establishing collective action in common pool resources. If there continues to be robust support for mental scarcities negatively influencing cooperative actions in a common pool resource, then alleviating the causes of the mental scarcities may help support collective action initiatives.  For farmers or fishers this could come in the form of social safety nets, insurance programs, or strategic planning in proposing collective action. To go even further, perhaps priming stakeholders with mental resources will allow them to establish the known rules and social norms which make self-governance successful in the field. 

Go to the profile of Todd Guilfoos

Todd Guilfoos

Assistant Professor, University of Rhode Island

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