What credo would you choose: “Share and share alike?” or “To each his own”? The choice doesn’t relate only to material goods or socialism versus capitalism. It can also reflect attitudes about how we solve our collective problems, such as affordable access to health care or threats from climate change. Despite the existence of shared resources in our lives—water, air, land, tax dollars—some people will lean into a go-it-alone approach, with each individual deciding for themselves what’s best. Others will look to group decision-making. What’s the tipping point for shifting from maverick to team player?

Researchers at Leiden University, the Netherlands, addressed that question using a computer game in which students had to decide whether to use a set of virtual resources to solve a problem individually or collectively. The investigators found that these study participants had a “remarkable tendency” to waste resources for the sake of an independent solution rather than efficiently using what in the social sciences is referred to as “the commons.” The study results were published April 17 in Science Advances.

The choice to follow the loner track even if it means wasted resources probably sounds familiar. Such useless waste, a “tragedy of the commons,” as the authors call it, is one that societies face in all kinds of situations. Study author Jörg Gross, assistant professor at Leiden University’s Institute of Psychology, cites several examples of real-world problems from modern life that inspired the study, including use of public versus private transportation. After all, almost everyone needs to get from Location A to Location B. Rather than create universal public transit solutions, though, people more often turn to using private vehicles.

The cultural aspect of these findings stands out, says Michael Varnum, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University, who was not involved in the study. “That these students live in the Netherlands is interesting,” he says, because Dutch society has a solid social safety net with good infrastructure, public health care and education. “I would guess that the effects observed in the present studies might be more pronounced in societies that have greater levels of income inequality and less generous public benefits, such as the U.S.” 

To observe these effects, Gross and co-author Carsten K.W. De Dreu, who is affiliated with both Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam, split up 160 participants into 40 groups of four people each. The groups faced a simulated problem that they could solve by committing sufficient resources to it individually or as a community. Participants, each given 100 resource points to start, could put their virtual resources into either a personal pool or a shared pool.

After each round of play, the players could scrutinize what had accumulated in the community and their personal pools and how much others in their group had given up in each round. By a final round, the four players in each group had to have accumulated 160 points in the community pool. If the group failed to meet that goal, each individual had to have an accumulation of 40, 50, 60, 70 or 80 points (the researchers varied the individual requirement across games. If the group built up 160 points in the community pool, everyone got to keep the individual resources they had left. If the group didn’t achieve the 160 points, whoever failed to meet the personal target set for the game (60 points, for example) also lost everything else.

With four players per group, the most obvious and equitable solution to meeting the 160-point goal was to pony up 40 of the 100 individually allocated resource points to the community pot, keeping the rest (60 points) for themselves. Everyone wins something and keeps something (60 points), and no one loses everything.

But if a player chose the individual route, all possible scenarios (40, 50, 60, 70 or 80 points) cost them as much or more than a contribution of 40 points to the community pot. For example, if the individual requirement for reaching the solution was 60 points, the player opting for that choice would retain only 40 of the player’s original 100 points. If the player instead chose to give 40 resource points to the community pot, that player would keep 60 points, a 20-point improvement—as long as the community pool still added up to 160 points.

The peak cost for an individual solution was 80 of the 100 resource points available to each player, double the 40 per person needed for the community option. Yet even at that rate, 15 percent of players remained diehard individualists. They were willing to give up 80 points to “solve” a problem individually rather than risk contributing 40 to a community pool—and see other group members investing in the community pool possibly lose everything. These individualist behaviors left each group wasting an average of 45 resource points per game, more than a quarter of the 160 that they needed to collectively “solve” the problem.

Four categories of decision-makers emerged. There were the altruists, who invested more than their fair share. The cooperators readily ponied up their 40 points to the collective. Individualists stuck to their guns, preferring to pay the individual amount rather than contribute to a collective. And then there were the free riders. They invested less than their share of at least 40 points in the collective pool (perhaps keeping 70 or 80 points for themselves) but still reaped benefits from altruists making up the difference, which Gross describes as an “optimal strategy” (economically speaking) for an individual. He gives cutting carbon dioxide emissions as an example: a free rider who personally takes few steps to limit carbon dioxide emissions will still benefit when others make great efforts to do so.

In such a situation, peer pressure might be expected to operate most on the free-riding slackers, but that’s not what happened. In one set of games, Gross and De Dreu allowed players to punish each other by dinging them with up to five “peer punishments.” Each punishment decreased the take for the punisher by one reward point but cost the punished peer three points.

The free riders might seem like the obvious targets for this peer punishment, but they weren’t. Instead, the “punishment” turned into an expensive feuding between the altruists, who meted out the most punishments, and individualists, whom the altruists targeted. Meanwhile, the free riders and those who stuck to contributing only their fair share hung back. The feuding increased costs for the collective as a whole, which the authors say calls into question how effective unfettered peer punishment is in real life.

The peer pressure worked on individualists though, Gross says. “Peer punishment ‘forced’ them into cooperation, but they were less willing to enforce cooperation in others,” he says, with the result that free riders still continued without paying their fair share.

Varnum says such an outcome needs consideration in the context of earlier findings showing culture-based differences in the effects of peer punishment. These earlier results showed that in a collectivist society with a default expectation of community participation, punishment reduces free-rider behavior. In individualistic cultures, however, punishment does not influence freeloading behaviors. Varnum says that a future study might investigate how the same study methods would play out in societies that are largely collectivist, such as India, China or Japan as opposed to the Netherlands.