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Last modified: Thursday, April 29, 2010

Communication trumps penalties in new study of social-ecological systems

April 29, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Research conducted in a virtual world by Indiana University Bloomington and Arizona State University scientists, including recent IU Bloomington Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, shows how common-pool resources -- such as fisheries, forests, water systems or even bandwidth -- can be managed effectively by self-organized user groups under certain conditions.

The findings are published April 30 in the journal Science.

"We use different experiments with specially designed computer simulation games that include costly fines, communication, a combination of both and a period where neither punishment nor communication is allowed," said Marco Janssen, social science modeler at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the study's lead author. "These experiments help us identify which variables increase the level of cooperation."

Ostrom SES grid

As part of a computer simulation, players were given the opportunity to act selfishly or cooperate in collecting a virtual resource -- in this case, colored dots.

The experiments involved a timed computer game played simultaneously by college students. The players were given cubicles and avatars to represent them in a virtual world. Each player went about individually "harvesting" a resource -- in this case, colored dots -- in an experimental environment, along with the other players. If the group of players harvested dots too quickly, the resource ran out and the game ended. If players collected the dots more slowly, they would see some dots regenerate, allowing all players to harvest more and earn more points. The more dots each player amassed, the more that player would be paid at the end of the experiment. Payment in (real) money introduced a tension between selfish and collective interests, and also an incentive for players to take the game more seriously. More than 400 students at IU Bloomington and ASU participated in the experiments.

"This study presents results from a more complex experimental setting than previous laboratory experiments on public goods or common-pool resources," says Ostrom, recipient of the 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. "Since we conduct field research as well as experimental research we wanted to develop a more realistic setting than has been feasible in the past to assess how individuals cope with both the complexity and the temptations to overuse."

To cope well requires the participants to monitor their own behavior, but also to be mindful of what the others are doing, Janssen said. In some cases, the players were allowed a brief opportunity to communicate via chat rooms to strategize and make decisions regarding where and when to harvest resources, or collect tokens. They also determine whether or not to impose costly fines for overuse of resources by a member of the group, and when to sanction a player.

"Spatial and temporal resource dynamics were included in our laboratory experiments in order to capture these two critical variables," Janssen said.

By adding the space and time complexity component to their experiments, the researchers showed stronger governance of common-pool resources does not always result in better harvesting.

The researchers' findings are contrary to one view of how to manage common resources, such as that inspired by late biologist Garrett Hardin's influential Science essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons." Hardin argued, in part, that cattle grazers who depend on a limited common resource will overuse that resource, as competition among them leads to self-interested, short-sighted behavior. This has led many political scientists to conclude -- perhaps wrongly -- that overarching government regulation is necessary to preserve natural resources. A modern criticism of Hardin's commons model is that it did not adequately account for communication, coordination, and cooperation among the cattle grazers.

When participants make decisions without communicating with each other, they overharvest, says Ostrom, founding director of the IU Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science, and a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington. She is also the founding director of Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity.

When given a chance to communicate, however, participants improve their joint outcomes greatly -- and the effect is lasting even when communication is no longer possible, Ostrom said, adding, "being able to use costly fines against each other did not improve harvest output."

The Science paper's other two coauthors are IU Bloomington Ph.D. student Robert Holahan and ASU Assistant Research Professional Allen Lee.

"With the ability to communicate, the students almost invariably cooperate with each other and improve their earnings by coming up with their own rules to govern how they harvest from the resource," Lee said. "The only time it breaks down is when there are one or two members in the group that disregard the rules they came up with."

A next step is to take the sophisticated simulation games used in the experiments and convert them into educational games for youth.

"My hope is the games will get the next generation to think more deeply about the pressing social-ecological problems we are facing, and what it takes to manage resources sustainably," Lee said. "Rather than just be entertained, it would be fantastic if the experience from the games ultimately led them to take action."

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

To speak with Elinor Ostrom, please contact David Bricker, University Communications, at 812-856-9035 or To speak with Marco Janssen or Allen Lee, please contact Carol Hughes, ASU, at 480-965-6375 or