3: The Seven Deadly Dilemmas

The author outlines seven common social dilemmas:

  1. The Prisoner's Dilemma - Two people must trust one another to make a choice that achieves the best outcome for each
  2. The Tragedy of The Commons - Members of a community must make conservative use of a shared resource to avoid destroying it
  3. The Free Rider - A situation in which a third-party benefits from a resource without contributing to it
  4. Playing Chicken - One party takes a position that requires the other to cede, and both suffer if neither does.
  5. The Volunteer's Dilemma - Members of a group recognize the need for something to be done, and all will suffer if no-one volunteers to do it
  6. Battle of the Sexes - Two individuals want to cooperate, but have different preferences for how to proceed
  7. Stag Hunt - Working cooperatively has a chance of success, but an individual who breaks ranks (foiling the cartel) has a better chance of getting a lesser reward

In a sense, the same basic conflict underlies each of these situations: cooperation would produce the best overall outcome, but there is incentive for one person to gain more for himself by refusing to cooperate.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

Previously discussed, but repeated here for the sake of comprehensiveness, the prisoner's dilemma involves a choice to act cooperatively to achieve the best result, to betray another person for a second-best result for yourself only, but if both parties choose to betray, there will be the worst possible result for both.

The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons deals with a shared resource, such as community land. If each person uses a little bit, the resource will be there for all to use. If any person takes too much (or a lot of people take more than the amount that would preserve the resource), the resource itself will be destroyed.

There are numerous examples of this: exaggerating insurance claims, overfishing international waters, e-mail marketing, etc. are all situations in which a few people seek to gain for themselves at the expense of the group - sometimes knowing the consequences and being indifferent to the damage done to others, other times assuming they are the only one who is "cheating" and that it won't do much harm.

The Free Rider

The free rider situation is fairly common with public goods: the people of a town pay to maintain a road, but people who do not live in the town will drive on the road, increasing the maintenance cost from the wear-and-tear. It's not a problem so long as the additional cost of maintenance on the road is acceptable to the taxpayers - but if the volume of "free riders" chokes the road so that the taxpayers can's use it, and still have to pay taxes to maintain it, a sense of unfairness arises, and the taxpayers are discouraged from continuing to maintain the road.

This is essentially similar to the tragedy of the commons - the only difference being that the free rider does not "own" or contribute to the resources. The free rider still has the sense that his individual use of the resource does not harm the person who paid for it, overlooking that the collective actions of numerous free riders does.

The author provides numerous examples, the most poignant of which is the rise (and fall) of communism - in which individuals who supported the communist system were primarily interested in becoming free riders, living a life of leisure while others worked to provide for them (EN: which is ironically their exact criticism of capitalism) only to find that if nobody worked, there was nothing to be had.


"Chicken" is a game of brinksmanship - two contestants are on a course toward a disastrous end. One side will "win" if the other side gives way, but both sides will lose if neither one yields. So the winning tactic is to stand firm, hoping that the other side gives.

In some instances, "chicken" is simply a comedy of manners, as it's common for a person of lesser status to cede to one of higher status in formal situations - and people of equal status may find themselves in an awkward position, with nothing more than esteem at risk. In other instances, such as the Cuban missile crisis, brinksmanship situations have been extremely high-stakes.

Strategy for the individual in a game of chicken is as simple as risk versus reward to what degree does the value of what he might gain justify the level of risk he must take. If the risk is great and the reward is small, it's in his best interest to flinch.

Games of "chicken" also involve some degree of deception. A person can feint aggression (or greater dedication to remain resolute) if he expects his display will cause the other side to give up early; or he may feign disinterest to get the other side to drop a ruse of aggression. But a feint of either kind is only effective if it is credible: if you threaten to escalate, but then do not, it works against you.

It's noted that a party who enters into a game of chicken has generally exhausted every other option they can think of to negotiate a solution, and is exacerbated by lack of open dialogue between the two parties.

The Volunteer's Dilemma

The volunteer's dilemma is a situation in which an individual must make a sacrifice, or undertake a risk, for the benefit of a group. Everyone in the group knows this, but would prefer to wait for someone else to do so. It's essentially the same as "chicken," only played with more than two individuals.

(EN: however, a "loss" is not entirely necessary - it could be the gaining of a mutual benefit. For example, everyone in a neighborhood may be upset about the state of a vacant lot but unwilling to take the initiative to clean it up. There's no "loss" suffered if the lot remains in disarray, but the situation is otherwise the same.)

The typical example of this is the "lifeboat" scenario - in which the boat will sink unless someone jumps overboard. Or the soldier who throws himself on a grenade that has been tossed into a bunker in order to protect his comrades.

Failure of the volunteer's dilemma is common in folktales of urban crime, when a person is brutalized while people merely stand and watch - all believing that someone should have acted to intervene ... that is, someone other than themselves.

It's also noted that this "dilemma" will generally resolve when someone takes the initiative to act, but it is also possible that someone will be "thrown overboard" by another person. This is evident in nature, with herd animals crossing a crocodile-infested river - the animals freeze on the riverbank for fear of being eaten, but eventually the momentum of the herd will shove one or two animals into the water to feed the crocs while the rest cross safely.

The same principle applies when the situation is less than all-or-nothing. An experiment was conducted in which people were asked to request either $20 or $100, and told everyone would be paid if at least 80% of people asked for the lesser amount - otherwise, no-one would. But in the outcome, only 25% of people asked for the lesser amount, hoping that a sufficient number of other people would be willing to ask for less.

A counterpoint to the experiment above is that the people were unable to communicate with one another - had they been able to do so, it seems reasonable they would have coordinated their responses to ensure that a sufficient number of requests were for the lesser amount, and possibly split the prize money evenly afterward.

A loose note is that the volunteer's dilemma also rests upon the assumption of each party that another party is capable of taking action and willing to take action. In a situation where others seem incapable or unwilling, the "volunteer" is compelled to act because he concludes that he's the only one who can, and there's no chance anyone else will.

The Battle of the Sexes

The "battle of the sexes" is based on conflicting priorities. (EN: the name draws from stereotypes, but the actual situation has little to do with gender). Two parties wish to act together, but each wants to pursue a different option: the woman wants to go to the opera, the man wants to go to a basketball game.

The natural resolution to such a conflict is either to split up for the evening, or to take turns doing what the other prefers. But there may be circumstances in which two parties are bound to act together (utilizing an indivisible resource) to take advantage of mutually-exclusive and non-recurring opportunities.

This is again similar to the game of chicken, in which one party must cede to the desires of the other. If no solution can be negotiated, such situations are often resolved by a coin toss.

Stag Hunt

The "stag hunt" describes a situation where parties can cooperate to pursue a common advantage, but there is the opportunity for one party to foil the group effort in order to gain a lesser benefit for himself. The name of the dilemma comes from the original scenario, in which a group of villagers are corralling a stag, but one of them abandons his post to snatch a rabbit, which enables the stag to escape through the gap.

For the individual who breaks the corral, it's a clear choice based on risk and reward based on his own needs in the immediate situation - though it ignores the potentially greater cost of breaking his oath (he will not be able to count on cooperation from the group in future).

There is a direct parallel to individualism and collectivism, with the common notion of "ethics" prescribing that the individual should forsake his interests for the good of the group. But adherence is not always admirable: consider the honest policeman in a corrupt squad, the junior statesman who seeks to retain support of his colleagues by supporting a bad law, etc.