In the June issue of National Geographic there was an interesting article about an experiment professor Dylan Selterman runs in his psychology classes at University of Maryland.
Each year he gives his students an opportunity to receive free extra points on their term paper - but there's a catch. Each student can choose between receiving 2 extra points, or 6. If more than 10% of the class chooses 6 points, then NO ONE will receive ANY points; but if only a small number of people choose 6 points (less than 10% of the class) then everyone receives the points they requested - some will get 2, some will get 6.
It's an experiment to illustrate how sustainability works. If each person moderates their consumption and uses only their "fair share" - 2 points - then everyone gets access to resources. The system has a bit of spare capacity, too, and it can accommodate a small number of people that are greedy - 6 points. However, if many people get greedy at the same time, the whole system collapses - and no-one gets anything.
It came as a surprise to me that... in 8 years that Selterman has taught at Maryland, and used this experiment, only one class has managed to get any points at all. ONE!
Let it sink in for a moment. In 8 years Selterman has taught dozens of classes. In that time, every class but one (!) has failed: even the students who have known about the experiment ahead of time, and have known that classes tend to fail due to overconsumption, have still... overconsumed and failed to get the reward, just like everyone before them. They have known that in order to receive any points they are better off staying within the 2-point limit. And yet, every year there are more than 10% of the class who think that they can get away with it, and they choose 6 points.
And then they get NOTHING. No-one gets ANYTHING.
It's a staggering thought to me.
In recent times Selterman has added a third option: students can choose to receive 0 points. It's a self-sacrifice: the student who chooses 0 points knows that they will not get a reward either way. However, by choosing 0 points they have the possibility of "rescuing" the rest of the system. Each 0-point student cancels out the effect of one 6-point student (chosen randomly). If enough students self-sacrifice then the class has a chance of staying within the 10% limit. When it happens, all 2-pointers get their points, some 6-pointers get their points (because some of them will receive 0 points instead - due to effect of self-sacrificers) and none of the 0-pointers get any points.
Selterman has found that, sometimes, that's exactly what happens. Usually it enough to have just a couple of self-sacrificers and the class stays within the 10% limit.
Discussing this with my husband, we ended up having an argument over whether self-sacrificers are enabling the greedy.
I said no. "The greedy are already there. They know that the system tends to collapse, they know that choosing 2 is better for the common good, but they still choose their own personal benefit over everyone else's. They choose 6 regardless! They are not "enabled" by anyone - they're just greedy. Self-sacrificers are rescuing the entire system by putting their own interests aside."
My husband disagreed. He reckoned that self-sacrificers are "teaching" the greedy that they can get away with it. The greedy learn to keep being selfish because they have a low risk of being punished for they greed, and they keep choosing their personal benefit over everyone else's.
We argued for a while, and never came to any shared conclusions; and simply decided to stop the argument because it became pointless continuing.
What do you think?
What would you choose?