Enabling the greedy - the National Geographic experiment

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?

10 comments:

  1. I would say the greedy adapt their behaviour according to no one. Whteher there are the self-sacrificers or no, the greedy are driven by greed not the common good. I imagine self-sacrificers tend to be the people who feel they are responsible for the common good, they feel empathy, they worry, take it upon themselves to rectify the situation. Unfortunately, and this is really my personal viewpoint, the greedy push the limits till they can regardless of what self-sacrificers do.
    I would ask for 2 points :-)

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    1. Are you sure? 2 points?

      Because I'm sitting here and thinking, I would choose 0. If the experiment has shown over the years that people tend to over-consume, then I wouldn't dare to choose 2 in fear that I'm that "one person" who could've changed the course of history, but didn't. (You know those voting ads? Where lots of people say, "My vote doesn't matter"? But there is, like, millions of them so if they all voted, then it would actually matter a lot? Yeah, that.) Because choosing 2 makes it likely that everyone gets NOTHING - but choosing 0 makes it likelier that OTHERS get at least something.

      (If I chose 2 AND the experiment failed, I would be mightily pissed off at 1) people who chose 6 and 2) myself for not having used the opportunity to save the system. So that's why I'd get 0. I think.)

      And! Can you imagine if lots of people chose 0, so that everyone who chose 6 got nothing! THAT WOULD BE SO AWESOME! :D That would be, like, a theatre-quaility burn. Burn!

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    2. By the way, I'm not trying to make you feel guilty about 2 points :). I'm just wondering if you aren't "afraid" of choosing 2, knowing that you're likely not to get it. That why do you still choose 2? :)

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    3. Hey Maria, no worries, not feeling guilty :-)
      I totally get your point and had I taken more time to consider, I might have chosen '0' too. Especially in this context of university class. My '2' points carry the message of 'fair share'!

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  2. This has been discussed a lot in the circles that talk about resources and paradoxes. It's surprisingly (and sadly) common that people can get too greedy, even if they know they're being greedy. That video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxC161GvMPc) shows it perfectly.

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  3. Sama teema on minu tutvusringkonnas palju jutuks olnud, aga üllatavalt teistsuguse nurga alt – nimelt koerte võtmine varjupaigast. Et teatud kontingendi heateod võimaldavad teistsuguse kontingendi sigadusi. Ja nagu sinu pere puhul, ühisele arvamusele muidugi ei jõuta.

    Aga vastuseks su küsimustele - ma kipun sinu abikaasa parteisse kuuluma. Ei arva, et ahnurid üldisest heaolust hooliksid, aga omaenda isikliku heaolu nimel on paljud neist võimelised käitumist muutma küll, ehk siis antud juhul 2 (või isegi 0) punkti võtma, kui neile lõpuks koidab, et NEMAD sellest kasu saavad.

    Ma ise võtaks 0 punkti. Mitte et ma eneseohverdaja oleks, kaugel sellest. Eks minagi pean pikemas perspektiivis silmas omakasu :-)

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    1. Hmm. Koerte varjupaiga näide pani mind nüüd mõtlema. Kummasse "parteisse" sina kuulud? Koerte osas?

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    2. Oh, sellele küsimusele pole sugugi kerge vastata, sest ratsionaalsusele lisaks tulevad siin ju ka emotsionaalsed tegurid mängu. Mu mõistus ütleb, et varjupaigast koera võtjad panustavad nö. surnud ringi. Samas, mu süda loomulikult õigustab varjupaiku, sealseid töötajaid ja varjupaigakoertele kodu pakkujaid. Aga no kuna vastama peab, siis tunnistan, et kaldun sellesse parteisse, kes näeb varjupaigast koerte võtjaid ühe osana kogu sellest suurest ja komplekssest probleemist. Ma tean, see kõlab jubedalt, aga mu vastust ei maksa päris üks-üheselt võtta, pigem teoretiseerimisena su postituse valguses.

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  4. Mina võtaks 2 :)
    6 võtta oleks riskantne, sest nt 30ses grupis piisab veel 3st, kes ka 6 valiks ja olekski asi untsus. Samas, kui ma teaks, et ülejäänud 29 on väga heasüdamlikud, siis võiks ju ka 6 võtta.
    Kahjuks (või õnneks), ei ole ma nii helde, et valida 0. Miks peaks? See ei anna mulle midagi ju, et teised punkte saavad? Või annab? Kui võtta see nt elulisse konteksti, siis tarbimise vähendamine on mõttekas, mitte selleks, et teised saaks minu arvelt rohkem tarbida, vaid selleks, et üldine elu maal hea oleks. Sellisel juhul nn 0 valides saan ma ise ka kaudselt kasu. Kui asi on paljalt eksamipunktides, siis 0 ei anna mulle midagi. Hoopis teine asi oleks kui lisada tingimus, et kui ta grupina õnnestute, saate järgmine päev kõik jäätist ehk motiveerida lisaks isiklikule kasule ka kogu grupi õnnestumise kasu.

    Kusjuures sellise asja kohta on lauamäng, mul kahjuks ei ole meeles, mis selle nimi on, aga seal oli ka midagi sarnast, et mängijad pidid salaja valima piiratud resursse ja siis pärast kogu grupi valiku + üksiku mängija valiku kombinatsioonis arvestati, mida sa tegelikult saad ehk liiga ahneks minnes jäid kõigest ilma.

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  5. Sõltub ju ka, milles seisneb põhiasi, millele neid lisapunkte juurde saab soovida. Kui see on midagi minu jaoks lihtsat ja tunnen end kindlalt, et saan nagunii tehtud, siis pole mul lisapunkte tarvis ja igal juhul 0. Kui tunne on ebakindel, siis 2. 6 - ma ei kujuta ette, mis olukorras mul peaks vaja olema proportsionaalselt nii suures koguses midagi lihtsalt niisama saada, nii et see mu eneseväärikust ei riiva. Väljaspool koolitööd võibolla oleksid seisukohad veidi teised, pigem 0 suunas, sest no mul on tõesti täitsa ilus elu, ei ole mitte millestki nii kriitiliselt puudu:)
    Varjupaigast olen võtnud mitu looma ja olen selle võimaluse eest väga tänulik. Mitte selle pärast, mis looma võtmine mulle maksab - ma arvan, need kaks kassi oleksin soovi korral mujalt tasuta saanud. Sellepärast hoopis, et see süsteem annab hüljatud loomadele mingigi võimaluse. Kuulun nende hulka, kes usuvad, et hülgajad hülgaksid nagunii, ükskõik, kas hüljatav lõpetab varjupaigas või tänaval.

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