What Is the Tragedy of the Commons?

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I think a lot about fear and selfishness. This is partly because no matter how hard I try, I can’t escape my own. Not completely. No matter how much my higher brain tries to override those impulses, there’s something else that lives within me that’s primitive, ever-present.

And sometimes it’s screaming like Hell.

Really, all it’s trying to do is protect me. To make sure I take the required steps in my own self-interest to keep myself going. Little does it know that there’s basically zero chance of my passing on my genetic code (for a variety of reasons). These systems didn’t get the memo, and so I’m still hard coded to survive as long as possible, make sure I propagate the species.

The problem is that these systems are all oomph. All power and lacking in accuracy, in finesse.

I’m driven to protect myself and to act in my own self-interest. But these systems don’t really provide good instructions on how to do it. They’re calibrated for a much simpler world than the one I currently live in. One where the threats are visible and short term. Where I’m running from something with fangs and not squirreling up to ride out an uncertain length of time, hiding from an invisible enemy. One who would invade my cells and begin to change them.

Nope. My amygdala, my brain’s fear center, is basically the Tiger King.

Ai yai yai.

I do my best to reason with these impulses and come up with a happy medium. I prepare but try hard not to take so much I leave nothing for others.

But the store shelves and slumping supply chains (exacerbated by contagion and sick leave in other sectors) show that either not everyone is doing as I am. Or what I’m doing isn’t right either. Maybe it’s still too much, when multiplied by all the other millions of people making similar calculations — and perhaps letting their fear making rounding errors.

What Is The Tragedy of the Commons?

Current pandemic times remind me of a phenomenon called the tragedy of the commons. What’s that? Well, it’s basically like this:  There are enough public resources to go around — unless people take more than they need. And then everything collapses.

In theory, there should be plenty to serve us. The trouble comes when our individual self-interest causes us to reach for more than what we truly need. And then it’s too much. The system strains and can’t get keep up.

It’s those damned rounding errors that fear — and its duty to protect us — makes so common.

It’s what led to overfishing and overhunting. And it’s also what led governments to restrict those activities. To require licenses and to set limits.

Incidentally, I see similar solutions cropping up in our current strange state of affairs. Stores are setting limits per customer on certain items that are running out. I’ve noticed you can only buy X rolls of toilet paper in one go, Y pounds of flour.

And while certain folks can and do cry “foul!” (or more accurately in state of Texas, where I currently live, “SOCIALISM! This is Murica! Not on my watch!”), a free for all doesn’t serve either the public or private good when such decisions are left to fear and the attendant rounding errors.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

Featured Image: CC BY – Wilson Hui