Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Caring for the future

In a fascinating behavioral economics experiment Hauser et al examine willingness of people in a group to sacrifice personal gains for future generations, and show that whether majorities that will sacrifice for the future are adequate for the task depends on whether choices are made individually or by group decision. Nature magazine does a nice presentation of this work with an instructive video and a news and views commentary. Here is the abstract of the article:
Overexploitation of renewable resources today has a high cost on the welfare of future generations. Unlike in other public goods games however, future generations cannot reciprocate actions made today. What mechanisms can maintain cooperation with the future? To answer this question, we devise a new experimental paradigm, the ‘Intergenerational Goods Game’. A line-up of successive groups (generations) can each either extract a resource to exhaustion or leave something for the next group. Exhausting the resource maximizes the payoff for the present generation, but leaves all future generations empty-handed. Here we show that the resource is almost always destroyed if extraction decisions are made individually. This failure to cooperate with the future is driven primarily by a minority of individuals who extract far more than what is sustainable. In contrast, when extractions are democratically decided by vote, the resource is consistently sustained. Voting is effective for two reasons. First, it allows a majority of cooperators to restrain defectors. Second, it reassures conditional cooperators that their efforts are not futile. Voting, however, only promotes sustainability if it is binding for all involved. Our results have implications for policy interventions designed to sustain intergenerational public goods.
And, by the way, here is a nice piece on "Caring for the present", how peer presence and pressure can help preserve electric grids.

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