The Social Dilemma Arrow

The Social Dilemmas

By Leon Felkins

Written 10 Dec. 1995

Last Revision on 12/20/11

Hard at Work! This area is in work. Best I can tell, it will always be that way

"For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few. Each citizen will have a thousand sons who will not be his sons individually but anybody will be equally the son of anybody, and will therefore be neglected by all alike."
-- From Aristotle's "Politics", Written c.a. 350 BC

Unless you are in certain specialties of Liberal Arts in the academic world, you probably have never heard the term, Social Dilemma, a dilemma or paradox that commonly results from Collective Action. Like me, you may have read a little bit about the Prisoner's Dilemma a few years ago when it received some publicity in well known publications such as Scientific American. Most of you probably dismissed the Prisoner's Dilemma story as just another academic construction with little real significance. But I found the "collective action problem" -- the "social dilemmas" -- that is the fundamental characteristic of the Prisoner's Dilemmas, very intriguing. Since I like puzzles, paradoxes, and examples of the apparent diabolical nature of the universe, I became very interested in the subject and continued to give it much thought.

From the Prisoner's Dilemma "game" I drifted into the more general and much more significant study of the Social Dilemmas. What I have found is that this little field of study, tucked away in several obscure corners of academia and little known by the general public, is concerned with one of most serious and baffling problems in the civilized world today! Uncontrolled government spending, the deterioration of the public schools, the near collapse of law and order, the loss of individual freedom, out of control welfare programs, teenage sexual promiscuity, are just a few examples that result from the Social Dilemmas.

So, I hope you will check out what I have to say here and whether you agree or disagree, let me know.

Let us first review the simpler, but far more well known, example -- the Prisoner's Dilemma.


Theory and Analytical Methods

Solutions to the Social Dilemmas

Games and Puzzles

No, not Game Theory, but games that you can play. There are a few games and puzzles based on the Social Dilemma idea that are somewhat amusing. Much more effort is really needed here.


1. By metering, I mean the charging for the use of a good based on its economic value or cost.


Aristotle's "Politics", Written c.a. 350 BC

Ashlock's and Smucker's paper, The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma with Choice and Refusal

Axelrod, Robert; The Evolution of Cooperation. Basic Books, New York, 1984.

Dawkins, Richard; The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Dawes, R. M. (1980). "Social dilemmas". Annual Review of Psychology 31: 169–193.

Dixit, Avinish and Susan Skeath; Games of Strategy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Felkins, Leon; "The Voter's Paradox" online at this and other sites.

Information on Patrick Gunning's book, UNDERSTANDING DEMOCRACY: An Introduction to Public Choice

Gauthier, David. Morals by Agreement. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1986

Glance, Natalie and Huberman, Bernardo; "Dynamics of social dilemmas". Scientific American. March, 1994 (See their page on Dynamics for some of their computer simulation results)

Green, Donald P. and Shapiro, Ian. Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994

Hardin, Garrett, "The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, 162:1243-1248, 1968.

Hardin, Russell, Collective Action, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961

Hinich, Melvin J. and Munger, Michael C., Ideology and the Theory of Political Choice, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994

John O. Ledyard's Public Goods: A Survey of Experimental Research, 1994

Lichbach, Mark Irving. The Cooperator's Dilemma. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1996.

Lomasky, Loren; "The Booth and Consequences". Reason. November, 1992. A copy is online here.

Monroe, Kristen Renwick (Editor). The Economic Approach to Politics. Harper Collins, New York, 1991.

Myerson, Roger B.: "NASH EQUILIBRIUM AND THE HISTORY OF ECONOMIC THEORY", March 1999, on the web at

Nasar, Sylvia. 1998. A Beautiful Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action. Harvard University Press. 1971

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990

Parfit, Derek: Reasons and Persons. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1984.

Rheingold, Howard: Literacy of Cooperation Lecture Videos, 2005, Video presentations by Rheingold, Saveri, Kollock, Hartzog, Corning, Wales, Weber, Mayfield, Rosen and Huberman. [The esay way to learn about Social Dilemmas!]

Ridley, Matt: The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Viking Penguin, New York. 1997

Sandler, Todd: Collective Action. University of Michigan Press. 1992

Saari, Donald G.: Web page at has some interesting papers on the problems and paradoxes of voting. [Oh, well, it used to. You might try Google search for 'voting' and 'Saari'.]

Eivind Tøstesen's Masters Thesis on the Dynamics of Hierarchically Clustered Cooperating Agents.

Tullock, Gordon; Seldon, Arthur and Brady, Gordon L.: Government Failure. Cato Institute. 2002

Tuomela, Raimo: "On the structural aspects of collective action and free-riding", Theory and Decision 32 (1992) , 165-202.

Tuomela, Raimo: Cooperation, Kluwer. 2000 (The first chapter and the Table of Contents plus other related essays are online at Dr. Tuomela's home page.)

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