5.7 Social Dilemmas are Common

The prisoner’s dilemma was thought to be an exception until such cases were found to be common. For example, in the volunteer dilemma, a group needs volunteers to survive but since it pays individuals to leave it to others, no-one volunteers, and so the group collapses, i.e. they become a set of individuals acting alone. It is now recognized that social dilemmas like the volunteer dilemma represent a generic problem that is found in all social groups (Diekmann & Lindenberg, 2001).

Social dilemmas arise when Rule 1 contradicts Rule 2, i.e. when what benefits the individual does not benefit the group, or when what benefits the group does not benefit the individual. The dilemma is not that people selfishly follow Rule 1 or that they ethically follow Rule 2, but that they are caught between. Certainly game theory’s Rule 1 is insufficient, as people in social dilemma games are much more cooperative than game theory predicts (Poundstone, 1992). The mystery is not why people synergize or why they are selfish, but how they can be both. Game theory implies that society cannot succeed but it already has. Deducing that social cooperation is irrational (von Neumann & Morgenstern, 1944) is like deducing that bumblebees cannot fly by the laws of physics, when in fact they do. In science, we change the theory not the facts. Human instincts know what human logic does not: that synergy works.

Social dilemmas cannot be solved at the personal level because an honest person among cheats is just a fool. One person trying to synergize in a social dilemma is just a sucker, so individuals alone cannot solve social dilemmas. In the tragedy of the commons, the farmer who on principle does not graze just misses out and the commons is destroyed anyway. The choices for individuals in social dilemmas are all bad, so how did we achieve synergy at all?

The solution to all social dilemmas is for the social unit to change the gain-loss equation. This is not easy. It has taken thousands of years of often bitter struggle to stabilize massive synergies like global trade and international peace. The heroes of our social evolution were those who saw beyond themselves. The path to social synergy has on both sides the cliffs of defection. We alone among the mammals have crossed the zero-sum barrier into the lush valley of massive social synergy (Wright, 2001). We were lucky.