What is it about?

The tragedy of the commons is a well-known dilemma, and traditional economic models assume that people are rationally self-interested. But contrary to this expectation, we found that even children as young as 4 years of age sanction free riders and intrinsically value contributions to the common good.

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Why is it important?

Our findings are important because 1) They challenge the traditional economic views that human beings are rationally self-interested, revealing instead the early-emerging collaborative aspect of human nature. 2) Our findings help answer the broad question of how cooperation works, that we may have evolved psychological mechanisms to deter free riders and facilitate cooperation. 3) Our research has implications for how to promote the common good. Instead of only imposing external constrains (e.g., punishment), we need to better appeal to our moral potentials in order to encourage contributions to the society at large.


I've always deeply believed in our moral potentials to transcend narrow self-interests, and theses findings make me very optimistic about our nature. But at the same time, it also raises more future questions to study: if we intrinsically value contributions, why do we still see many free riders in life? What can we do to encourage more contributions to the common good? I hope to find out the answers to these questions in the next projects.

Fan Yang
University of Chicago

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: In Defense of the Commons: Young Children Negatively Evaluate and Sanction Free Riders, Psychological Science, July 2018, SAGE Publications,
DOI: 10.1177/0956797618779061.
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