Cooperating with the Future: Q&A with David Rand

Authored By 
Limor Peer
Blog contributor 

What’s the best way to ensure that scarce resources are not depleted so that future generations can benefit from them? How do we, in the present, cooperate with the future?

A new study, co-authored by David Rand, ISPS Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of Psychology and Economics at Yale (with Martin Nowak, Oliver Hauser and Alexander Peysakhovich of Harvard), published today in the journal Nature, addresses these questions.

We asked David about the research:

Can you summarize the paper published in Nature?

We ran a series of behavioral experiments studying intergenerational cooperation, or saving for future generations. Inspired by game theory, we constructed a novel game (the ‘Intergenerational Goods Game’, or IGG) where subjects could either earn money by consuming resources, or leave resources for future groups of players. If the total amount consumed was sufficiently low, the resource was refilled and passed on to another group (the next ‘generation’). We found that most people acted cooperatively in the IGG and only consumed their fair share.

A minority of selfish players, however, over-consumed and almost always ruined things for future generations.

We then showed that this bad outcome could be prevented by instituting a democratic vote: instead of letting each player consume what they liked, each player voted for a consumption amount, and the median vote was consumed by all players. The vote allows the cooperative majority to restrain the selfish minority, and also reassures cooperators that their sacrifice won’t be exploited by others. As a result, the resource was almost always preserved under this voting system.

Next, we showed that voting only achieves sustainability in the IGG if it is binding for all players: when a subset of players were allowed to disregard the vote and consume what they liked, sustainability was not achieved.

Finally, we complimented these IGG experiments with an analysis of real-world data showing that countries which are more democratic also have better sustainability policies (even controlling for obvious confounds like GDP, population size, inequality, rule of law, etc).

What inspired this research?

A great deal of research has studied cooperation between individuals, and within a group of individuals. Many of the challenges facing our society today, however, involve cooperation with future generations which do not yet exist. This topic of intergenerational cooperation has received much less attention. We wanted to explore it in the hopes of shedding light on how we might promote sustainability and other future-oriented behaviors.

Please say more about what makes these experiments unique.

A key element of our design in the IGG that differs from most previous work is that cooperating does not benefit the other members of one’s group, but instead benefits future groups. In a typical social dilemma like a Prisoner’s Dilemma or Public Goods Game, a group of cooperators does better than a group of non-cooperators. The challenge then is how to get people to pay the personal costs to improve the lot of their group instead of free-riding off the contributions of others. Voting is an easy solution: if the vote outcome forces everyone to act in the same way, there is no chance to free-ride. As a result, rational self-interested agents would vote for cooperation, since they would earn more in a group of all cooperators than of all non-cooperators.

In the IGG, however, cooperating only benefits future generations. As a result, a group of cooperators in the IGG still earns less than a group of defectors; but a series of cooperative generations out-earns a series of non-cooperative generations. This means that in the IGG, selfish players would vote for over-exploitation, since they don’t care about helping future generations.

Democracy would seem like a bad solution for sustainability under standard assumptions of rational self-interest. But if enough people have prosocial preferences and care about the future, democracy can work.

As a result, democracy would seem like a bad solution for sustainability under standard assumptions of rational self-interest. But if enough people have prosocial preferences and care about the future, democracy can work. And our results demonstrate that this is in fact the case, at least in our game. The broader point is that most people are not in fact totally selfish, and policy makers should take this prosociality into account when designing institutions and laws.

What does psychology bring into the study of political behavior?

Our results demonstrate the importance of replacing the assumption of rational self-interest with more realistic behavioral models of human psychology. Most people aren’t selfish, as our daily life experience will surely demonstrate. Think of all the times you could have taken advantage of someone, but chose not to. The fact that we aren’t all totally selfish has really important policy implications. In the current paper, we show how these social preferences can be leveraged by democratic voting to enact sustainable policies.

Many other applications exist across policy domains, and investigating these sorts of possibilities is a really important direction for academic researchers, as well as policy makers. Groups like the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team (or ‘Nudge unit’) and the White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative are doing exactly this kind of work bringing psychology into public policy, and I’m very excited to see the great advances I’m confident they will produce.

>See Yale News story.