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Module 12: Motivated by Social Processes

Module Overview

In Module 12 we will begin a discussion of how social factors affect our motivated behavior. I say begin because topics falling under social psychology will come up in Module 15, too, and have already appeared at other places throughout this book. So, my goal will be to present you with novel information as it relates to explaining why a certain behavior was displayed, attitudes and conscious efforts to change them, factors affecting who we are attracted to, and finally an incredibly novel body of information which I will spend considerable time on pertaining to social dilemmas. This links to a discussion we began in Module 10 on prosocial behavior. I hope you enjoy the discussion to come.


Note to WSU Students: The topic of this module overviews what you would learn in PSYCH 350: Social Psychology at Washington State University.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Clarify how attribution theory explains the reason why a behavior was made.
  • Define attitudes and clarify how they can be changed.
  • Describe factors affecting whom we are attracted to and how we select a mate.
  •  Clarify what social dilemmas are and how they are resolved.

12.1. Motivated to Explain Behavior


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define attribution theory.
  • Describe the two types of attributions we might make.
  • Explain the correspondent inference theory.
  • Explain the covariation theory.
  • Outline types of cognitive errors we make in relation to explaining behavior.


12.1.1. Defining Terms

Have you ever wondered why the person driving down the road is swerving in and out of traffic, why your roommate does not clean up behind him or herself, why your kids choose to play video games over studying for the SAT, or why your boss seems to hate you? If so, you are trying to explain the behavior of others and is a common interest many students have in pursuing psychology as a major and career. Simply, it comes down to the question of why. According to attribution theory, people are motivated to explain their own and other people’s behavior by attributing causes of that behavior to either something in themselves or a trait they have, called a dispositional attribution, or to something outside the person called a situational attribution.


12.1.2. Correspondent Inference Theory

The correspondent inference theory (Jones & Davis, 1965) provides one way to determine if a person’s behavior is due to dispositional or situational factors and involves examining the context in which the behavior occurs. First, we seek to understand if the person made the behavior of their own volition or if it was brought on by the situation. If the behavior was freely chosen, then we use it as evidence of the person’s underlying traits. For example, President Trump was a controversial figure in the United States and the reader of an article showcasing his successes in the first two years should be careful not to assume that the reporter supports him. Likewise, if the article was critical of his performance, this does not mean that the reporter is against him. Either reporter may have been tasked with writing the article by his/her editor, meaning that the information presented was situationally driven and not necessarily reflective of the reporter’s personal beliefs (i.e., not dispositional).

Second, we need to consider the outcome produced by the person’s behavior. If several outcomes have been produced it will be hard to discern the motive of the individual. If only one outcome resulted from the behavior, then we can determine a motive with greater confidence.

Third, we need to examine whether the behavior was socially desirable or undesirable. If the former, we cannot confidently determine the motive for the behavior, meaning that the positive behavior may not really result from their unique traits. If the behavior is undesirable, then we can assert that a dispositional attribution is the cause. Consider a first date. If the person seems extra nice, accommodating of your desires, funny, and/or smiles a lot, we cannot really say it is because this is the type of person they are. It may simply be they are trying to present themselves in the best light to make a good first impression. If, on the other hand, the person seems very shy or egotistical, we will attribute this behavior to be representative of the type of person they are.

Fourth, what if you go into your local cell phone dealer because of a problem with your phone. If the technician is extremely nice, can we say this reflects the type of person they are, or is it due to the position they are in? Jones and Davis (1965) therefore, says we need to consider if a social role is at work and in the case of our technician, their niceness may be due to their customer service-oriented job (situational) and not being high in the personality trait of agreeableness (dispositional).


12.1.3. Covariation Theory

Kelly (1967) proposed his covariation theory which says we rely on three kinds of information about behavior: distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency. For this discussion let’s use the example of a professor who requests that you stay after class. First, distinctiveness asks whether the behavior is distinct or unique or does this professor usually ask students to stay after class. If yes (low distinctiveness), you will think she has personal reasons for talking with you. If no (high distinctiveness), you will see it as unusual and figure it has something to do with you and not her (i.e., she asked you to stay for situational reasons).

Second, consensus asks whether there is consensus or whether other instructors ask you to stay and talk to them after class. If yes (high consensus), the request is probably due to some external factor such as the professors being on your honors thesis committee and are inquiring about your progress (situational). If no (low consensus), the request is probably due to an internal motive or concern on the part of your instructor (dispositional).

Finally, consistency asks whether the behavior occurs at a regular rate or frequency. In the case of our example, you will ask yourself whether she regularly asks you to stay. If yes (high consistency), you will think it is like the times before and think nothing of it (dispositional). If no (low consistency), you will think she requested the conference due to something you said or did in class (situational).

Kelly (1987) also proposed the discounting principle which states that when more than one cause is possible for a person’s behavior, we will be less likely to assign any cause. For example, if a coworker is extra nice to the boss and offers him a ride home, we might make a dispositional attribution, unless we also know that this coworker is up for a raise or promotion. In the case of the latter, no attribution may be made because the person could be acting nice as usual or simply looking to influence the boss and get the desired advancement.


12.1.4. Cognitive Errors When Explaining Behavior

Even though the process of making an attribution appears to be a fairly logical one, we do make mistakes from time to time. These mistakes can take different forms. First, we might make the fundamental attribution error (Jones & Harris, 1967) which is an error in assigning a cause to another’s behavior in which we automatically assume a dispositional reason for his or her actions and ignore situational factors. In other words, we assume the person who cut us off is an idiot (dispositional) and do not consider that maybe someone in the car is severely injured and this person is rushing them to the hospital (situational).

Second, when we attribute our success to our own efforts (dispositional) and our failures to outside causes (situational), we are making the self-serving bias. Third, the just world hypothesis ­is the belief that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Fourth, if we believe that everyone holds the same opinion we do or acts just as we do, we have made the false consensus effect. Related to this is the false uniqueness effect or the belief that our skills and abilities are unique to us. This might be thinking that no one else can make a grilled cheese sandwich as good as us or are as good of a writer as we are.

And finally, the actor-observer bias occurs when the actor overestimates the influence of the situation on their own behavior while the observer overestimates the importance of the actor’s personality traits on the actor’s behavior (dispositional; Jones & Nisbett, 1972). An example might be a professor (observer) deeming that a student did not do well because they were lazy and did not study (i.e., dispositional) while the student (the actor) feels that their lack of success on an exam was due to the professor making an incredibly hard exam (i.e., situational). 

12.2. Motivated by Our Attitudes


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define attitude and attitude object.
  • State the three components of an attitude.
  • Exemplify how the components of an attitude interact.
  • Identify sources of our attitudes.
  • Describe factors affecting persuasion.
  • Describe cognitive dissonance in relation to attempts at persuasion.


12.2.1. What are Attitudes?

An attitude is a belief, feeling or tendency that we hold regarding a person, a group of people, an idea, or an activity. What the attitude concerns is called an attitude object. Our attitudes are relatively stable and influence our behavior both in the present and future.


12.2.2. The Components of an Attitude

Our attitudes consist of three components – beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. In terms of beliefs, this includes any facts, opinions, or general knowledge we have about the object. Feelings involve whether we love, hate, like, or dislike the object. And finally, behaviors are any actions we take toward the object.

How do the three interact? Let’s say our attitude object is a political candidate. Our beliefs about the candidate lead us to think highly of their position on crucial issues such as gun control, abortion, immigration, and health care.  Due to this, we like and trust the candidate (feelings) and will act on their behalf by donating money, offering to volunteer at campaign headquarters, speak on their behalf at rallies, and of course vote for them (behaviors).


12.2.3. The Source of our Attitudes

So where do our attitudes come from? One common source is from our parents. Throughout childhood, they impart their values, practices, and beliefs on us and may even encourage adoption by reinforcing when we act in a way consistent with their attitudes such as smiling at us or offering praise and encouragement. If we displease them, parents may express disapproval which is a form of punishment. Another source is mass media to include the evening news, websites, newspapers, the radio, and magazines. We also gain our attitudes through personal experience with the attitude object (i.e., realizing that we like a specific brand of toilet paper because we have used it in the past) or interacting with others such that they have a chance to share their attitude with us and convince us it is correct (we will discuss persuasion in the next section). Finally, when we join a group, we are expected to share their attitudes. For instance, a gun control advocate would not necessarily want to join the NRA as they would be expected to support gun rights, not infringe upon them.


12.2.4. Motivated to Change Attitudes

If we engage in a premeditated and intentional effort to change someone’s attitude, we are attempting to persuade them. So, what makes persuasion more likely to occur? Several factors must be considered, and conditions met for persuasion to occur. First, we must consider the source of the attitude. If the person is credible and likeable, we are more likely to be persuaded.

Next, we need to examine the message itself. Messages that tend to contradict our point of view are often ignored and the easier that we can generate counterarguments the less likely we will be persuaded. Appealing to emotions works well, particularly in relation to creating fear or anxiety in the audience. The most effective arguments present both sides of an issue and even suggests new arguments. Two sided arguments make the speaker seem less biased and enhances credibility. If the message suggests a clear course of action that produces results and makes clear and logical conclusions, it is more likely to be adopted.

Third, we should consider the medium of the communication. If the argument is complex, then written communication is best as it will allow time for careful consideration and revisiting the issue. If the audience already understands the argument, then recordings or live presentations work well.

Finally, the audience must be considered. An audience will be more resistant to change if they already have a strong commitment to their beliefs, share the attitudes with others, and learned the attitude in childhood and from people they trust such as other family members.


12.2.5. Cognitive Dissonance

Have you ever held two contradictory cognitions, or thoughts, at the same time? How did that make you feel? I bet it caused some anxiety and you wanted to do something about it. This is the premise of cognitive dissonance theory. So, what do you do? Let’s use an example:

  1. Cognition 1 – I am an honest, trustworthy person.
  2. Cognition 2 – I plagiarized a paper for my social psychology class.


How you might resolve the dissonance experienced by believing you are honest but also knowing that you engaged in blatant plagiarism could be done in one of several ways.

  1. You could change your attitude. In this case you might say that you are not really an honest person. So, then your action (Cognition 2) is not contradictory to your personality traits (Cognition 1 and the one that was changed).
  2. Add a consonant thought. Since you have one positive cognition and one negative cognition, add a third cognition that is positive. You might say that when you submitted your taxes last year you noticed later that you made a mistake and informed the IRS and promptly paid what was owed. This is an honest act and bolsters your claim to be an honest and trustworthy person.
  3. Change your behavior. You might decide that you will never cheat again on any test or paper. It was a one-time moment of weakness. This reduces the value of the negative cognition and keeps you on the positive side of things.
  4. Reduce the importance of the dissonant cognitions – You could play down the fact that you plagiarized a paper by noting that it was just a one-page application paper and is worth very few points in the class. So, in reality, you did not gain much by being dishonest.
  5. Focus on Limited Choices – You might say that you would not have had to plagiarize the paper if your instructors did not assign so much work that week and you did not have to pull an extra shift at work due to a sick coworker. Hence, your time was limited, and this was the best option you had, other than not finishing the paper.

Of course, another option would be to go to the professor and confess the indiscretion. Since the professor did not discover the act of plagiarism, you could throw yourself on the mercy of the court, so to speak, and this basically removes the second cognition and confirms the validity of the first.

12.3 Motivated by Attraction


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define interpersonal attraction.
  • Outline five factors affecting who we are attracted to.
  • Clarify strategies used by men and women in selecting a mate.


12.3.1. Defining Terms

Have you ever wondered why people are motivated to spend time with some people over others or why they choose the friends and significant others they do? If you have, you have given thought to interpersonal attraction or showing a preference for another person (remember, inter means between and so interpersonal is between people). This ties back to our discussion of the need to affiliate/belong from Module 8. Recall that this need is our motive to establish, maintain, or restore social relationships with others, whether individually or through groups (McClelland & Koestner, 1992). We also distinguished between affiliating and belonging such that we affiliate with people who accept us though are generally indifferent while we tend to belong to individuals who truly care about us and for whom we have an attachment.


12.3.2. Factors Affecting Interpersonal Attraction

Five key factors are thought to affect who we are attracted to and include proximity, attractiveness, similarity, exchange, and intimacy. First, proximity states that the closer two people live to each other, the more likely they are to interact. The more frequent their interaction, the more likely they will like one another.

Second, we choose who we spend time with based on how attractive they are. Attractive people are seen as more interesting, happier, smarter, sensitive, and moral and as such are liked more than less attractive people. This is partly due to the halo effect or when we hold a favorable attitude to traits that are unrelated. We see beauty as a valuable asset and one that can be exchanged for other things during our social interactions.

Third, we tend to choose people who are similar to us in attitudes and interests as this leads to a more positive evaluation of them. Their agreement with our choices and beliefs helps to reduce any uncertainty we face regarding social situations and improves our understanding of the situation.

Fourth, we choose people who are likely to engage in a mutual exchange with us. We prefer people who make us feel rewarded and appreciated and in the spirit of reciprocation, we need to give something back to them. This exchange continues so long as both parties regard their interactions to be mutually beneficial or the rewards of the exchange outweigh the costs (Homans, 1961; Thibaut & Kelley, 1959).

Finally, intimacy occurs when we feel close to and trust in, another person. This factor is based on the idea of self-disclosure or telling another person about our deepest held secrets, experiences, and beliefs that we do not usually share with others. But this revealing of information comes with the expectation of a mutual self-disclosure from our friend or significant other. Recall from Module 10 that Erikson addressed the need for intimacy in his intimacy vs. isolation stage of personality development occurring during early adulthood. He said intimacy was composed of three parts: selflessness or sacrificing our needs for another, sexuality or the experience of joint pleasure, and deep devotion or fusing our identity with that of another. For more on this stage, see Section This said, there is a possibility we can overshare, called overdisclosure, which may lead to a reduction in our attractiveness. What if you showed up for class a few minutes early and sat next to one of your classmates who proceeded to give you every detail of their weekend of illicit drug use and sexual activity. This would likely make you feel uncomfortable and seek to move to another seat.


12.3.3. Motivated to Select a Mate

As you will see in a bit, men and women have vastly different strategies when it comes to selecting a mate. This leads us to ask why. The answer is rooted in evolutionary psychology, or the area of psychology focused on discovering the evolutionary origins of human behaviors. Mate selection occurs universally in all human cultures. In a trend seen around the world, Buss (2004, 2003) said that since men can father a nearly unlimited number of children, they favor signs of fertility in women to include being young, attractive, and healthy. Since they also want to know that the child is their own, they favor women who will be sexually faithful to them.

In contrast, women favor a more selective strategy given the incredible time investment having a child involves and the fact that she can only have a limited number of children during her life. She looks for a man who is financially stable and can provide for her children, typically being an older man. In support of the difference in age of a sexual partner pursued by men and women, Buss (1989) found that men wanted to marry women 2.7 years younger while women preferred men 3.4 years older. Also, this finding emerged cross-culturally.

12.4. Motivated by Limited Resources


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe social dilemmas.
  • Outline explanations for why resources are overconsumed.
  • Define social identity theory.
  • Clarify how social identity theory explains social dilemmas.
  • Define social values.
  • Clarify how social values are measured.
  • Predict behavior in social dilemmas based on one’s social value orientation.
  • Clarify how uncertainty explains overconsumption of resources.
  • Outline solutions to overconsumption.


12.4.1. Social Dilemmas: An Overview

Hardin (1968) wrote the seminal article on social dilemmas and noted that overpopulation due to unrestricted breeding is a dangerous eventuality because we live in a finite world with finite resources. Consider the herdsmen who increases his herd by one. Alone this may not be much cause for alarm, but if all other herdsmen in the area do the same, the result will be overgrazing.  The reality of the situation is what Hardin calls the tragedy of the commons, or as Edney (1980) describes the conflict between individual and group interests in resources over time, both of which are justifiable. This conflict revolves around the issue of morality. Is it moral to add the extra cattle and take more from a limited resource than others? One possible way to examine the issue is proposed by Fletcher (as cited in Hardin, 1968), “…the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed” (p. 1245). If there are plenty of land for cattle to graze from, then it may not be an issue. If not, then it is. Applied to the issue of pollution, “The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them” (p. 1245). If the eventual cesspool is in frontier conditions, it is not a concern. If it is in a city, it is. Hence, the state of the system/contextual factors need to be considered in ascertaining the salience of a commons dilemma.

Also important is the fact that natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial such that the individual who denies the truth, even though the society as a whole that he is part of will suffer, benefits. So, the man who pollutes denies its impact on the environment and his fellow man and focuses on his bottom line. Therefore, denial is a manifestation of rationality to Hardin.

Finally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says families can determine their size so long as they have their own resources to support it. Though good in principle, this is not the case as people look to common resources for sustenance and so unrestricted breeding becomes a serious issue. Hardin (1968) writes, “People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others” (p. 1246). It is possible that those who do not limit their breeding make such a choice because they believe a technical solution will come along and save us in our darkest hour. Hardin is quick to point out that none will. He finishes by saying: “The only way we can preserve and nurture other more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon” (p. 1248). Obviously, this goes against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but this was predicated on the idea that each family was dependent on its own resources. As everyone draws from the common resource pool, the more the population increases the more hands there will be reaching into the cookie jar, taking from the same number of cookies. Hence, “freedom in a commons” (p. 1244) and “freedom to breed” (p. 1248) bring ruin to all.

As noted by Edney (1980), social interaction involves a conflict between individual and group interests. Individuals wish to maximize personal or selfish interests while the group seeks to maximize collective interests. If all are motivated by selfish interests, all are worse off than if they had cooperated to maximize their collective interests. These social dilemmas are faced regularly by the majority of people (Komorita and Parks, 1996) and can take several forms. Classes of social dilemmas. One major class of social dilemmas is called a social trap.  This occurs when the behavior of an organism can either cause a small, positive outcome that is immediate, or a large, negative outcome that is delayed.  Social traps can take different forms. The most basic social trap is known as an individual, one-person, or temporal trap and occurs in the absence of a group. Platt (1973) stated that a temporal trap was the conflict between short run and long-term consequences. An example of the temporal trap is eating. An individual may obtain an immediate and pleasurable sensation from consuming high fat or high sugar foods. In the long term though, this can lead to a negative outcome in the form of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, or diabetes. Since this trap involves one person only it technically does not meet the requirements of a social dilemma.

A second type of social trap was the focus of Hardin’s article. Called a resource dilemma, this is a situation in which an individual must decide how much of a shared resource to take for him or herself. After each person has extracted their share, the pool is replenished at some rate related to the size of the remaining pool, but the new size of the pool does not usually exceed its initial size. The individual can practice self-restraint and choose to accept a smaller, immediate benefit in order to sustain the resource and accumulate more in the long run. Since individuals begin with nothing, anything constitutes a definite gain.

Overconsumption and potential exhaustion of the resource pool is a serious issue faced in social traps such as resource dilemmas, even if overpopulation is not the reason behind the overuse. It may be that too many individuals are using the same resource in a given area or that there are a reasonable number of people using the resource, but they are using it too fast. There could also be a combination of these two factors (Edney, 1980). The amount of time between the onset of overconsumption and the exhaustion of the pool depends on several variables (Edney, 1980). First, is the type of resource. Second, is its accessibility. Resources that are more easily accessible will be used up quicker than those that are difficult to access. Finally, the rate of replenishment is important. Even if there is high consumption, if the replenishment rate is relatively fast, this will delay the inevitable for a longer period. To maintain the pool at its current level and avoid exhaustion, individuals would need to adhere to the optimal harvest level. This is the harvest level that if everyone made, the pool would always be replenished to its original size and never run out.

Another major class of social dilemmas is called the social fence. Like social traps, there is a short-term and a delayed outcome, but unlike social traps, the short-term gain is negative and the delayed outcome is positive. A special case of the social trap is the public goods dilemma. In this paradigm, individuals must decide whether to contribute in order to establish or sustain a public good such as public television or a charity. There is a measure of risk seeking for the individual as he/she will endure an immediate loss in order to gain an uncertain benefit. The public good is characterized by having jointness of supply, meaning it cannot be ‘used up’ no matter how many people are consuming it (i.e., public television will not run out of programming) and impossibility of exclusion indicating that it is nearly impossible to restrict noncontributors from consuming it (i.e., not allowing individuals to watch public television programming for failing to contribute; Komorita and Parks, 1996). Individuals choosing to consume the resource without contributing to it are said to be free riding. Maybe they believe that if they do not contribute to the good (i.e., donate to charity) other, conscientious individuals will, or they question why they should contribute to a service they would likely never use. If everyone followed this logic, the service could not be sustained, leaving all worse off (i.e., losing the benefit of the service).

In either the resource dilemma or public goods dilemma, the outcome is such that the individual has less for him or herself if the choice is made to act in the collective interest. In the resource dilemma, the individual has less if she takes less from the common pool and in the public goods dilemma, the individual has less if she gives more to sustain the common resource.

The decisions to be made in these two types of social dilemmas may be the same in terms of objective appraisal of gains and losses, but they are not seen as such psychologically or subjectively. In other words, losses loom larger than gains. The problem for social dilemmas is that it is unclear what choice behavior should be seen as a gain and which as a loss. For instance, the act of giving (contributing) in public goods dilemmas is a loss for the participant, though gain for the group, and the act of taking (harvesting) in resource dilemmas is a gain for the individual but a loss for the group.

A third major class of social dilemmas is the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game (PDG). Briefly, the PDG involves two prisoners who are accused of being partners in a crime. While in separate cells, the district attorney makes each prisoner the same offer. If the prisoner decides to “turn state’s evidence” and testify against his partner, he will go free while his partner will receive a long sentence. If both turn state’s evidence though, both will receive an intermediate sentence and if neither prisoner turns state’s evidence, both will receive a short sentence. Essentially, the act of turning state’s evidence involves a decision to defect from his partner while refusing to do so involves a decision to cooperate with this partner. This decision is made in complete ignorance of the other person’s decision. As Komorita and Parks (1996) note, “The dilemma is based on the fact that individual rationality has led to collectively irrational behavior. By pursuing their own selfish interests, each is worse off. If each could trust the other to cooperate, both would be better off” (p. 7). In the case of the two-person PDG, the individuals are faced with the desire to maximize their own interests (defect) which conflicts with maximizing collective welfare (cooperate).


12.4.2. Potential Explanations for Overconsumption of a Resource

There are several potential explanations to help explain overconsumption in resource dilemma tasks. These include understanding behavior in social and temporal traps, decision making, social identity theory, and uncertainty. Understanding behavior in social and temporal traps. Though Hardin (1968) did place most of the blame for the failure of the commons on the social trap component, is the role of the temporal trap completely negligible? In other words, what is the relative importance of each type of trap in real-world situations? In a study of 56 introduction to psychology students using a regenerating resource pool and subjects either participating alone, in groups of three, or groups of six, Messick and McClelland (1983) found that individuals working alone, for whom the social trap is irrelevant, tended to be more consistent in their harvests across trials but do not perform optimally as four of the six individuals failed to maintain the pool for the full 50 trials. This indicates that the temporal trap is not trivial even for individuals working alone. But why is this? The authors point out that the task tends to be unforgiving and that one or two impulsively large harvests will reduce the pool size to such a low level that it would be impossible for the pool to replenish itself. To sustain the pool, subjects would need to take only the optimal harvest size.

On the other hand, groups seem to make much higher initial harvests and then decrease the size of the harvest sharply. So, individuals working alone have some degree of difficulty dealing with the purely temporal trap, whereas individuals in groups have more trouble dealing with both the temporal and social trap. Several explanations are offered to explain the social component. First, social loafing (See Module 15) says that if no group member feels personally responsible for the outcome and if each individual feels that he/she can take a bit extra, then overuse is likely. Second, the big pool illusion is the tendency to ignore the number of other users and to focus solely on the relation between one’s harvest and the total resource available. Third, the relationship between the individual’s choice and the group outcome becomes muddied as the number of others also impacting the outcome increases. Finally, a competitive orientation leads an individual to want to keep up with the others and not be the one who gets the least. Decision making. Messick (as cited in Foddy et al., 1999) speculated that how we decide to handle a social dilemma depends on the nature of the outcomes; that is whether we are dealing with profits, costs, jobs, or lives. To determine this, he discussed four dimensions or features that affect how we make such decisions, though he did note that other features such as personal aspects of the decision maker (i.e., Social Value Orientation; SVO) can affect the final decision.

To describe these four and to show how social dilemmas manifest themselves in the real world, Messick utilized five examples. In the discussion to follow, one will be outlined. Messick told the story of a student, Michael, in one of his business ethics classes who was a naval flight instructor. Michael’s job was to train naval pilots to fly fighter jets and to make aircraft carrier landings and take offs. At the end of each month, Michael would take his trainees up into the atmosphere and jettison jet fuel. Why would he do this? The Navy’s allocation system was based on previous use. If the squadron experienced bad weather the month prior and could not make as many training flights, the next month’s allocations would reflect that level of usage. If the weather was nice, the pilots would not be able to make as many flights. To ensure the squad had its full allocation, fuel was released into the atmosphere, a practice used by many Navy instructors. What is at stake in this situation is lives. If the trainees could not log enough hours in the sky, then they may not be as prepared should a war break out. Hence, their lives could be in jeopardy. In that way, Michael was bound by a moral imperative to ready his pilots.

First, when making decisions, the extent to which the social dilemma is explicitly motivated by future considerations is important. In our example, planning involves a time dependent allocation system to achieve Michael’s goal of providing quality training for his pilots. Having past fuel consumption determine future allocations is more an impersonal feature of the environment than a rational, strategic plan.

Second, some problems faced in the real world are explicitly collective in nature while others are essentially individual problems. In Michael’s case, the dilemma is not inherently collective, but originates from a poorly designed allocation system and Michael is behaving rationally within the context of the system. His concern lies with his pilots being effectively trained for combat and dumping fuel is an effective way to guarantee that. He does not need to consider the actions of anyone else in the system.

Third, moral or legal concerns are important. When moral issues are involved, decisions may become more rule-based than outcome based, and when legal issues are involved, certain strategies that could make the resolution of the issue easy, may need to be excluded.  Moral issues are paramount in the dilemma faced by Michael as lives are at stake. So again, dumping fuel makes sense. Maybe in a way it is a matter of which is the lesser of the two evils.

Finally, outcomes are important, and the range of outcome variables is very wide and extremely complex, more so than can possibly be studied in experimental research. In Michael’s case, money is not the outcome but the preservation of life, a situation not easily studied by researchers.

Messick argues that social psychology needs a new way to consider decision making in social contexts such as the dilemma described above. He advocates March’s (as cited in Foddy et al., 1999) approach using three broad categories of concepts. These include appropriateness, personal (or organizational) identity, and finally, rule-based decision processes in addition to consequence-based processes. Hence, the essence of the AIR (Appropriateness, Identity, Rule) approach is in the perception of the situation. It may be appropriate to make a tradeoff between profits and costs in some situations, but in Michael’s case, it was not appropriate to make a tradeoff between lives and costs. As Messick says, “Risk of life dominated his (Michael’s) deliberations” (p. 217). Decision making: Decision heuristics. Outside of careful deliberation, how else might we arrive at a decision? Another possibility is that decision heuristics play in. Schelling (1960) stated that we use a focal point or a salient strategy/solution to a decision-making problem in which the appropriate behavior is unclear. When communication among group members is impossible, tacit coordination can emerge so long as members realize the focal point as the best solution to the problem and assumes the other group members will recognize this a well. Allison and Messick (1990) stated that the equality rule, or the idea that whatever is to be allocated should be done so equally among group members, is one such focal point. Rutte, Wilke, and Messick (1987) note that it is a rule to facilitate one’s own decision making (the role as a heuristic), thereby providing a solution to an ambiguous social dilemma, and is also a standard to evaluate the behavior of others. The equality rule is violated when situational or task cues making it salient are diminished or due to the presence of competing cues.

Allison and Messick (1990) led subjects to believe they were the first of six group members to take points from a common resource pool and that they could take as many points as desired which could later be exchanged for cash. Three variables were experimentally manipulated. First, subjects in the low payoff condition were led to believe the pool was only 18 or 21 points in size whereas those in the high payoff condition were told the pool consisted of either 24 or 27 points. Second, the pools were divisible (18 and 24) or nondivisible (21 or 27). Third, half of the subjects were placed in the fate control condition and told that if the requests from the six group members exceeded the pool size, then no one could keep any points, while the other half were in the no fate control condition and told there would be no penalties for overconsumption of the pool.  Finally, data for a fourth variable, social values, was collected via questionnaire four weeks prior to participation. In all, the study employed a 2 (fate control) x 2 (payoff size) x 2 (divisibility) x 2 (social values) between-subjects factorial design.

Results showed that subjects took the least number of points from the resource pool when the resource was divisible, the payoffs were low, and there was no fate control. On the other hand, subjects took the most points when the resource was nondivisible, the payoffs were high, and subjects were noncooperative. To further demonstrate this point, Allison and Messick (1990) counted the number of inducements to which participants were exposed. This number ranged from 0 to 4 inducements. Subjects took between one-fifth and one-fourth when there were one or two inducements, took about one-third when there were three inducements, and about half of the pool when all four were present. So, the equal division rule was used when there were no temptations to violate equality but as the number of temptations increased, subjects became progressively more likely to overconsume the pool. The authors conclude that the presence of competing cues/factors tends to invite the use of self-serving rules to include “First-come, first-served” and “People who get to go first take more.”

The type of decision heuristic or tacit coordination rule used may vary as a function of the type of social dilemma. Across three experiments (Van Djik and Wilke, 1995), subjects participated in a four-person group in either a one-trial resource dilemma or one-trial public goods game and their group could obtain a bonus. Group members were identified by the letters A, B, C, or D. In Experiment 1, for the Public Good Dilemma condition, subjects were told their group would receive a bonus of 300 points if they contributed 120 or more points to a group resource. Of the four members, two held 100 points (positions A and B) while the other two held 50 points (positions C and D). If the condition was met, all four members shared the bonus equally (75 points per member) and each individual member would receive the points he/she did not contribute. In the Resource Dilemma condition, subjects were told their group controlled a resource of 300 points. Two members could take 100 points (positions A and B) while the other two could take 50 points (positions C and D). The group would receive a bonus of 300 points if they took 180 points or less and it would be divided equally among all four group members (i.e., 75 points each). As well, each member could keep the points he or she took. In both conditions, participants with a letter C were in the Low Position condition and those with a letter B were in the High Position condition. As well, subjects in both dilemma conditions were informed that the points could be turned in for money (approximately $.60 per point). Experiment 1 therefore employed a 2 (dilemma type) x 2 (position) factorial design. In Experiments 2 and 3, subjects were also asked how important it was to them, when making their decision, to allocate the final outcomes equally. In Experiment 3, dilemma type was manipulated identical to the first two experiments, but subjects were told they would receive either one-third of the bonus (high interest) or one-sixth of the bonus (low-interest).

In terms of choice behavior, Experiments 1 and 2 showed a main effect for position with subjects in the high position giving more points to the group resource or leaving more points in the group resource than subjects in the low position. There was also a significant interaction such that low position subjects facing a public goods dilemma gave more points than comparable subjects in the resource dilemma. In contrast, high position subjects facing a resource dilemma gave more points than their counterparts. In terms of coordination rules, results across all three experiments showed that in the public goods dilemma, subjects more accurately estimated the number of points considered fair to give using the proportionality rule but in the resource dilemma, the equality rule was best employed to this end.

In Experiment 1, a position x coordination rule interaction was also found and low position subjects used the proportionality rule most accurately whereas high position members used the equality rule. In reality, subjects would have had to use the opposite rule in both position conditions to obtain more favorable outcomes for themselves. The authors note that this behavior is consistent with Mikula and Schwinger’s (as cited in Van Dijk and Wilke, 1995) concept of the politeness rule, or the idea that group members turn to rules that result in higher outcomes for their partners, but is contrary to Messick and Sentis (as cited in  Van Dijk and Wilke, 1995) who propose that choice of coordination rules are shaped by self-interest.

In Experiments 2 and 3, Van Djik and Wilke (1995) also wanted to find out if subjects facing a resource dilemma were more motivated to minimize differences in final outcomes than subjects in the public goods dilemma condition by asking a single question and allowing subjects to respond on a 7-point scale with a 7 indicating it was important and 1 indicating it was not important. Results confirmed this prediction with subjects in the resource dilemma condition reporting a mean of 5.4 and those in the public goods dilemma condition reporting a mean of 3.5 in Experiment 2, and means of 5.8 and 4.1, respectively, in Experiment 3.

Finally, results of Experiment 3 showed that in terms of choice behavior, high interest subjects gave more points to the group resource or left more points in the group resource than did their low interest counterparts. Also, high interest subjects facing a resource dilemma left more points in the resource than their counterparts gave in the public goods dilemma and low interest subjects facing a public goods dilemma gave more to the group resource than low interest subjects facing the resource dilemma took from the resource.

All in all, Van Djik and Wilke (1995) showed that the two dilemmas do cause different choice behavior. Across experiments, subjects in the disadvantageous position (i.e., low endowments/access or low interest) chose to respond more cooperatively in the public goods dilemma than in the resource dilemma but the opposite was true for subjects in the advantageous position (high endowment/access or high interest) as these individuals were more cooperative in the resource dilemma. The authors attribute this to a preference for the equality rule in resource dilemmas and for the proportionality rule in public goods dilemmas and note that the consequences for real world issues are intriguing. For instance, providing equal outcomes to all people may be more important when deciding how to distribute energy than in setting up a program to prevent excessive energy consumption. In terms of a program such as a water distribution system, most may prefer the costs be distributed proportionally, that is in terms of the income of the potential users or based on their interest. Hence, Van Djik and Wilke (1995) state that this example should caution researchers not to discuss the results of the two dilemma types interchangeably. Decision making: Cognitive load. Kunda (as cited in Roch, Lane, Samuelson, Allison, and Dent, 2000) theorized that high cognitive load leads to a reliance on stereotypes not because it interferes with the processing of relevant information, but because it disrupts the intentional inhibition of stereotypes. Over two studies, Roch et al. (2000) investigated whether individuals participating in a resource allocation task would make different decisions and use different information processing strategies if they were distracted (high cognitive load) or not distracted (low cognitive load).  In the first study, participants in the high cognitive load condition were given 20 seconds to remember an eight-digit number and then performed a resource allocation task. Results showed that low-load participants requested more points from the common pool, made more task relevant statements (i.e., statements directly related to the task but not mentioning or implying equality), and made as many statements indicating the use of the equality heuristic as did participants in the high load condition. The larger request sizes are consistent with the notion that low-load participants had the necessary cognitive resources to engage in more systematic processing and, therefore, consider contextual factors in a more self-serving way. The authors note that given the large variability in the request sizes of low cognitive load participants, individual differences did play in otherwise, assuming they had considered the same situational cues, their requests would have been similar in size. Also, statistical analysis reveals that the number of task-relevant statements alone does not mediate size of the requests and that the number of equality statements must also be included.

In the second study (Roch et al., 2000), subjects were brought in to participate in a resource dilemma game but were not given specific details. They were given a blank sheet and asked to write down whatever questions they had about the game. Subjects in the high cognitive load condition were also given a nine-digit number to remember. No resource consumption task followed. Coders evaluated the list of questions and classified them as an anchoring statement, or one that requested information needed if one wished to consume one’s equal share of the resource; an adjustment statement, or one that requested information if one wished to consume either more or less than one’s equal share; or as a statement not fitting into either category. Results showed that participants under high cognitive load generated fewer questions, participants in both conditions asked about the same number of anchoring statements, and those in the low load condition asked more adjustments questions. As for SVO, in the high cognitive load condition, both noncooperators and cooperators asked about the same number and types of questions but in the low cognitive load condition, noncooperators asked more adjustment questions.

The authors conclude that high load participants relied on heuristics to attain their level of desired confidence, whereas low load participants relied on both heuristics and systematic or effortful processing to close the gap between their current level of confidence and their desired level of confidence. Although the use of heuristics is not necessarily negative, it is important to be wary of the fact that different decisions are reached when heuristics are used compared to systematic processing. Also, participants with a cooperative social value orientation rely on the equality heuristic regardless of cognitive load possibly because it fulfills their moral imperative. On the other hand, noncooperative individuals have a desire/motivation for might and dominance and typically engage in a more systematic search of the situation for a better outcome for themselves;  therefore, they are more susceptible to cognitive load.


12.4.3. Social Identity Theory Defining social identity theory. Social identity theory asserts that people have a proclivity to categorize their social world into meaningfully simplistic representations of groups of people. These representations are then organized as prototypes, or “fuzzy sets of a relatively limited number of category- defining features that not only define one category but serve to distinguish it from other categories” (Foddy and Hogg, as cited in Foddy et al., 1999). This social categorization process leads us to emphasize the perceived similarities within our group and the differences between groups and involves the self. We construct in-groups and out-groups and categorize the self as an in-group member. From this, behavior is generated such that the self is assimilated to the salient in-group prototype which defines specific cognitions, affect, and behavior we may exhibit. Conformity, in-group out-group homogeneity, in-group bias, stereotyping, normative behavior, etc. are all based on self-categorization (See Module 15).

In fact, social norms function to deemphasize egoistic incentives so that the collective may benefit. Types of norms include injunctive which is a moral standard or the ‘ought’ meaning of norms; this includes both personal and social norms, and descriptive or norms that function to tell us what is typical. When individuals feel a high degree of awareness and personal responsibility, personal norms will be activated and will direct their behavior. Biel, von Borgstede, and Dahlstrand (1999) examined several factors potentially affecting different social problems. These eight factors included the likelihood of the person changing behavior, need for changes in society, the importance of making behavioral changes, the seriousness of the problem today and ten years from now, efforts to reduce the problem, arguments for avoiding inconveniences certain actions might cause, a sense of personal responsibility, and the shift of responsibility to politicians and other policymakers. The social problems examined included recycling or the problem of waste products, buying ecological products such as organic food or the problem of pesticides, commuting by car or public transportation or the problem of air pollution, and reducing electric consumption or the problem of electric supply. The results showed that the importance to act, a sense of personal responsibility, and the seriousness of the potential problems correlate substantially with norm perception. If an injunctive norm is perceived, people are likely to report they will act cooperatively and change their behavior. Levels of inclusiveness. These categorizations are further seen to vary in terms of inclusiveness. Turner (1991, as cited in Foddy et al., 1999) identified three levels of inclusiveness – individual, intermediate in-group, and superordinate. In terms of the individual level, people define themselves in terms of how much they differ from other people. At the intermediate in-group level, focus is on similarities between the self and the in-group but also on differences between the in-group and some salient out-group. Turner notes that some groups are more inclusive than others and, therefore, more superordinate with humanity representing the highest level of inclusion for a superordinate group.

The shared resource and associated interdependence must form the basis of a superordinate group identity which serves to remove the conflict among competing subgroups. If subordinate or subgroup identities are made salient such that they emphasize differences between members of a commons, the process of in-group bias and intergroup competition may undermine collective interests. Likewise, if the cost to the individual is too high, the collective good may not be promoted. Kramer and Brewer (1984) found that when a subgroup identity was made salient, male subjects extracted more points across trials as the resource pool approached depletion, whereas males for whom a superordinate identity was made salient, decreased their take when resource depletion was obvious. Higher users were also rated as more selfish. The authors note that individuals with a sense of collective identity may be willing to act to compensate for the selfish behavior of others in the group so long as they are not alone in doing so. Though a superordinate group identity is best, it is difficult to establish and maintain as people have a large repertoire of identities to define themselves by. According to the optimal distinctiveness theory (Brewer, 1991), people in large groups tend to categorize themselves at the subgroup level as it satisfies competing desires to be distinct and to assimilate. Social identity and social dilemmas. Social identity theory has one major implication for social dilemmas. As a group of people more clearly define themselves as members of a common social group, their collective welfare should prevail over self-interest, and they should then behave more cooperatively or practice greater self-restraint. Why is this? A few reasons are possible. First is in-group favoritism such that we see other members of our group in favorable terms and assign them attributes such as being trustworthy, honest, and cooperative. Messick, Wilke, Brewer, Kramer, Zemke, and Lui (1983) found that expectations of reciprocity predicted cooperative response to a resource dilemma. This in-group favoritism also plays out in terms of groups competing for the same resource such that a desire for your own group to gain more than an out-group emerges. Of course, the problem with this is that if the resource is plundered to deny access to a competing out-group, then the in-group is also harmed. Second, it may be that we attach greater weight to collective outcomes than to individual ones. So, outcomes for the other group members or for the group as a whole, are seen as one’s own. Third, social group boundaries are typically fluid or elastic, we have multiple group identities, and they are hierarchically ordered. Inclusion within a common social boundary acts to reduce social distance among group members making it less likely they will make sharp distinctions between their own and other’s welfare.

Brewer and Kramer (1986) examined the effects of social identity, group size, and decision framing in both the resource dilemma and public goods dilemma. Using a 2 (task structure – resource dilemma vs. public goods dilemma) x 2 (level of social identity – individual or collective identity) x 2 (size of group – small or 8 members vs. large or 32 members) factorial design, the authors found that social identity is only an issue when depletion of a common resource has become severe. Individual self-interest or collective well-being is not very acute or apparent when there is an ample supply of a commons. When the choice problem was phrased as a resource dilemma, resource-use decisions were not affected by group size but were affected by group identity when the resource was endangered. Self-restraint increased under the collective identity when the group size was large.

In terms of the public goods dilemma, individuals were more sensitive to diffusion effects such that large groups undermined the positive effects of collective identity. When the collective identity was not made salient, subjects kept a moderately high amount for themselves on each trial regardless of group size. In small groups, the individual’s perceived contribution to the resource makes a difference such that increasing salience and immediacy of collective loss increased willingness to sacrifice personal gain for the collective welfare. In large groups, perceived contribution makes less of a difference such that enhancing the salience of the group as a whole increased preference for risk and individuals kept as much for themselves in the short run. Brewer and Kramer (1986) conclude that the public goods dilemma seems to be particularly vulnerable to the deleterious effects of group size and group identity is not able to override this.


12.4.4. Social Value Orientation (SVO) Defining and measuring SVO. Social values are defined as “distinct sets of motivational or strategic preferences among various distributions of outcomes for self and others” (McClintock, 1978). The four possible social values are conceptualized as having either a prosocial or proself orientation. In terms of prosocial orientations, altruism is when a person desires to maximize other’s outcomes regardless of their own outcome (Kuhlman & Marshello, 1975). Cooperation is when the person wants to maximize joint outcomes. In terms of proself orientations, individualism is when a person is only concerned with maximizing his or her own outcome, whereas competition is an attempt to maximize one’s own outcome relative to others.

SVO is most commonly measured using the decomposed game (van Lange et al., 1997) such that participants chose among three options offering points to Self and Other. For instance, Option A may be 480 points to Self and 80 to Other representing a competitive choice, Option B may be 540 points to self and 280 points to other or the individualist choice, and Option C may be 480 points to Self and 480 to Other, representing the cooperative choice. In order to be classified, participants must demonstrate a preference for one of the three orientations by making the corresponding choice on at least 6 of the 9 trials. SVO and predicting behavior in social dilemmas. When it comes to social dilemmas, how good is SVO at predicting behavior? First, in terms of resource dilemmas (RDs), Parks (1994) found that when faced with a declining resource pool, Cooperatives decreased their harvests across trials, Individualists increased it, and Competitors did not change their harvest level. Utilizing a 2 (SVO – cooperative vs. noncooperative) x 2 (uncertainty – in relation to a high or low replenishment rate), Roch and Samuelson (1997) found that individual harvest decisions were moderated by SVO but only under high environmental uncertainty and during the middle stages of a resource dilemma task.  The authors speculate that when there is little uncertainty about the replenishment rate of a resource pool, noncooperators may not see an opportunity to exploit the situation as their action would be more noticeable and potentially sanctioned by the group. On the other hand, when it is fluctuating across trials, they may see this is an opportunity to take advantage of the situation and maximize their own outcomes at the expense of others. Noncooperators, therefore, seem to be more attune to subtle cues in the decision environment and Roch and Samuelson (1997) attained some support for this statement. When environmental uncertainty was low, both cooperators and noncooperators report the replenishment rate was less uncertain, but the effect was significantly larger for noncooperators. It may be that cooperators are less sensitive to these same cues due to their guiding principles of morality and fairness which are not context sensitive.

Using a decomposed game procedure, Kramer, McClintock, and Messick (1986) found that cooperators generally acquired fewer resources for themselves per trial than did noncooperators. In the sustained use condition, cooperators and noncooperators did not differ from each other much, other than noncooperators initially taking somewhat more for themselves. By the third trial block, the behaviors of both groups were very similar. In the rapid depletion condition, noncooperators took significantly more for themselves indicting no adjustment to the declining resource pool across trials. In the final trial block, faced with imminent loss of access to the valuable resource, noncooperators took more than 7 points for themselves whereas cooperators took less than 5 points. Even at the end, cooperators tended to harvest only what was coming to them. Interestingly, noncooperators lack of reciprocation did not cause cooperators to abandon their own desire to conserve the resource pool. So how do we account for such differences? Kelley (1979, 1983) argued that an individual’s social learning and early reinforcement cause different internalized rules or dispositions to develop which affects later behavior in situations such as those posed by resource dilemmas.

As for public goods dilemmas (PGDs), Parks (1994) found that trust was predictive of contribution behavior because the nature of payoffs necessitates thinking about other’s actions, and that the Trust Scale did not correlate with either a Judgmental Measure or Decomposed Games, thereby suggesting it to be a distinct concept. DeCremer and van Lange (2001) found that prosocials contributed more than proselfs to the establishment of a common good and felt more social responsibility. They note that van Djik and Wilke (1997) argued that in PGDs social responsibility is likely to be more easily activated than in RDs, particularly when the dilemma is portioned. Hence, choice differences between prosocials and proselfs may be more salient in PGDs than RDs.


12.4.5. Uncertainty

Another potential explanation for overconsumption centers on uncertainty which can take two different forms. First, environmental uncertainty indicates features of the environment that are unknown or unknowable such as the size of the resource. Second is social uncertainty which centers on the unpredictable nature of other’s actions. In general, overconsumption increases as resource uncertainty increases (Budsescu, Rapoport, and Suleiman, 1990) but is reduced or eliminated in cases of social uncertainty if an equal share norm/heuristic is adhered to (Allison & Messick, 1990; Messick & Schell, 1992; Rutte, Wilke, & Messick, 1987). It is possible that this finding for social uncertainty depends on the type of social dilemma and is not as salient in resource dilemmas as it is in public good dilemmas (Wit and Wilke, 1998).

The equal partitonment of a resource is possible when it comprises discrete, discernable units of approximately the same size. But many large-scale resources, such as water or air, have a nonpartitioned structure, thereby obscuring the equality rule. The only solution in this case is to “partition” the resource through such means as water meters. Also, the sheer size of a partitioned resource may in effect make it a nonpartitioned resource from which members can only estimate their equal share. In a study by Herlocker, Allison, Foubert, and Beggan (1997), subjects reported feeling more satisfied when they left with partitioned units than with nonpartitioned ones and consumed more of the nonpartitioned resource, whether physical, spatial, or temporal, than a partitioned one in large group settings. When members of a large group were given their equal share, they saw it as less than their equal share. On the other hand, Au and Ngai (2003) reported less collective overuse when group size was uncertain as participants acted as if the group was large and showed restraint by requesting less. DeKwaadsteniet, van Dijk, Wit, and De Cremer (2008) found that when the task environment of a social dilemma provides some type of salient cue to guide behavior (i.e., a strong situation) people make their harvest decisions on that cue, but if the task environment does not provide such cue (i.e., a weak situation) they based their decision on their own social value orientation. So, prosocials will exercise self-restraint to further the outcomes for all when in a weak situation.

Allison, McQueen, and Schaerfl (1990) found that subjects drawing from a nonpartitioned resource took more units and said their decision was more difficult to make as they could not easily use the equality rule. Also, members of large groups were less likely to divide equally and took more of the shared resource, implying that the quantity of group members sharing a resource is more important than the quantity of the resource itself. It may be that a person’s ability to estimate their equal share decreases as the number of others sharing a nonpartitioned resource increases, called the overestimation bias, or that people in large groups are less motivated to divide a nonpartitioned resource equally. So, in terms of the former, members of large groups use the equal division rule as a focal point but the overestimation bias distorts their perception of the equal amount;  in the case of the latter, people may consume more than their equal share when they sense their overconsumption will be difficult to measure or detect.

Three explanations can be offered for the pattern of behavior seen as a result of uncertainty (Garling, Gustafsson, & Biel, as cited in Foddy et al., 1999). First, the perceptual explanation asserts that overconsumption occurs because participants perceive a positive relationship between measures of central tendency, such as the mean, and variability. As resource uncertainty increases, people overestimate the size of the resource and request too much. This explanation is consistent with the big pool illusion which states that we perceive resources of unknown size as larger than resources of a known size.

The second explanation states that participants weight the upper and lower bounds of the interval when estimating the size of a resource, but do so in a way that they overweight the upper bound causing an upward shift in their estimates and request too much. Hence, the participant tends to judge desirable outcomes as more likely. This effect is called the optimism bias, outcome desirability bias (Zakay, 1983), or wishful thinking.

Finally, the egoism bias (Wilke, 1991) asserts that people try to maximize their own outcomes, but their greed is constrained by the motive to maintain the resource and to have equal outcomes for all group members. In cases of uncertainty,  the equality norm may be less compelling and people request more than they should. They may also not believe that a sufficient number of others will request less than their share. Hence, the goal of efficient resource use conflicts with egoism. An egoism bias may also cause misperceptions of the size of the resource when the outcomes are dependent on other’s decisions that lead to unintentional harvesting (Garling, Gustafsson, & Biel, as cited in Foddy et al., 1999).

So which explanation best accounts for overconsumption in resource dilemmas or underfunding in public good dilemmas? Research seems to point to the outcome-desirability or optimism bias (Gustaffson, Biel, & Garling, 1999 & 2000). If people are unaware of the size of a resource and need to estimate it, they will be too optimistic when the resource is of value to them (make an overestimation in resource dilemmas or make an underestimation in public good dilemmas) and overuse/underfund it.


12.4.6. A Potential Solution to Overconsumption

Resource dilemmas present several interesting dynamics when it comes to finding a solution. First, the individual has to realize there is a problem with overconsumption. Second, is the level of the consumer’s consciousness or how sensitive one is to the ill-effects of overconsumption. Third, is the willingness and ability of the individual to take effective action to prevent a crisis from developing from overexploitation. Though an individual is aware that an issue exists and is sensitive to the ill-effects, does he or she take the appropriate measures to reduce use? It may be that the individual wants to recycle, but the town has no recycling program in place.  Finally, even if a reduction in resource use is essential, governmental coercion is ineffective as governmental bodies change over time. Also important to a discussion of fines, but also rewards, is the idea that rewards can be good in the short term but bad in the long term if people depend on rewards in order to act in a socially responsible way (Edney, 1980).

When it comes to resource dilemmas, the democratic value of equality may be preserved at the expense of another value, freedom such that when mutual self-restraint breaks down, the community must decide whether to compromise its democratic values or further jeopardize its resources (Edney, 1980). So, what are potential ways to solve the problem of overconsumption? Structural change and leaders. There are two potential solutions to deal with overconsumption that threatens the commons (Samuelson, 1991). First, individual solutions involve the voluntary, cooperative efforts by members of the group to solve the problem using the current incentive structure. The second possible solution would be the use of a structural solution. These are any actions that abolish or change the incentive structure that created the overconsumption/social dilemma. Noteworthy is the fact that use of these structural solutions may cause the situation to no longer meet the definition of a social dilemma or it would reduce the difference in reward associated with cooperating and not cooperating (Foddy & Crettenden, 1994 and Rutte, 1990 as cited in Foddy & Hogg, 1999). The discussion to follow will be organized around two key questions: first, what determinants affect the decision to make a structural change and second, once the decision has been made to execute a structural change, under what conditions are these rival systems chosen? Determinants for making structural change. In terms of the first question, the perception of inequity in a resource dilemma may either facilitate or inhibit structural change depending on the context in which it occurs (Samuelson and Messick, 1986a). Samuelson (1991) found that a group member’s causal attribution for a group’s poor performance in using a common resource is a critical determinant in the decision to make a structural change. Using a 2×2 between subjects factorial design, subjects in a task difficulty condition thought the group’s failure was more due to bad luck and variable replenishment rate (situational attribution) and voted for change whereas those in a personal greed group saw other members as causing the problem (dispositional attribution) and refused change (reasons to follow in the discussion of the second question below). Hence, two factors that play a crucial role include: 1) the perceived effectiveness of the group in managing the resource and 2) if ineffective, what the cause of this ineffectiveness is.

Next, Messick, Wilke, Brewer, Kramer, Zemke, and Lui (1983) hypothesized that when subjects withdrew resources from a commons at too high a rate, the group would be more willing to change the group decision structure than subjects in optimal or suboptimal conditions. Utilizing a 3 (use – overuse, underuse, and optimal use) x 2 (variance – high and low) factorial design, they found that nearly 70% of subjects in the overuse condition voted to eliminate free access, whereas subjects who did not see the pool size decrease (i.e., underuse or optimal use conditions) voted against the elimination of free access, possibly adhering to the adage ‘if it is not broke, don’t fix it.’ Hence, rate of use is a factor in the decision to make a structural change.

Samuelson (1993) noted that changes in social institutions involve transition costs which make the status quo more attractive. Also, there is less uncertainty about the status quo compared to these new systems. Before a change can be endorsed, these two issues must be reconciled. This process involves evaluation of the potential change and is organized around four dimensions. First, efficiency is the dimension that represents the capacity of an allocation system to provide sufficient levels of a resource to group members without depleting it. Second, fairness involves the degree to which the distribution of resources is equal. Third, freedom is the extent to which a system allows individuals personal autonomy to make resource use decisions. Finally, self-interest is a member’s own evaluation of how his or her personal resource outcomes will be affected by the new system.

Two key factors should influence this evaluation process as well. First, there are systematic differences among individuals in the relative importance assigned to the different evaluative dimensions. As such, this may result in predictably different evaluations. Second, past experience with the status quo system may influence the perceived location of that system on relevant evaluative dimensions.

To test this, Samuelson (1993) used a 2 (social values – cooperative vs. noncooperative) x 2 (resource use – extreme overuse vs. moderate overuse) x 2 (variance – high vs. low) between subjects factorial design. Results showed that almost half of all subjects ranked efficiency as the most important evaluative dimension with fairness (28%), freedom (19%), and self-interest (4%) as the next most frequent selections. Cooperative individuals ranked fairness as more important and endorsed structural change only under conditions of inefficient management of the common pool, whereas noncooperative subjects assigned greater importance to self-interest and refused structural change regardless of the efficiency of the resource use. In terms of resource use, he found that subjects in the extreme overuse condition rated the free access system as less efficient and rated the status quo system as less fair than moderate overuse subjects and voted to replace the system, similar to the findings of Messick et al. (1983). Hence, the relative importance of different evaluative dimensions is a factor in the decision to make a structural change. Which change is best? Once a decision has been made to make a structural change, a few options are available to the individual/group. The decision may be made to utilize privatization. This is when commonly held resources are converted into privately owned resources and effectively eliminates interdependence among users. Privatization may be done equally or proportionally. Another option is to elect a superordinate authority or leader but as with all alternate choices, it comes with certain costs. It will result in the loss of freedom to utilize the commons resource and in making decisions for the group, some will be upset with the leader’s decision and be forced to accept it.

So which type of change is preferred under different conditions? Yamagishi (1986; cited in Samuelson, 1991) noted that members must perceive that the structural change will be effective in attaining the goal of mutual cooperation. Returning to the discussion of the Samuelson (1991) study, when group members made a situational attribution for the group’s failure, they were less likely to make negative dispositional attributions about the other group members and were more likely to elect a leader. When other group members were seen as the source of the problem (i.e., the individual made a negative dispositional attribution as found in the personal greed condition) the leader system was not endorsed. Samuelson speculated that subjects may regard these other group members as too incompetent or untrustworthy to given leadership authority.

Samuelson and Messick (1986b) placed subjects in groups of 6 and told them to harvest resource units from a common, replenishable pool over 10 trials. Subjects had to maximize individual harvests while maintaining the resource pool for future use. Manipulated variables included resource use (2 levels – overuse vs. optimal use), perceived inequality (variance) in other group member’s harvests (high with a range of 37 to 269 or low with a range of 104 to 179), and type of alternative to free access (3 levels with leader, equal division, or proportional division). Results showed that overuse subjects voted for structural change more than optimal use subjects with the leader receiving the most support, followed by proportional and equal division. Equal division was the least popular solution possibly because it was viewed by subjects as a potential threat to their ability to harvest a similar amount of resources in the second session. The lowest rates for equal division came in the optimal use condition where the commons was not in danger of being depleted. Again, the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage seems to come into play. Subjects were happy with their harvest outcomes and no harm came to the commons. Samuelson and Messick (1986a) conducted a similar study and found that the election of a leader was nearly unanimous among high access/overuse/high-variance subjects. Low access subjects preferred equality-restoring systems.

In the Samuelson (1993) study, equal privatization was rated as most attractive, followed by harvest cap, free access, and the leader option last. Strong endorsement for equal privatization and harvest cap may be due to it allowing for personal autonomy and a low endorsement of leadership may be explained by the fact that it eliminates self-determination. For instance, noncooperatives, who determined self-interest to be the most important evaluative dimension, rejected the leader option since it would lead to a loss of freedom in accessing the commons and cause them to have to accept whatever decision the leader made.

The type of social dilemma seems to play a role in leader selection too. In public goods dilemmas, the role of the leader would be to decide how much an individual should contribute from their private resources whereas in resource dilemmas, the leader determines how much of a common resource an individual can take. Van Dijk, Wilke, and Wit (2003) showed that subjects in the public goods dilemma were more favorable to leadership after failure feedback, likely in an attempt to improve their condition compared to those in the resource dilemma condition for whom their situation did actually improve (they had more at the end then they did at the beginning). This seems to be in keeping with the idea that losses loom larger than gains. On the other hand, when there was no information about the group’s success or failure, subjects in the public goods dilemma were more reluctant to install a leader, possibly because it is more threatening to give up decision freedom over personal property compared to collective property. Simply, a higher threat to decision freedom was associated with a lower preference for leadership.

Among the types of structural change, leaders seem to be the obvious choice. Why might a leader be able to resolve the conflicting pressures between individual and group interests? Several explanations are plausible (Foddy and Hogg as cited in Foddy et al., 1999). First, they may have access to information about the overall state of the resource that others may not. Second, the leader can possibly coordinate the actions of group members. Third, there is no longer a resource dilemma as only one person has access to the resource pool. There is one exception to this. In many cases, there are two or more leaders accessing the resource pool on behalf of separate groups or subgroups. In this case, the appointment of leaders does not dissolve the dilemma but retains is features. Fourth, the role of the leader may evoke a leader schema which creates pressure to be fair and responsible. Lastly, making an individual responsible for the welfare of others may invoke a superordinate social orientation where concern for the group may lead to constraint in the dilemma setting.

So, if the group decides on the election of a leader as a structural change, who is chosen? Messick et al. (1983) found that when selecting a leader people generally voted for themselves or for another group member who had taken a moderate harvest during the first session.  Returning to our discussion of social identification, typically, when an individual is part of a group, behavior conforms to the group prototype. This is no different for the leader who occupies the most prototypical group position (Foddy and Hogg, as cited in Foddy et al., 1999). He/she does not actively lead but embodies the aspirations, attitudes, and behaviors of the group as they are manifestations of the group prototype (hence the voting behavior noted by Messick et al., 1983). With the passage of time, this individual can exert some influence in terms of becoming socially attractive and can then gain compliance with their suggestions, orders, or requests and are imbued with charismatic personalities as group members attribute the influence of the leader to his/her personality (dispositional attribution) and not to the prototypicality of the position (situational attribution).

It is also expected that the leader will favor the in-group over out-groups when there is competition for a limited resource due to accountability to the group. This results in a dilemma in and of itself, which can be summarized as such: does the leader take more for the in-group at the expense of the out-group, hence winning the battle of group wills, but at the same time hurting the in-group when the resource is exhausted? Hence, accountability to the group causes the leader to forgo compromise which could result in a mutually beneficial intergroup outcome. In the case of social dilemmas, this problem is faced by subgroup leaders; but for superordinate group leaders, it is not an issue and most are particularly conserving of the resource. One possible solution is to have leaders who are not subgroup prototypical, do not identify strongly with their subgroup, and are not highly accountable to the subgroup (Foddy and Hogg, as cited in Foddy et al., 1999). 

Module Recap

Again, this began our discussion of social processes and how they affect motivated behavior. We discussed attribution theory, interpersonal attraction, attitude formation and change via persuasion, cognitive dissonance, and social dilemmas. In the future we will also look at social influence, social action, group processes, prejudice and discrimination, and other topics. Be on the look out for this in Module 15.

For now, this is the final module in Part IV and so prepare for an exam if your instructor is giving one. Our final Part will focus on internal motivation involving cognitive and physiological processes. We then end with a discussion of motivated behavior, for better or worse. This discussion will focus on the dark side of human behavior but also positive aspects. Universal human values will be offered as an explanation for this behavior.

2nd edition


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Module 12: Motivated by Social Processes by Lee William Daffin Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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