A social dilemma is a conflict between competing interests: the self and the group. On the one hand, acting in the interest of the self is appealing to each individual in a given situation. On the other hand, if everyone acts on behalf of the greater good, then everyone will eventually benefit.
Dawes and Messick (2000) describe the competing interests as occurring when “each individual always receives a higher payoff for defecting than for cooperating, but all are better off if all cooperate than if all defect” (p. 111).
Dawes (1980) is usually attributed as coining the term social dilemma and identifying its basic conditions, which are:
- each individual has a self-interest motive of non-cooperation because it produces the greatest benefit to self, regardless of the choices of others, and
- If everyone chooses self-interest, then everyone ends up worse off than if everyone had cooperated.
Research on social dilemmas has been increasing due to its application across a broad range of disciplines (Van Lange et al., 2013).
A better understanding of social dilemmas and the factors involved in people’s decision to cooperate, or not, has application in political science, economics, organization decision-making, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.
Although outlining these conditions has proved helpful, it does not apply to scenarios that involve greater interdependent structures or temporal considerations (Van Lange et al., 2013).
Versions of Social Dilemmas
Research on social dilemmas has employed several different paradigms to investigate self-interest vs. collective interest decision-making. Those paradigms include:
1. Prisoner’s Dilemma
This ethical dilemma is a game used by researchers to study factors that affect decision-making situations when individuals are facing self vs group interests. The game basically involves two players. Each one can maximize their benefit by either cooperating with or betraying the other player. In its simplest version, if one prisoner confesses, then they are set free, but the other prisoner is given a three-year sentence. However, if neither prisoner confesses, they both serve a one-year sentence. If they both confess, then they both serve two years.
2. Chicken Dilemma
In this commonly known paradigm, two people drive at high speeds towards each other. The rational decision of each individual depends on what they believe the other will do. If one believes the other will swerve, then the best decision is to not cooperate (i.e., not swerve). However, if one believes the other will not swerve, then the best decision is to cooperate and swerve because losing is better than dying.
3. Assurance Dilemma
This version of a social dilemma sets up conditions in which the greatest reward to self is when both self and others cooperate. Although these parameters suggest that the decision for the self is obvious, as it turns out, that is not always the course taken. There are situations in which one individual considers beating the other as more important than the collective benefit. In other situations, there may be a strong belief in one individual that the other will behave non-cooperatively. Therefore, not cooperating can be the preferred course of action.
Social Dilemma Examples
- Company Profits and Climate Change: The BODs of automobile companies may be well aware of the consequences of the internal combustion engine on the environment, but the profits derived are so substantial that those long-term costs are ignored.
- Splitting the Bill: Going out to dinner, the group decides beforehand to split the bill evenly amongst themselves. When it comes time to place an order, each person realizes that they can order something very expensive and the cost will be distributed among the group. However, if everyone makes that same decision, the bill for all will be very steep.
- Funding National Public Radio (NPR): Many listeners enjoy NPR broadcasts but never make donations. They benefit as individuals but fail to see the value to the collective good by making a small contribution.
- Deforestation: Famers that live on valuable land in the Brazilian rainforest may understand the role trees play in combatting climate change, but they also need a means to support their families.
- Overharvesting of Fish: Even as large-scale fishing operations see their catches dwindle year over year, they still cast their nets as far and wide as possible. The long-term collective good is not a factor in their decision-making today.
- Watering the Lawn: At certain times in the summer, water shortages can become very pronounced. Therefore, the state asks residents to not water their lawn over the next three weeks. This will result in the grass turning an ugly brown and dying for sure. Making a decision based on the collective good means sacrificing the appearance of one’s own home.
- Insurance Fraud: When a large number of individuals commit insurance fraud it raises the premiums of everyone. This is a classic social dilemma: engaging in action that benefits the self versus being honest for the benefit of the group.
- Free University Education: Although offering tuition-free university education to all that qualify benefits society, it will raise the taxes of each individual.
- R&D Expenditures: The head of each division in a large corporation must vote on budget allocations. One issue is always about how much funding should be applied to R&D. Everyone knows that R&D is the key to survival, but the payoff can be 10 years out. So, each division head must balance the immediate needs of their operations with the long-term survival of the company.
- In International Business: The BOD knows they are dependent on doing business with a country that has serious human rights violations. However, if they move out of that market it will mean lower profits and downsizing staff. If they stay, it means putting money in the pockets of people that have questionable ethics.
- Organ Transplants and Ethical Allocation: The varying aspects of organ transplants pose a social dilemma: Who should receive the organs that become available? The highest bidder, the most critically ill, or the one who has been on the waiting list longest? This puts medical professionals in a tough spot, as they seek to maintain the profession’s ethical integrity amidst ongoing debate.
- Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom: A robust cyber-surveillance system can deter malicious Internet activity and protect a nation’s digital infrastructure, but it can also impede cyber freedom and privacy, creating a social dilemma.
- Gig Economy and Employee Rights: On one hand, the flexible hours offered by gig economy jobs can be attractive. On the other hand, they often do not provide the employment benefits associated with traditional work arrangements.
- The Antibiotics Dilemma: Overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections, posing a threat to society. Yet these medicines are crucial in treating potentially life-threatening diseases.
- Euthanasia: This question of life and death presents a social dilemma: Should a suffering individual be allowed to decide when to die, potentially tarnishing the value we place on life?
- Gentrification: On the one hand, gentrification can boost a city’s economy, bring in wealth, and improve the quality of life. On the other, it often results in the displacement of lower-income residents.
- Technological Unemployment: The increasing use of AI and automation in businesses might result in job displacement, resulting in a social dilemma about how society should prepare for this shift.
- Online Piracy and Intellectual Property: The Internet allows easy access to music, films, and books, often encouraging piracy and posing a dilemma about intellectual property rights and freedom of access.
- Precision Agriculture vs Data Privacy: Using precision agriculture could boost farm productivity but, at the same time, raises concerns about data privacy and the digitization of rural life.
- Climate Change and Sustainable Agriculture: On one hand, agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change, but on the other, it is also one of the sectors that will be heavily impacted and needs to adapt.
- Reproductive Technologies and Ethics: Advancements in reproductive technologies give hope to infertile couples but raise ethical and social dilemmas on the definition of parenthood and the commodification of gametes.
- Least Developed Countries and Intellectual Property Rights: Balancing the interests of intellectual property owners and people’s access to life-saving medicines in least developed countries presents a significant social dilemma.
- Nuclear Energy and Environmental Impact: Nuclear energy offers a cleaner source of power but the potential of catastrophic accidents and long-lived radioactive waste present societal dilemmas.
- Digital Divide: As technology becomes increasingly important, those without access are left behind, creating a gap between the digital haves and have-nots.
- Animal Testing and Ethics: Animal testing can contribute to scientific research, but it raises ethical concerns about animal welfare and the legitimacy of using animals for experimental purposes.
Applications of Social Dilemmas
1. In Coopetition
Coopetition refers to cooperation among competitors (e.g., Bouncken & Fredrich, 2016). According to Brandenburger and Nalebuff (2021), this has become common practice, even among fierce rivals such as Apple and Samsung, DHL and UPS, Ford and GM, and Google and Yahoo.
Companies that compete with each other are often faced with scenarios that share many characteristics with a social dilemma.
If competitors share resources, they can both benefit. However, there is also the risk that one company applies a zero-sum mentality and does not fully share their knowledge.
For this reason, the Prisoner’s Dilemma paradigm has often been used as a theoretical framework for examining when and under what conditions companies will engage in coopetition (see review by Ramsza et al., 2021).
Ritala and Sainio (2014) point out that coopetition can help competing companies benefit from technological synergies and cost reductions, especially when that coopetition results in production innovations.
This can be very valuable, and likely, when the spillover of technological advancements are low and R&D costs are not too high (Amir et al., 2011).
Ramsza et al. (2021) identify different social dilemma scenarios in which R&D coopetition can stimulate investment to avoid the formation of a cartel, prevent monopolization of an industry, or induce R&D investment to foster innovation.
2. In Autonomous Vehicles (AVs)
An autonomous vehicle (AV) is able to operate itself through a vast array of sensors that monitor surroundings in real-time. An AV needs no human participation once the vehicle has been activated.
The social dilemma for AVs is that they can provide the collective whole with numerous benefits, including: increasing traffic efficiency (Van Arem et al., 2006), reducing pollution (Spieser et al., 2014), and eliminating up to 90% of traffic accidents (Gao et al., 2014; Everett, 2016).
Bonnefon et al. (2016) point out however, that a certain social dilemma applies to the AV industry. Since crashes are inevitable, manufacturers and their programmers must develop algorithms that calculate a ratio of risk and consequences when encountering a certain collision (Goodall, 2014).
The algorithm could be programmed to avoid harming several pedestrians by swerving and only sacrificing one passer-by, or choose sacrificing its own passenger to save one or more pedestrians.
Unsurprisingly, Bonnefon et al. (2016) found that participants in six surveys approved the use of AVs that sacrificed the passengers for the greater good (utilitarian AVs). Although they would like others to buy them, if buying for themselves they would choose AVs that protected passengers at all costs.
Moreover, they would disapprove of government regulations requiring utilitarian AVs and would be less willing to purchase one.
Morita and Managi (2020) found similar results involving potential AV customers in Japan. That is, Japanese consumers also preferred to ride in AVs that protected the passenger over pedestrians.
Shariff et al. (2017) suggest that to overcome this preference the discussion should be reframed. Presenting the risk scenarios in terms of total accident reduction instead of focusing on the relative risk of passengers would create a more balanced perspective. The authors suggest a second approach which would appeal to consumers’ virtue signaling and help them come across as moral individuals.
A social dilemma presents the individual with a decision that requires a calculation between the cost/benefit to self, versus the cost/benefit to others.
Individuals and organizations must grapple with social dilemmas in a wide range of situations that occur in everyday life.
For instance, splitting a bill equally with friends at a restaurant means balancing ordering expensive wine for self against raising the bill for all. If everyone decides to order high-priced items, then everyone will have to pay more.
Organizations make decisions involving social dilemmas as well. Putting company profits over climate change means an automobile company is profitable today, but eventually everyone will pay, both financially and also possibly in terms of survival of the species.
In the not so far future, societies will need to make a social dilemma choice between AVs that protect the passenger versus AVs that will sacrifice the driver for the greater good of pedestrians.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]