Illustration showing two people coming to an agreement

We can work it out

What does it take to get people working together?

Tackling climate change calls for cooperation between people across the whole world. Various strands of research are looking at the factors influencing how well humans cooperate.

To simplify matters, researchers generally look at the behaviour of small groups of people when presented with a well-defined scenario. The classic situation is the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, in which two prisoners are questioned individually about a crime they have committed: if they both keep quiet, they’ll both serve a short sentence; if one rats on the other (and the other remains silent), he can go free and the other will receive a long sentence; if they both sell each other out, they’ll both receive mid-length sentences.

Rationally pursuing self-interest, both prisoners should sell each other out; however, the outcomes for both would be better by cooperating.

The prisoner’s dilemma is an example of game theory – a branch of applied mathematics that analyses situations in which different parties have similar, opposed or mixed interests. More sophisticated versions look at economic scenarios where there is a common resource and individuals can either cooperate for a small benefit or act selfishly and get a larger one – unless everyone is selfish, in which case everyone loses out. This leads to what has been termed ‘the tragedy of the commons’.

I will if you will...

Interestingly, these studies reveal important influences on human behaviour. For example, behaviours change if these games are played several times, highlighting the importance of reputations in social interactions. Strikingly, cooperation increases markedly when the selfish are punished – we like to see other people get their comeuppance. People will even incur a cost themselves in order to punish others (altruistic punishment).

Although it can be argued that these kinds of study are artificial, similar results have been obtained in ‘natural’ environments across different countries.

What does this all mean for climate change? Economics has tended to assume that we are all motivated entirely by self-interest. The evidence suggests we are not. We will make sacrifices for others, and there are ways in which pro-social behaviour can be encouraged. We want to see others pulling their weight and freeloaders punished.

At the moment we are tantalisingly close to global cooperation to tackle emissions – but will it all be too little too late to avoid a global-scale tragedy of the commons?

Waiting to take action could be costly. The longer we wait, the more expensive and technologically challenging the goal of keeping global warming below 2°C will be, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The issues are posed starkly by Harvard University Professor of Biology and Mathematics Martin Nowak: “How long will humans survive?” he asks. “We are causing such irreversible ecosystem destruction that we will eliminate our own habitat. Technological advances alone cannot fix the problem. To reach a solution, humans must cooperate on a global scale.”

Lead image:

Illustration © Glen McBeth


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Health and Climate Change’ in January 2009 and reviewed and updated in September 2014.

Statistics and maths, Psychology, Ecology and environment
Health and Climate Change
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development