October 08, 2015

Water and the Tragedy of Extra Credit

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

This summer, entering the fourth year of drought conditions in California, ordinary residents followed Governor Jerry Brown’s call to cut their water usage by a quarter. All cities met their water conservation targets. The Los Angeles Times, however, cites a UCLA study finding that wealthier communities actually used more water than usual during the water restriction.

One of the study’s authors notes that “…[t]he problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich.” Richer areas consume three times as much as poorer ones. “This disparity,” the report notes, “reflects different land uses, built densities, climates, and the vast differences in wealth.... [T]he top 5% earns over twelve times more than the bottom 20%.” (Here is a great article on golf courses in the desert areas of Southern California.) It is a wonderful portrait of how housing and spatial segregation shapes the perspectives of residents, not unlike Georg Simmel’s seminal "The Metropolis and Mental Life."

Around the same time, another news item emerged that illustrates the tension between individual gain and collective benefit: University of Maryland lecturer in the psychology department named Daniel Selterman became something of an internet celebrity when his extra credit question went viral:

Here you have the opportunity to earn some extra credit on your final paper grade. Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added onto your final paper grade. But there’s a small catch: If more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points. Your responses will be anonymous to the rest of the class, only I will see the responses.

I’m not one for offering extra credit in my classes, mostly because I feel that a.) extra credit disadvantages students who have no extra time, and b.) students should be judged on the workload I have established at the beginning of the term. But this is the kind of extra credit question I can really get down with.

This question actually recalls two older puzzles. The first is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Imagine that two criminals are arrested and placed in separate rooms. Their captors don’t know if either committed a crime but they make a deal with each of them: Betray the other one, and you’ll go free but if you don’t talk and the other says you did it, you go to jail.

The quandary is that if they both don’t talk, they might go free, if they both say the other one did it, they go to jail, but neither knows if their compatriot will talk! It is classic example of how two rational people might work against each other even if cooperation is an option. (Think of the predicament in Christopher Nolan’s Batman film, The Dark Knight: The Joker sets up a social experiment wherein the occupants of two ferries—one filled with prisoners and the other with everyday Gothamites—are told that they can either choose to blow up the other ferry or, if neither group decides to pull the trigger, The Joker will destroy both boats.)

The second puzzle is called the Tragedy of the Commons. In an 1968 article in Science magazine, an economist uses the example of a common grazing area for local farmers: every farmer could use the public area for their sheep, but if the farmers worked solely in their best interest, they would raise more sheep, leading to over-grazing and the eventual destruction of the established common area. This puzzle illustrates how access to a common asset might lead to consequences detrimental to the entire group.

Now, back to Selterman’s exercise. How do you think his students did? Despite knowing the rules of the game, only one class since 2008 ever received two points for every student. The rest of his classes had more than 10% of the students selecting the six points option, leading the entire class to get no extra credit at all. Tragedy!  

I tried this in my own class this week. It is a small group of 18 first-generation college students who live in the same dorm. I believed that such a tight-knit community would certainly prove Selterman wrong by selecting the two-point option. But, alas, the commons fell yet again: seven of the 18 students chose the six-point option!

And so, you might ask yourself: Are we all inherently self-interested to the point of collective harm? Under what conditions are we willing to forgo individual gains for the greater good? When teaching Marxism and socialism I always contend that our everyday assumptions about preternatural greediness are a social construct, a product of being socialized in our capitalist system. Marx famously wrote in the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” that we are not purely self-interested but are free, conscious producers. (After all, for millions of years and in a variety of cultures, the individual was group-oriented toward his or her clan or village.

Can you imagine how long a village member would last if he decided that he would hunt only for himself and not share with the group?) In kindergarten we learn to share our crayons and pencils, but by the time we take an Introduction to Sociology course we have been socialized to think that it’s better to go for the six points than to think of the welfare of the collective group! Why do we learn to care less for others?

If some prognosticators are accurate, and there are crises in climate change, droughts, and limited resources in the near future, what will people do? Would you be willing to reduce your water usage? Would you select the two points or six points? Furthermore, how do you suggest we reduce overconsumption of shared resources? Must we only appeal to individualized gains?


There has always proven to be that collective harm versus greater good factor within human nature. I believe this is a great sociologist lens to address and analyze the recent Californian drought. During a crisis like this I believe that it is imperative that the entire society must be knowledgable of the impact of environmental reflects on all people and not just the "greater" group of people. After all, this planet houses us all, regardless of status or wealth.

Wevare brain washed to be selfish. Which is not the way because if alot of us share with the right people you can become better in whatever it is we may be doing. I would select 6 points and provide water!

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