Collective efforts are a trademark of both insect and human societies1. They are achieved through relatedness in the former2 and unknown mechanisms in the latter. The problem of achieving cooperation among non-kin has been described as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, prophesying the inescapable collapse of many human enterprises3,4. In public goods experiments, initial cooperation usually drops quickly to almost zero5. It can be maintained by the opportunity to punish defectors6 or the need to maintain good reputation7. Both schemes require that defectors are identified. Theorists propose that a simple but effective mechanism operates under full anonymity. With optional participation in the public goods game, ‘loners’ (players who do not join the group), defectors and cooperators will coexist through rock–paper–scissors dynamics8,9. Here we show experimentally that volunteering generates these dynamics in public goods games and that manipulating initial conditions can produce each predicted direction. If, by manipulating displayed decisions, it is pretended that defectors have the highest frequency, loners soon become most frequent, as do cooperators after loners and defectors after cooperators. On average, cooperation is perpetuated at a substantial level.
Access optionsAccess options
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Trivers, R. Social Evolution (Benjamin Cummings, Menlo Park, California, 1985)
Hamilton, W. D. Genetical evolution of social behaviour. J. Theor. Biol. 7, 1–52 (1964)
Hardin, G. Tragedy of commons. Science 162, 1243–1248 (1968)
Hardin, G. Extensions of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Science 280, 682–683 (1998)
Ledyard, J. O. in Handbook of Experimental Economics (eds Kagel, J. H. & Roth, A. E.) 111–194 (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1995)
Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415, 137–140 (2002)
Milinski, M., Semmann, D. & Krambeck, H. J. Reputation helps solve the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Nature 415, 424–426 (2002)
Hauert, C., De Monte, S., Hofbauer, J. & Sigmund, K. Volunteering as red queen mechanism for cooperation in public goods games. Science 296, 1129–1132 (2002)
Hauert, C., De Monte, S., Hofbauer, J. & Sigmund, K. Replicator dynamics for optional public good games. J. Theor. Biol. 218, 187–194 (2002)
Sugden, R. The Economics of Rights, Co–operation and Welfare (Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 1986)
Ostrom, E. Governing the Commons (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1999)
Gintis, H. Game Theory Evolving (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2000)
Berkes, F., Feeny, D., McCay, B. J. & Acheson, J. M. The benefits of the commons. Nature 340, 91–93 (1989)
Colman, A. M. Game Theory and Its Applications in the Social and Biological Sciences (Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, UK, 1995)
Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J. Punishment allows the evolution of cooperation (or anything else) in sizable groups. Ethol. Sociobiol. 13, 171–195 (1992)
Gintis, H. Strong reciprocity and human sociality. J. Theor. Biol. 206, 169–179 (2000)
Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Cooperation and punishment in public goods experiments. Am. Econ. Rev. 90, 980–994 (2000)
Fehr, E. & Rockenbach, B. Detrimental effects of sanctions on human altruism. Nature 422, 137–140 (2003)
Schelling, T. C. Hockey helmets, concealed weapons, and daylight saving—study of binary choices with externalities. J. Confl. Resolut. 17, 381–428 (1973)
Dawes, R. M. Social dilemmas. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 31, 169–193 (1980)
Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J. The evolution of reciprocity in sizable groups. J. Theor. Biol. 132, 337–356 (1988)
Sober, E. & Wilson, D. S. Unto Other: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Havard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999)
Magurran, A. E. & Pitcher, T. J. Provenance, shoal size and the sociobiology of predator-evasion behaviour in minnow shoals. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 229, 439–465 (1987)
Michor, F. & Nowak, M. A. Evolution - the good, the bad and the lonely. Nature 419, 677–679 (2002)
Ridley, M. The Origins of Virtue (Penguin, London, 1996)
Axelrod, R. & Hamilton, W. D. The evolution of cooperation. Science 211, 1390–1396 (1981)
Nowak, M. A. & Sigmund, K. Evolution of indirect reciprocity by image scoring. Nature 393, 573–577 (1998)
Wedekind, C. & Milinski, M. Cooperation through image scoring in humans. Science 288, 850–852 (2000)
Bolton, G. E., Katok, E. & Ockenfels, A. What's in a reputation? Indirect reciprocity in an image scoring game. Working paper. (Penn State University, 2001)
Seinen, I. & Schram, A. Social status and group norms: indirect reciprocity in a helping experiment. Discussion paper TI2001-003/1 (Tinbergen Institute, Amsterdam, 2001)
We thank students at the universities of Bonn, Kiel and Hamburg for participation; T. Bakker, H. Brendelberger, E. Heinz, K.-P. Sauer and M. Zbinden for support; C. Hauert for calculating parameters; and the Max-Planck-Institute of Meteorology for hospitality.
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
About this article
Public Performance & Management Review (2019)
Intragroup competition in public good games: The role of relative performance incentives and risk attitudes
Journal of Public Economic Theory (2019)
Science Advances (2019)
Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications (2019)
Chaos, Solitons & Fractals (2019)