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Cooperating with the future

Nature volume 511, pages 220223 (10 July 2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

Overexploitation of renewable resources today has a high cost on the welfare of future generations1,2,3,4,5. Unlike in other public goods games6,7,8,9, however, future generations cannot reciprocate actions made today. What mechanisms can maintain cooperation with the future? To answer this question, we devise a new experimental paradigm, the ‘Intergenerational Goods Game’. A line-up of successive groups (generations) can each either extract a resource to exhaustion or leave something for the next group. Exhausting the resource maximizes the payoff for the present generation, but leaves all future generations empty-handed. Here we show that the resource is almost always destroyed if extraction decisions are made individually. This failure to cooperate with the future is driven primarily by a minority of individuals who extract far more than what is sustainable. In contrast, when extractions are democratically decided by vote, the resource is consistently sustained. Voting10,11,12,13,14,15 is effective for two reasons. First, it allows a majority of cooperators to restrain defectors. Second, it reassures conditional cooperators16 that their efforts are not futile. Voting, however, only promotes sustainability if it is binding for all involved. Our results have implications for policy interventions designed to sustain intergenerational public goods.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A. Dreber for discussion and three anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback. Financial support from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, the Harvard Office for Sustainability and the John Templeton Foundation is gratefully acknowledged.

Author information

Author notes

    • Oliver P. Hauser
    •  & David G. Rand

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Oliver P. Hauser
    • , Alexander Peysakhovich
    •  & Martin A. Nowak
  2. Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Oliver P. Hauser
    •  & Martin A. Nowak
  3. Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA

    • David G. Rand
    •  & Alexander Peysakhovich
  4. Department of Economics, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA

    • David G. Rand
  5. Department of Mathematics, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Martin A. Nowak

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Contributions

O.P.H., D.G.R., A.P. and M.A.N. designed and performed the experiments, analysed the data and wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martin A. Nowak.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, which includes Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1-7 and additional references.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13530

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