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An investigation of children’s strategies for overcoming the tragedy of the commons

A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 21 June 2018

This article has been updated


Common-pool resource (CPR) dilemmas are pervasive challenges to overcome. We presented six-year-old children with an experimental CPR paradigm involving a renewable water resource, which children could collect to win individual rewards. To maximize water collection, children had to wait for water to accumulate, without collapsing the resource. We explore the social strategies children used to overcome the dilemma together. Like adults, six-year-old children were challenged by the dilemma: resource sustaining was more successful in a parallel condition in which children worked independently compared with the collective CPR condition. However, children were capable of collectively preventing resource collapse by spontaneously generating inclusive rules, equally distributing the rewards and distracting one another from the delay-of-gratification task. Children also learned to sustain the resource longer in repeated interactions with the same partner. Already by the age of six, children are capable of CPR social strategies resembling those of adults.

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Fig. 1: Renewing magic water resource.
Fig. 2: Experimental setup.
Fig. 3: Dyadic success across trials for each condition.
Fig. 4: Collective condition success and egg equality.
Fig. 5: Collective condition success and verbal strategy.
Fig. 6: Collective condition success and proportional self-distraction.

Change history

  • 21 June 2018

    In the version of this Article originally published, two notes reading ‘[CJ1]’ and ‘[CJ1]This should stay the same. It does refer to a particular seminal experiment and is also not the subject of the citation (40) which refers to a review article’ were mistakenly left in the seventh paragraph of the text. These notes have now been removed.


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This work was supported by the Max Planck Society. We thank the research support staff at the Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology child studies laboratory for help with data collection, including N. Bobovnikov. We thank R. Mundry for statistical oversight and C. Stephens for statistical instruction. We thank J. Lang and R. Hagedorn for efforts in transcribing and coding the verbal data. We thank C. Piot for apparatus drawings and A. C. Schneider for helpful comments on the manuscript. Special thanks go to R. Pieszek and S. Schütte for help designing and building the apparatus. Finally, we thank all the children and families who participated in the study. The funders had no role in study design, data collection, data analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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R.K. and E.H. contributed to the study design. R.K. collected the data. R.K. and E.H. analysed the data. R.K. and E.H. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Rebecca Koomen.

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Koomen, R., Herrmann, E. An investigation of children’s strategies for overcoming the tragedy of the commons. Nat Hum Behav 2, 348–355 (2018).

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