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


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1.

    Ostrom, E., Gardner, R. & Walker, J. Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources (Univ. Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1994).

  2. 2.

    Hardin, G. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162, 1243–1248 (1968).

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Tomasello, M. Why We Cooperate (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2009).

  4. 4.

    Acheson, J. M. The Lobster Gangs of Maine (Upne, Lebanon, NH, 1988).

  5. 5.

    Anderson, L. R., Mellor, J. M. & Milyo, J. Inequality and public good provision: an experimental analysis. J. Socio-Econ. 37, 1010–1028 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Tavoni, A., Dannenberg, A., Kallis, G. & Löschel, A. Inequality, communication, and the avoidance of disastrous climate change in a public goods game. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 11825–11829 (2011).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Ostrom, E. The value-added of laboratory experiments for the study of institutions and common-pool resources. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 61, 149–163 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Hackett, S., Schlager, E. & Walker, J. The role of communication in resolving commons dilemmas: experimental evidence with heterogeneous appropriators. J. Environ. Econ. Manag. 27, 99–126 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Schmitt, P., Swope, K. & Walker, J. Collective action with incomplete commitment: experimental evidence. S. Econom. J. 66, 829–854 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Janssen, M. A. Introducing ecological dynamics into common-pool resource experiments. Ecol. Soc. 15, 8 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Biel, A. & Thøgersen, J. Activation of social norms in social dilemmas: a review of the evidence and reflections on the implications for environmental behaviour. J. Econ. Psychol. 28, 93–112 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Orbell, J. M., Van de Kragt, A. J. & Dawes, R. M. Explaining discussion-induced cooperation. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 54, 811–819 (1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Richerson, P. & Henrich, J. Tribal social instincts and the cultural evolution of institutions to solve collective action problems. Cliodynamics 3, 38–80 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Dawes, R. M., McTavish, J. & Shaklee, H. Behavior, communication, and assumptions about other people’s behavior in a commons dilemma situation. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 35, 1–11 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Dawes, R. M., Orbell, J. M., Simmons, R. T. & Van De Kragt, A. J. Organizing groups for collective action. Am. Political Sci. Rev. 80, 1171–1185 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Croson, R. T. Theories of commitment, altruism and reciprocity: evidence from linear public goods games. Econ. Inq. 45, 199–216 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B. & Griskevicius, V. A room with a viewpoint: using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. J. Consum. Res. 35, 472–482 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Kazemi, A. & Eek, D. in New Issues and Paradigms in Research on Social Dilemmas (eds Biel A., Eek, D., Gärling T. & Gustafsson, M.) 72–92 (Springer, Boston, MA, 2008).

  19. 19.

    Colding, J. & Folke, C. Social taboos: “invisible” systems of local resource management and biological conservation. Ecol. Appl. 11, 584–600 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Cardenas, J.-C. & Carpenter, J. Behavioural development economics: lessons from field labs in the developing world. J. Dev. Stud. 44, 311–338 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Kerr, N. L. in Social Dilemmas: Social Psychological Perspectives (ed. Schroeder, D.) 31–47 (Pergamon Press, New York, NY, 1995).

  22. 22.

    Agrawal, A. Common property institutions and sustainable governance of resources. World Dev. 29, 1649–1672 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Gummerum, M., Hanoch, Y. & Keller, M. When child development meets economic game theory: an interdisciplinary approach to investigating social development. Hum. Dev. 51, 235–261 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Wellman, H. M., Cross, D. & Watson, J. Meta‐analysis of theory‐of‐mind development: the truth about false belief. Child Dev. 72, 655–684 (2001).

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Sally, D. & Hill, E. The development of interpersonal strategy: autism, theory-of-mind, cooperation and fairness. J. Econ. Psychol. 27, 73–97 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Takagishi, H., Kameshima, S., Schug, J., Koizumi, M. & Yamagishi, T. Theory of mind enhances preference for fairness. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 105, 130–137 (2010).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Feinfield, K. A., Lee, P. P., Flavell, E. R., Green, F. L. & Flavell, J. H. Young children’s understanding of intention. Cogn. Dev. 14, 463–486 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Call, J. & Tomasello, M. Distinguishing intentional from accidental actions in orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and human children (Homo sapiens). J. Comp. Psychol. 112, 192–206 (1998).

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Sodian, B., Taylor, C., Harris, O. L. & Perner, J. Early deception and the child’s theory of mind: false trails and genuine markers. Child Dev. 62, 468–483 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Grueneisen, S., Wyman, E. & Tomasello, M. Conforming to coordinate: children use majority information for peer coordination. Br. J. Dev. Psychol. 33, 136–147 (2015).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Grueneisen, S., Wyman, E. & Tomasello, M. “I know you don’t know I know…” Children use second‐order false‐belief reasoning for peer coordination. Child Dev. 86, 287–293 (2015).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Sloane, S., Baillargeon, R. & Premack, D. Do infants have a sense of fairness? Psychol. Sci. 23, 196–204 (2012).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Blake, P. R., McAuliffe, K. & Warneken, F. The developmental origins of fairness: the knowledge–behavior gap. Trends Cogn. Sci. 18, 559–561 (2014).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Grueneisen, S. & Tomasello, M. Children coordinate in a recurrent social dilemma by taking turns and along dominance asymmetries. Dev. Psychol. 53, 265–273 (2017).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Vogelsang, M., Jensen, K., Kirschner, S., Tennie, C. & Tomasello, M. Preschoolers are sensitive to free riding in a public goods game. Front. Psychol. 5, 729 (2014).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Harbaugh, W. T. & Krause, K. Children’s altruism in public good and dictator experiments. Econ. Inq. 38, 95–109 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Camerer, C. Behavioral Game Theory (New Age International, New Delhi, 2010).

  38. 38.

    House, B., Henrich, J., Sarnecka, B. & Silk, J. B. The development of contingent reciprocity in children. Evol. Hum. Behav. 34, 86–93 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Sanchez-Amaro, A., Duguid, S., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. Strategic decision-making by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus) and children in a snowdrift-game task. Preprint at (2016).

  40. 40.

    Kortenkamp, K. V. & Moore, C. F. Time, uncertainty, and individual differences in decisions to cooperate in resource dilemmas. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 32, 603–615 (2006).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Mischel, W., Shoda, Y. & Rodriguez, M. L. Delay of gratification in children. Science 244, 933–938 (1989).

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Mischel, W. & Ebbesen, E. B. Attention in delay of gratification. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 16, 329–337 (1970).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Yates, G. C., Yates, S. M. & Beasley, C. J. Young children’s knowledge of strategies in delay of gratification. Merrill Palmer Q. 33, 159–169 (1987).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    McCabe, L. A. & Brooks-Gunn, J. With a little help from my friends?: Self-regulation in groups of young children. Infant Ment. Health J. 28, 584–605 (2007).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Nisan, M. Delay of gratification in children: personal versus group choices. Child Dev. 47, 195–200 (1976).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Dawes, R. M., Ven De Kragt, A. J. & Orbell, J. M. Not me or thee but we: the importance of group identity in eliciting cooperation in dilemma situations: experimental manipulations. Acta Psychol. 68, 83–97 (1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B. & Raskoff Zeiss, A. Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 21, 204–218 (1972).

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Vaughn, B. E., Kopp, C. B., Krakow, J. B., Johnson, K. & Schwartz, S. S. Process analyses of the behavior of very young children in delay tasks. Dev. Psychol. 22, 752–759 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Rodriguez, M. L., Mischel, W. & Shoda, Y. Cognitive person variables in the delay of gratification of older children at risk. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 57, 358–367 (1989).

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Messick, D. M. et al. Individual adaptations and structural change as solutions to social dilemmas. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 44, 294–309 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Köymen, B., Schmidt, M. F., Rost, L., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. Teaching versus enforcing game rules in preschoolers’ peer interactions. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 135, 93–101 (2015).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Bardhan, P. & Dayton-Johnson, J. in The Drama of the Commons 87–112 (National Academies Press, Washington DC, 2002).

  53. 53.

    Hove, M. J. & Risen, J. L. It’s all in the timing: interpersonal synchrony increases affiliation. Soc. Cogn. 27, 949–960 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Valdesolo, P., Ouyang, J. & DeSteno, D. The rhythm of joint action: synchrony promotes cooperative ability. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 46, 693–695 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Mulder, L. B., Van Dijk, E., De Cremer, D. & Wilke, H. A. Undermining trust and cooperation: the paradox of sanctioning systems in social dilemmas. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 42, 147–162 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Balliet, D., Parks, C. & Joireman, J. Social value orientation and cooperation in social dilemmas: a meta-analysis. Group Process. Inter. Relat. 12, 533–547 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Parks, C. D. The predictive ability of social values in resource dilemmas and public goods games. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 20, 431–438 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Allison, S. T., McQueen, L. R. & Schaerfl, L. M. Social decision making processes and the equal partitionment of shared resources. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 28, 23–42 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    R Development Core Team R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2016).

  60. 60.

    Baayen, R. H. Analyzing Linguistic Data: A Practical Introduction to Statistics Using R (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2008).

  61. 61.

    Bates, D., Maechler, M., Bolker, B. & Walker, S. lme4: Linear mixed-effects models using Eigen and S4. R Package Version 1 (2014).

Download references


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.

Author information




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rebecca Koomen.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1–7, Supplementary References 1–2

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Further reading