Social Traps as Reinforcement Dilemmas

In addition to inadequate pricing structures, we are also caught in a global contingency trap (also known as a social trap), as mentioned earlier and defined as "an opposition between the highly motivating short-run reward or punishment, and the long run consequences" (Piatt, 1973, p. 643). There are both individual and social versions of contingency traps. For example, individuals may experience a dilemma between enjoying the experience of smoking, while knowing that they might ultimately suffer from lung disease or realizing that the tobacco industry is not very environmentally friendly. Because the punishers are so far removed from the behavior, they do not exert much stimulus control. A similar phenomenon was examined on a societal scale by Hardin (1968). Hardin, an ecologist, described "the tragedy of the commons," using the example of farmers allowed to graze their cows on a limited piece of common land. If too many animals graze there, overgrazing will ruin the land, as each farmer will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. . . . The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him [sic] to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another. . . . But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing the commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. . . . Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. (p. 1244)

This phenomenon illuminates an evolutionary perspective, which presumes that any action promoting a relative advantage will be selected for. From an evolutionary perspective in the tragedy of the commons, herdsmen are compelled to do whatever is necessary to provide, for example, more milk and meat for their offspring in order to ensure the transmission of their genes to future generations (e.g., Nevin, 1991). In this and many other environmentally relevant situations, the adverse consequences of irresponsible behavior are often uncertain, and result from the behavior of many other people—not just one individual. And, as in most environmental problems, rewards to the individual are more immediate and compelling than the delayed costs to the population. The result is a damaged biosphere. In Skinner's (1991) words, we are not likely to take the advice we are now being offered [about changing environmentally destructive patterns] because the immediate consequences are punishing. The old susceptibilities to reinforcement are still with us, and the behavior they strengthen is naturally incompatible with any attempt to suppress it. It takes strong advice to induce most people to stop consuming irreplaceable resources, to moderate the joys of procreation and parenthood, and to destroy weapons that make them feel secure against their enemies, (p. 20)

Thus, we are often fighting evolution-based patterns in our attempts to behave in environmentally responsible ways, a theme explored further in chapter 6.

Using a behavioral perspective, Piatt (1973) argued that environmentally inappropriate behavior regarding shared resources can be changed by altering the reinforcement contingencies that support it, for example by:

1. reducing the interval between short-term reward and long-term punishment (e.g., making the long-term costs clearer);

2. adding reinforcers for environmentally appropriate behavior (e.g., instituting tax breaks for conservation behavior); and

3. adding punishers for inappropriate behavior (e.g., taxing polluting behavior).

Follow-up research has shown the merit of Piatt's analysis. Most of the work has been conducted through laboratory simulations in which undergraduates play a game with shared resources. For example, at Colorado State University, students played a "tree game" in which each player pretends to be managing 20 plots of trees with two other players. A player can choose to harvest up to three plots in any given year (round), and is told that the plots will double on even numbered rounds. The goal is to maximize one's own harvest. When given no other information, players will quickly exhaust the shared plots, failing to derive a policy of sustainable yield. However, when verbal reinforcement for conservative harvests are given by the experimenter ("Good harvest strategy, Player X"), players learned to minimize initial harvests and thereby maximize long-term yield (Birjulin, Smith, & Bell, 1993). Similarly, punishing overconsumption can reduce its occurrence (Bell, Petersen, & Hautaluoma, 1989).

Many studies have shown that people will forgo immediate rein-forcers for longer term group goals, especially if they identify with the group and feel responsible toward it (Dawes, 1980; Gardner & Stern, 1996; Van Vugt, 2002). In other words, "cultural practices can oppose the evolutionary susceptibility to immediate reinforcement and the contingencies of individual experience" by making social approval contingent on behaviors that reflect group goals (Nevin, 1991, p. 43).

However, group identity is more difficult to define and measure than individual reinforcers like game points or praise. Geller (1994) formulated a model of environmental management that includes group goals, but this approach is unusual within the behavioral tradition. Thus, let us go back to the fundamental place to lodge a behavioral analysis: at the level of the individual.

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