Collective Action Problem

A collective action problem is when if every individual in the group acts in their own self interest it leads to a negative outcome. However, if the group coordinates it will lead to a much better outcome1,2. The canonical example of this is the tragedy of the commons where a town has a shared plain for animal grazing for all farmers. If a single farmer let’s his animals over graze the resource he will benefit, however if every farmer does this the plain will be over-grazed and won’t replenish and therefore damage the collective. Donna Meadows argues the cause of the problem is weak feedback from the resource to the person abusing the resource2. In this example, the farmer does not see how his amount over-grazing can lead to the destruction of the plain.

Donna Meadows argued that the solution is to educate and exhort the people who use the resource so they understanding where abuse leads. Alternatively, add a better feedback link between abuse and damage, through regulation for example fining abusers2. Meadows also argues for privatization of the commons so that a single individual’s actions do not spill out into other’s resources. This obviously does not work in all situations, e.g. pollution.


Haidt, J. The Anxious Generation. (London, 2024).
Meadows, D. H. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vt, 2008).