How to Make the Commons Work: The 4i Method

It is clear that common resources – from the local (fish stocks in a river) to the global (the climate) need protecting as part of any considerations of attainability. In a recent article, Mark van Vugt, proposes his 4i model by which we can design systems and policies or communities that will protect our commons. The article and his research focuses on environmental issues, but it seems that his conclusions could apply to any commons. His starting point is the problem that any common resource can suffer from ‘free-loaders’; companies, institutions or individuals who are happy to use the common resource without putting anything back. Once some start this erosion of protocol, others will fear for their own access to the share of the commons and replicate the behaviour.

The 4i framework draws on an evolutionary psychology framework to suggest that there are four focuses to consider in the successful management of any commons resource. It is these four, because the author suggests that it is they that target the core psychological social decision making processes in humans;

  • Information – When we know about the problem and what we can do to counter it, we make more rational and co-operative choices; “And it turns out that the more uncertain we are the more likely we are to bias our decisions in our own narrow self-interest. In a lab study where a group of people were asked to manage a communal resource, they were far more successful when the resource was fixed in size than when its size fluctuated (European Journal of Social Psychology, vol 20, p 475). The researchers concluded that the environmental uncertainty caused by a fluctuating resource led individuals to underestimate the damage of their actions and exploit the resource to the point of collapse.”
  • Identity – Put simply, if you identify with a group, then you are more likely to identify with common goals of the group and so act in a more coordinated manner: “Social identity, a feeling of belonging to a social group, influences our behaviour in other ways too. My colleagues and I found that the more connected people felt to their community, the more willing they were to act in the group’s interests by conserving water during a shortage (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 27, p 1440).”
  • Institutions – The author suggests that institutions that manage a common need to be trusted and fair in the eyes of all stakeholder, else it encourages selfish behaviour: “The key is trust – and the cornerstone for building trust is fairness. In the 1991 California water shortage, the local water authorities tried to implement drastic water-saving measures but only with partial success. Residents were most likely to comply with authorities if they felt their concerns were taken seriously and they got accurate, unbiased information about the severity of the drought (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 69, p 482).”
  • Incentives – either benefits or sanctions – both can work to encourage positive behaviour towards the commons, however the author points out that the type of incentive relative to the situation matters; “The fourth great motivator is incentives – appeals to people’s desire to enhance themselves through seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Government subsidies encourage people to adopt green technologies. Fines persuade individuals and companies to comply with environmental regulations. However, some incentive schemes are more effective than others. My own research on domestic water use indicates that economic incentives make little difference when people are already prepared to do their bit for the environment (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 27, p 1440).”

The author concludes by saying that the most effective commons management comes when all four of the ‘I’s come together to mutually support one-another; “The most effective strategies to protect our shared environment are likely to combine several of the 4is. For example, when my colleagues and I conducted a survey of 120 households in the UK during the drought of 1997 we found that those with a water meter made the most efforts to conserve water. Because they were paying only for the water they used, not a flat rate, they had a financial incentive to save. The meter also allowed them to see more clearly where the most water was being wasted, so giving them a greater understanding of the situation (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 25, p 731).”

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