Lab experiments for the study of social-ecological systems

Science. 2010 Apr 30;328(5978):613-7. doi: 10.1126/science.1183532.


Governance of social-ecological systems is a major policy problem of the contemporary era. Field studies of fisheries, forests, and pastoral and water resources have identified many variables that influence the outcomes of governance efforts. We introduce an experimental environment that involves spatial and temporal resource dynamics in order to capture these two critical variables identified in field research. Previous behavioral experiments of commons dilemmas have found that people are willing to engage in costly punishment, frequently generating increases in gross benefits, contrary to game-theoretical predictions based on a static pay-off function. Results in our experimental environment find that costly punishment is again used but lacks a gross positive effect on resource harvesting unless combined with communication. These findings illustrate the importance of careful generalization from the laboratory to the world of policy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Decision Making*
  • Game Theory
  • Group Processes*
  • Humans
  • Public Policy
  • Punishment*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Time Factors