Cyberloafing: A New Problem in an Old Social Dilemma that Keeps Leaders Awake at Night

Shirking by Surfing

Most of us have experienced the frustrations of lost productivity in workgroups because of social loafing.  Social loafing occurs when workers are able to shirk on the contributions of other members while still attempting to enjoy the rewards achieved by the group.  Think back to any high school group project where you shared a grade and you most likely experienced social loafing.  While social loafing is an old problem, an emerging problem is a different form involving the Internet: cyberloafing.

Cyberloafing is when employees use “their company’s Internet access for personal purposes during work hours” (Lim 2002, p. 675).  Cyberloafing is expensive to an organization.  Knights (2007) reports $470 million in annual costs to UK firms from cyberloafers.  Indeed cyberloafing is a social dilemma because the cyberloafer uses the Internet for personal use while dispersing the costs of shirking across other workgroup members.  However, if all (or enough) members cyberloaf then the organization suffers.

(A cyberloafer – source:

Bad Dreams

A squib in The Globe and Mail suggests that leaders are kept awake at night trying to answer the “how can I stop my workers from cyberloafing on the job?” (Schachter 2014).  Some working research by Brice Corgnet (Chapman University), Roberto Gonzalez (Universidad de Granada), and me provides a solution to cyberloafing: participative leadership.

What We Found and Why It Matters

Before I tell what happened, know briefly what these people were doing in our experiment.Participants were placed in 10 person teams with 1 teammate being a boss.  The task was the addition of numbers of spreadsheet tables – similar to clerical and data entry jobs.  The time to work was separated into two parts. In part 1, teammates worked on the task while also being able to surf the web.  Between part 1 and part 2, depending on the condition, the Internet could be turned off (either by team vote or unilateral decision from the leader).  Part 2 involved the teammates commencing  with work either with or without Internet access.

Depending on the condition the boss could (1) work and watch employees (control condition), (2) work, watch, and unilaterally turnoff the Internet after a period of time (autocratic leadership condition), or (3)  work, watch, and hold a team vote with all the other employees to turnoff the Internet after a period of time (participative leadership condition).  There were 6 teams in the control condition, 10 in the autocratic leadership condition, and 6 teams in the participative leadership condition.  For the participative leadership condition, a majority rule was used to decide whether the Internet remained on or off.  The task lasted roughly two hours and participants earned on average $12.25 / hr.  (This wage rate is comparable to professional data-entry clerks in the USA [where we ran the study].  Data-entry clerks in the USA earn currently a rate of $13.37 / hr. ± $2.75 [].)  Now for the results.

In both the autocratic and participative leadership conditions, the Internet was shutoff in all but one team.  In the control condition (where the leader could do nothing to stop cyberloafing), our virtual team’s performance suffered: Internet usage in the control condition increased from 13.7% in the first part of the experiment to 25.2% in the second part of the experiment.  Both autocratic and participative leadership were near equally effective in stopping cyberloafing: from an initial level of 14.2% and 13.6%, average Internet usage declined to 4.6% and 5.5% in the autocratic and participative leadership conditions.  However, these leadership processes did other things.  Teams in the autocratic leadership condition produced $56.06 on average – which is $5.67 less than teams in the control condition – whereas teams in the participative leadership condition increased their production with respect to those in the control condition up to $65.30.  This difference was because of the change in behavior of the cyberloafers between the autocratic and participative leadership conditions.

In particular, while both leadership processes led to Internet policy that stopped people from cyberloafing, participative leadership was the only process that increased a cyberloafer’s work performance.  This effect was occurred found even among cyberloafers who had opposed the Internet policy.

In short, using participative leadership when handling cyberloafing lets leaders have their cake and eat it too.  For those wanting to know why these effects were found, read on after “Wake up and get involved”

Wake Up and Get Involved

A popular approach to navigating an organizational social dilemma is to change the decision-making rights about what workers can do on the job (Van Lange et al. 2013).  Two ways you can change decision-making rights is to have an autocratic or participative leadership process.  Autocratic leadership was first advocated by Hobbes (1671) and more recently by Hardin (1968) in his seminal work The Tragedy of the Commons.  Autocratic leadership is a process where a leader makes all decisions about what the workgroup members can do (Van Vugt et al. 2004).  Participative leadership is when workgroup subordinates and the leader make decisions together (Vroom and Yetton 1973).

Why does it matter whether we use a central authority of give some discretion subordinates?  It seems to matter much when it comes to social dilemmas like cyberloafing in workgroups.

Autocratic leadership is effective when it comes to efficiency.  The autocratic leader sees a problem – like cyberloafing – can unilaterally take steps to fix the problem.  When cyberloafing, the autocratic leader can set limits to Internet access.

But dictating terms comes with a cost.  You can never do merely one thing (Hardin 1985).  Most of us value our autonomy at work (Laschinger et al. 2001).  We feel frustration or even spite toward those who try to force us to do things (Lawrence and Robinson 2007).  A cyberloafer, though restricted to Internet access, may still slack on the job out of spite (Tripp and Bies 2009).  We suspected, based on these ideas, that cyberloafing could be stopped by the autocratic leader but that cyberloafers would not increase their work effort on the job.

Participative leadership, we suspected, would be a different story when it came to the cyberloafer.  Participative leadership is all about a leader relinquishing control and letting subordinates get involved.  The participative leadership process gives workgroup members a sense of ownership over their work and trust in each other (Huang et al. 2010).  The presence of commitment and trust, brought upon by participative leadership, increases workgroup performance (Srivastava et al. 2006).

But wait there’s more!  Participative leadership also gives subordinates voice over how things happen at work.  Having voice over process is often more important to a person than the outcome of that process (Folger and Konovsky 1989).  Research in industrial psychology reminds us that worker productivity increases merely after giving workers voice about rules on their jobs (Lawler and Hackman 1969).  In fact even if the decisions made are counter to what someone wants in a group, that person is more likely to support the group’s decision if they had some voice in the matter compared to not having any voice (Van den Bos et al. 1997).

In relation to the findings presented in the previous section, cyberloafers were willing to work harder when given a chance to vote (and had the Internet shut off) compared to when a leader dictated terms to them.  It seems that to get people under control, leaders should give up control (strategically) (Murnighan 2012).


Works Cited

Folger, R., & Konovsky, M. A. 1989. Effects of procedural and distributive justice on reactions to pay raise decisions. Academy of Management Journal, 32(1): 115-130.

Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859): 1243-1248.

Knights, M. 2007. Gambling at work costs employers UK plc ₤306m, Computerworld UK.

Laschinger, H. K. S., Finegan, J., & Shamian, J. 2001. The impact of workplace empowerment, organizational trust on staff nurses’ work satisfaction and organizational commitment. Health Care Management Review, 26(3): 7-23.

Lawler, E. E., & Hackman, J. R. 1969. Impact of employee participation in the development of pay incentive plans: A field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 53(6): 467-471.

Lawrence, T. B., & Robinson, S. L. 2007. Ain’t misbehavin: Workplace deviance as organizational resistance. Journal of Management, 33(3): 378-394.

Lim, V. K. G. 2002. The IT way of loafing on the job: cyberloafing, neutralizing and organizational justice. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23(5): 675-694.

Murnighan, J. K. 2012. Do nothing! How to stop overmanaging and become a great leader. New York, NY: Penguin.

Schachter, H. 2014. Eight questions that cause leaders to lose sleep, The Globe and Mail. Toronto,  ON: The Globe and Mail Incorporated.

Srivastava, A., Bartol, K. M., & Locke, E. A. 2006. Empowering leadership in management teams: Effects on knowledge sharing, efficacy, and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49(6): 1239-1251.

Tripp, T. M., & Bies, R. J. 2009. Getting even: the truth about workplace revenge–and how to stop it. New York, NY: Wiley.

Van den Bos, K., Vermunt, R., & Wilke, H. A. M. 1997. Procedural and distributive justice: What is fair depends more on what comes first than on what comes next. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(1): 95.

Van Lange, P. A. M., Joireman, J., Parks, C. D., & Van Dijk, E. 2013. The psychology of social dilemmas: A review. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, 120(2): 125-141.

Van Vugt, M., Jepson, S. F., Hart, C. M., & De Cremer, D. 2004. Autocratic leadership in social dilemmas: A threat to group stability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(1): 1-13.

Vroom, V. H., & Yetton, P. W. 1973. Leadership and decision-making. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.


The Social Dilemma of Organ Donation

You Have No Heart!

I have heard many different figures, but some estimate a little over 100,000 citizens in the USA are awaiting an organ transplant. In the US alone, we have roughly 6,570 die each year while waiting for a donated organ (  If we were to assume the best about these 6,570 souls and allow the crude estimation of a human being producing $8.5 million in value in a lifetime, then the USA is losing roughly $55,845,000,000 in value per year. (Of course this is a crude estimate because not everyone needing an organ is the same age, has the same spending and investing capital. But the $8.5 million figure comes from USA Environmental Protection Agency for the average value of a human life.)

Organ donation is something of a social dilemma, in particular a give-or-take some dilemma (McCarter et al., 2011). In the give-or-take-some dilemma, there are givers of a resource (like organ donors) and takes of a resource (like organ donor recipients). The givers face a public goods dilemma with a threshold to clear (the demand for organs) before social welfare improves.  The takers face a common-pool resource dilemma with a threshold to stay under; if the demand is more than the supply (as it is now in the USA) people die awaiting a transplant.

Donated organs are scarce in the USA. Scarce in the sense that, while the number and pattern of deaths in the USA each year would provide a glut of organs for the citizens awaiting a transplant, there are not enough organs legally available for harvest. Why do we have a shortage?


The Tyranny of the Status Quo

The answer lies in how the government regulates organ donation. Currently the US uses an opt-in system, whereby people are born not being organ donors. You can become an organ donor at any time with your parents’ permission pre your 18th birthday and anytime without anyone’s permission post your 18th birthday. Typically the first time we are asked to be an organ donor is when we receive a license at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Milton and Rose Friedman (1984) warned of the dangers of living by the status quo. Webster’s online dictionary defines status quo as “the way things are now”. The danger of the status quo is that people – on average – are averse to taking risk that could make them incur heavy costs. The adjective heavy is relative but the idea persists from sales, stocks, and even organ donation.

Watch people trying to sell products on the street by randomly stopping people. More often than not you will see passersby say “No, thank you” and keep walking without even knowing what is being offered to them. This same reply “No, thank you” often comes when a person inherits stock and other valuables from family. They hold on to these items even if they would bring greater value if sold or thrown out. When asked to dump them, the respond “no, thank you.” When asked by the worker at the desk of the Department of Motor Vehicles about being an organ donor, most people respond with “No, thank you.”

Some Solutions to the Organ Donation Social Dilemma

When solving social dilemmas, we have to ask how we want cooperation to increase and what ways are most practical. Seeing that organ donation is nationwide issue, the lowest hanging solution may be to alter the decision-making process of the social dilemma.

Rather than have an opt-in system and people are asked to be an organ donor; we could have an opt-out system: people are born into this world being an organ donor, may opt-out with adult permission before the age of 18, and may opt out at anytime after 18 years of age. If such a switch were made, freedom would not change as people still have the choice to opt out or stay in. This strategy has been used in Austria and other European countries. The result of a opt-out system is the virtual elimination of deaths because of insufficient donated organs (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003).

Alternatively, we would use a structural solution that uses contingencies. In Singapore, as I understand it, you can only receive a donated organ if you are an organ donor. I am not aware of how effective this solution is, but I would expect the number of organ donors to rise by about (at least) the number of people wanting a transplant.

These are but some suggestions. I welcome others to resolve this social dilemma.


Friedman, M. & Friedman, R. (1984). The Tyranny of the Status Quo. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Johnson, E., & Goldstein, D. (2003). Do defaults save lives? Science, 302(5649): 1338-1339.

McCarter, M. W., Budescu, D. V., & Scheffran, J. (2011). The give-or-take-some dilemma: An empirical investigation of a hybrid social dilemma. Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, 116(1), 83-95.

Is the Cure the Poverty Money? Apparently Not if You Were One of the 15,000 Winners of the 1832 Cherokee Land Lottery in Georgia, USA

I often hear about and witness an approach to poverty that does not quite “feel” right. The approach I speak of is giving money to the poor. In the United States (at least), poverty is viewed (by congress and by many laymen) as something of a social dilemma. Typically the logic goes as follows: If a poor person could simply have gifted (or transferred) to him a large sum of money, then he could get the education and additional resources necessary to make a difference in his life and his posterity’s. Such a position suggests that a person’s poverty is a volunteer dilemma.

The Volunteer Dilemma of Poverty

In volunteer dilemmas, the group stands to benefit should a member volunteer to incur a cost (Diekmann 1985). A squad of soldiers in a fox hole would benefit from a single soldier jumping on top of an enemy grenade flung into the hole, but this comes at a cost to the volunteer soldier (Murnighan et al. 1993). In the case of the poor, perhaps society as a whole, or at least those aware of the person’s distress, would benefit should a person give them a large sum of money to take them from poor to (relatively) rich.

(Murnighan et al. [1993] gives another example of a volunteer dilemma where a group of penguins sit on an iceberg afraid of polar bears lerking below the ocean’s surface. One finally jumps in to see if it is safe. Source:

Bruenig (2013) calculates that $175.3 billion would be necessary to move the 46.5 million impoverished Americans to just above the poverty line. Bruenig’s figures equate to each impoverished family requiring $3,769.89 to “fix” their problems of poverty ($175.3 billion divided 46.5 million people). (Of course because the 46.5 million include families, some poor people would end up with more than others, like an impoverished mother with six children would end up with $26,389.23 compared to a single poor person.)

The Cure for Poverty is Money! … Perhaps

Nearly five decades ago, Dr. George A. Wiley (1968) addressed the Democratic Platform Committee in Chicago and said the following concerning the social issue of poverty:

“The basic cure for poverty is money. We believe that the way to do something about poverty is to give people the money they need to meet the basic necessities of life at least at a minimum level for health, decency and dignity. This minimum should be given uniformly by a simple procedure to all people who are in need without degrading investigations and harrassments (sic.)” (p. 2).

Wiley’s argument suggests that the more money you give a person, the better off that person would be in terms of health, decency, and dignity.

As I have blogged about before, the argument that the cure for poverty is money rests on the idea that poverty is a state of being (Hardin 1985). Something like an instant pancake recipe … just add water (or in our case money) and … POOF! You have instantly improved health, decency and dignity. Perhaps! It has remained until now folk wisdom that monetary stimulus can (truly) help those in need and become no longer needy.

A Real-world Experiment

What we need here is an experiment. A real-world experiment where – say – we take 30,000 poor people and randomly give 15,000 people an economic stimulus (a significant amount of money) and the remaining 15,000 nothing. Then let us compare that “receives” and the “receive nots” over time … say 50 years. That way we can be more certain about several things: 1) Will a person’s circumstances improve with a stimulus? 2) Will a person’s posterity – who received a stimulus – be better off than those who did not get a stimulus? This second question is very important because we hear often from policy makers – most of who have never been poor – that top-down / government policies are meant to “break the cycle” of poverty so that succeeding generations are better off than their predecessors.

The good news is that we have now such an experiment with data to answer the questions Will a person improve their circumstances with a stimulus? Will a person’s posterity – who received a stimulus – be better off than those who did not get a stimulus?

The study. The study and data I am referring to is work by Bleakley and Ferrie (2013) using data from the 1832 Cherokee Land Lottery in Georgia, USA. In this paper, the authors examine the winners and “losers” of a land lottery where land seized from the Cherokee Indian tribe was raffled off to several thousand white male residents of Georgia. The authors also tracked the economic (e.g., wealth and occupation) and social standings (e.g., literacy, education) of the winners’ sons and grandchildren using US census data up to 1880 (these were the data available from the government).

File:Cherokeenation1830map.jpg (Cherokee land to by raffled – source:

Winners could either accept the 100+ acre parcel or sell the parcel for about $700 (which is about $19,400 in 2012. I am using the most conservative estimate from It cost an entrant 12 cents to have a chance to win a parcel, and there was 78,947 entrants, where 15,000 actually won a parcel.

The Cure for Poverty is Money!  … Not Really … for at Least the Children and Grandchildren of Receivers of Money

The main findings. For the sake to sparing the reader extensive math, here are the main findings. Winners of the lottery did die richer than comparative losers – about $700 richer (in 1850 dollars). (This is not surprising considering the average land value won from the lottery was about $700.) So it would seem that receiving a large stimulus does help the receiver (at least up to 27 years later).

Now for – what I think is – the more important question. What happens to the children and grandchildren of those who were once poor (and who did not ask or have control of being brought into the world)? It turns out a son’s economic wealth (i.e., real estate or personal property) for winners was no more than the son of a loser’s wealth (as by the 1870 census). Sons of winners also did not have occupations any different from sons of losers (as by the 1880 census). There is also no difference in literacy rates between the sons of winners and losers. Lastly, grandchildren of lottery winners were no more likely to be literate or attend school compared to descendants of non-lottery winners.

So, those who initially received the stimulus were better off but their posterity were no better off for the first or second generation. The lottery winners were unable to pass that wealth onto their children or grandchildren in some way that placed them in a situation better than those that lost the lottery. To put this another way, the families of winners were just as poor as if their father’s had not won the lottery – they were right back where they started within one generation.

Now What?

For decades I have heard and seen the debate about poverty and how money could alleviate the problem. I witness people cringe when they choose not to give something to a panhandler asking for help. I also witness people cringe when they give their money to the panhandler wondering what will become of them. “Surely, my few dollars will not change much.” They say to me. They continue: “But I gave because I feel helpless and want to help in some way.”

The recent evidence from the 1832 land lottery in Georgia provides very good evidence that there is little need for worry about the uncertainty of what people do with the money we give them.

When people are given a stimulus of money for little to nothing in return (say 12 cents in 1830 dollars), they do little with it. They do not invest the value of those winnings into their posterity. Why? Could it be they have not interest in their children? Could it be they could care less what happens to their posterity? Most likely not … at least I would hope.

The reasons for the Georgia lottery winners not investing in human capital (e.g,. education and occupational training) to improve their posterity cannot be answered from this research. It is not the case that people during this time period did not appreciate human capital investment as it was clear from the data (in the paper) at that time period that those with greater education made more than those with less.

What is clear is that the problem with poverty – at least for these 1830 Georgians – was not that government was not there to help them. On the contrary, the government was there for the people and gave the people (at least those at the time who were considered people) a considerable valuable asset for next to nothing in return. Rather, it seems the problem with poverty is family traditions and choices of individuals in those families. It is the lifestyle – whether habitually formed or culturally created I cannot tell – of the people that determines their destiny.

What is the cure for poverty? It would seem based on this recent paper that the cure for this volunteer dilemma is NOT money. Dr. Wiley seems to be wrong! Perhaps it is training, education, or something else? I welcome your thoughts on resolving this social dilemma.


Bleakley, H. & Ferrie, J. P. 2013. Shocking behavior: Random wealth in Antebellum Georgia and human capital across generations, No. 19348: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Bruenig, M. 2013. How much money would it take to eliminate U.S. poverty? Report accessed September 23, 2013 at URL:

Diekmann, A. 1985. Volunteer’s dilemma. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 29(4): 605-610.

Hardin, G. 1985. Filters against folly. New York, NY: Penguin.

Murnighan, J., Kim, J., & Metzger, A. 1993. Volunteer dilemma. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38: 515-538.

Wiley, G.A. (1968, September 9). Authentic voice for poor at Chicago. I. F. Stone’s Weekly, 16 (18): 2.

How Geocaching is like Managing Discretionary Databases

I have recently discovered a fascinating little leisure activity called geocaching. Geocaching involves using a GPS (global positioning system) to find stashed items or treasures (the cache) all over the world. In my zip code for instance there are over 10,000 geocaches registered on (a website where people post the longitude and latitude of caches, give clues as to how to find them, and allows the finders to make posts about their finds with photos and comments.) Many caches contain swag (or booty like coins, toys, or other things) that can be swapped for an item of similar value by those that find the cache.

(a symbol for geocaching – source:

What fascinates me about geocaching is that it is a multi-level social dilemma. More interestingly, at least to me, is that the social dilemmas facing geocaching are those also facing discretionary databases. Discretionary databases – databases where the data are provided voluntarily – are a common tool used by organizations and industries to achieve goals that no single person or organization could achieve alone. Examples include databases of donor information held by a university and a global human mutations database to further scientific and pharmaceutical drug industries (Connolly & Thorn, 1990; Maurer, 2006). The social dilemma you face changes depending on the activity involved in geocaching.

The Social Dilemma of Production

First, the more geocaches placed in our zip code and around the world, the more benefit geocachers experience – e.g., they have more places to go, more places to discover, and more time to spend on the activity with family and friends. The placing of geocaches is voluntary – and to my knowledge people do not get any kind of monetary benefit from placing them (of course there could be benefit – bragging rights – from knowing that your cache is being found by a lot of people). The time to find a place, construct a cache, load the cache with swag, and then post the location, clues, and other information about it online for people to see

Similarly, discretionary databases create value as a function of the amount and quality of information supplied to them. In a way, Twitter is a large discretionary database that can be partitioned by searching for topics (via hash tags; e.g., #socialdilemma, #guncontrol, etc.). In academia for instance, scholars can post requests for information or ideas on a topic and then get voluntary contributions – suggestions of articles or news stories about a topic of interest – from those on Twitter. With some exception, most of the tweets on Twitter are voluntary, and once posted, can be enjoyed by anyone without diminishing another person’s ability to enjoy the tweet.

In both cases, the volunteers – be they geocachers or iPhone users – are producing a public good. Public goods are shared resources that once generated are available to everyone regardless if they helped produce that resource (Samuelson, 1954).

The Social Dilemma of Consumption

Once the caches are placed or the database opened for use, a second social dilemma emerges: the social dilemma of consumption or the tragedy of the commons. Garrett Hardin (1968) introduced the idea of the tragedy of the commons to illustrate issues surrounding the maintenance of shared resources. The tragedy of the commons is a problem where consumption of the resource cannot be restrained and a person’s consumption of the resource reduces what is left for others to consume. I summarize the tragedy of the commons in a recent paper of mine.

“Hardin (1968) imagines a group of herdsmen sharing a pasture (the commons). As is typical of constrained resources, the commons pasture has a carrying capacity that, once surpassed, cripples the resource permanently. Each herder wants to maximize profits by increasing the size of his herd, and the profits are private to the herdsman. However, the cost of each additional animal to the commons is born by all the herdsmen. The rational behavior for each herdsman is thus to increase the size of their herd without restraint. However, if all herdsmen
increase their herd size and subsequently overgraze the commons, then all the herds starve. Individual rationality in the short-run leads to collective ruin in the long-run—thus the social
dilemma” (McCarter & Fudge Kamal 2013, p. 362).

Overgrazing in geocaching and discretionary database usage would be taking more swag than you replace or placing large amounts of information one the commons thereby slowing it down or leaving less space for others to share their information.

Other ways to ruin the commons. Of course, a shared resource can be “consumed” in ways other than overgrazing. Not only can a person simply take a portion of the resource, but they can also (1) foul the commons (e.g., placing viruses on the database or placing a rotten banana in the cache) and (2) steal from the commons; e.g., take all the cache and leave nothing or sell the information on a company database to a competing firm (Kumar & van Dissel, 1996)

(a common geocache with swag – source:

Managing Shared Resources: We come to love for things that we suffer for!

What fascinates me about these shared resources is how they are governed. Many discretionary databases have centralized authorities (a leviathan) that manage the system. The issue with this method is the leviathan must come up with cheap and efficient ways to manage the resource and watch for abusers.

Geocaching however currently has no centralized authority to control how people treat the caches. This has led to problems of caches being muggled (stolen or damaged). The cache being found by random people (like construction workers) aside, perhaps the largest enemy to geocaching is geocachers who don’t contribute to the cache (or even harm it) when they find it. One way this is attempting to be curtailed is by making it costly to geocache.

There are a few ways to make geocaching costly. One way is to make the caches very hard to get to. Just yesterday my three kids and I traveled for an hour through brush, a creek, a hermit living in the woods, and poison ivy to find a cache. Once we found it we had the most respect for that place and replaced everything we took with something we thought was equally valuable. The approach of making access open but costly was advocated by Garrett Hardin (1969) in his talk to the Sierra Club on “The Economics of Wilderness”. Hardin submitted that the best way to preserve wilderness – so that it could be enjoyed for long periods of time – was to remove all roads and state support if the preserve was accessed. His thinking was that only those that respected the wilderness the most and were of good physical health would venture in and have the least chance of dying or getting injured. (Note: I am not saying I favor this idea, but noting how this idea is very similar to geocachers who are making it harder and harder to get to caches.)

(A mock demo of a hiker having to fend for himself. Hardin posited that letting people fend for themselves in the wilderness was the only way to “fairly” preserve wilderness while still making it open to everyone.” Source:

The second way of making it costly, and less interesting (Hardin always makes conversations more interesting!), is to make people pay for a membership that gives them access the coordinates of certain caches. The cache could then be placed anywhere but (for the most part) be found only by those willing to pay to know. This has already begun with such websites as

I close now paraphrase a quote accredited to Aronson in his research on “effort justification” (e.g., Aronson & Mills, 1959): “We tend to love for what we have suffered for.” Indeed, it may be one of the best ways to preserve the commons is to suffer for it before we can use it. (At the extreme, of course, this would suggest privatizing the commons, but we cannot always do that … at least with ease.)



Aronson, E., & Mills, J. 1959. The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(1): 177-181.

Connolly, T., & Thorn, B. K. 1990. Discretionary databases: Theory, data, and implications. In J. Fulk, & C. W. Steinfield (Eds.), Organizations and communication technology: 219-233. Newbury, CA: Sage.

Kumar, K., & van Dissel, H. G. 1996. Sustainable collaboration: Managing conflict and cooperation in inter-organizational systems. MIS Quarterly, 20(3): 279-300.

Hardin, G. 1969. The economics of wilderness. Natural History, 78(6): 20-27.

Maurer, S. M. 2006. Inside the anti-commons: Academic scientists’ struggle to build a commercially self-supporting human mutations database, 1999–2001. Research Policy, 35(6): 839-853.

McCarter, M. W., & Fudge Kamal, D. 2013. Recognizing and resolving social dilemmas in supply chain public-private partnerships. Journal of Business Logistics, 34(3): 360-372.

Samuelson, P. A. 1954. The pure theory of public expenditure. Review of Economic & Statistics, 36(4): 387-389.

The Ecolacy of Recycling Plastic Bags: You Can Never Do Merely One Thing

What I am about to blog about may offend some. But before we choose to get upset, consider the data and sources as presented here and then find ways to refute it. If you can refute these numbers, please let me know how. I want to live by the truth. If I am wrong I want to know but only if we have data and its original sources to support counterpoints. I am not saying recycling is bad but I am saying is that making blanket recycling policies without asking the ecological question “And then what happens?” is bad.

Processes versus States

Many policies in organizations, cities, and states would change if we understood the difference between processes and states.

A state is “the particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time” (Google Online Dictionary). In other words it is a static term, a term that does not consider how the person or thing winded up the way it did or what that person or thing will do or become over time.

A state is something that can be changed taking a single action – through applying a force. A recycling program is often viewed as an action necessary to change the state of the environment. “We ‘waste’ a lot of paper at our university. We should recycle the paper so that we can sustain the environment!” Some say. “We need to stop using paper … let’s start using re-usable bags.” Others say. These statements I hear a lot, and I believe they are said with the best intentions. The result, however, of such well-intended statements are policies that alter the environment but not in a good way. In both cases, the well-intended person seems to believe that pollution and supposed shortages of resources are states that can be easily changed by doing merely one thing, be it a making a program or passing a law.

Processes are different from states. A process is a series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end (Google Online Dictionary). Processes change through a series of actions over a period of time. Processes suggest a more complex system of relationships. Rather than doing merely one thing and changing the state of something, when we realize (all?) environmental issues are processes we then come to know that “we never can do merely one thing” (Hardin, 1974).


Always Reuse, Always Recycle … Well Not Always

A recently posted Facebook page entitled “Recycling Saves Lives” suggests that things can only get better when recycling policies are enacted. Perhaps. While there are many ways to assess what is better, I will pick two measures that many can relate to: human life (sickness and death) and economic costs (money).


A recent paper (co-authord by J. Klick of University of Pennsylvania and J.D. Wright of George Mason University) listed on SSRN examines the effects of plastic grocery bag bans on hospital admissions and deaths caused by E. coli and other bacteria related illness in San Francisco, California ( Before further discussion, note that San Francisco, CA enacted the bag ban in October 2007 making it illegal to use one-time plastic bags at store checkouts.

Here is what Klick and Wright (2012) found:

Human Health Effects of the Bag Ban

1) Emergency room visits accredited to E. coli infections increased 53% after the bag ban. This percentage is across a three year period. This percentage equates – accounting for standard error – 72 to 191 more people visiting the ER in San Francisco hospitals who were diagnosed with E. coli infection after the bag ban compared to before the bag ban.

2) If we were to look at the immediate effects of the bag ban on emergency room visits accredited to E. coli infections (from October to December 2007), there was an increase of 97% in San Francisco.

3) Deaths ascribed by medical professionals to food-borne illness in San Francisco hospitals increased 46% after the bag ban or 5.5 more deaths occurred annually after the bag ban than before. (Note: many variables were controlled for in their estimation and the time series nature of the statistics makes a very strong case that the bag ban is what caused these additional deaths.)

Economic Effects of the Bag Ban

1) If we take a human life – by EPA calculations – to be worth $8.4 million then the E. coli ban costs the San Francisco economy a little over $46.2 million per year. This does not include the medical costs associated with treating the sick or dying people.

2) Laist (1987) estimates that plastics in general costs $87,500 per animal death. In other words, each animal’s death to plastic costs the US economy $87,500. Accepting this as a conservative estimate, consider the following. San Francisco is estimated by Klick and Wright (2012) to contribute to the death of 400 animals per year because of plastic bags prior to October 2007. So San Francisco is costing their economy $35 million per year. The problem: we are losing $11.2 million extra each year in value. (Of course there is an Eco-centric upside to this if you value the environment more or at least equal to humans: we are losing 5.5 humans per year in San Francisco compared to 400 animals from the bag ban.)

The economic and health effects of the bag ban makes you scratch your head considering that the common arguments for bag bans are (a) the bag ban saves money and (b) the bag ban is better for the health of the environment. We can see that, at least in San Francisco, we are not saving money. If by “better for the health of the environment” we mean wildlife, fine. But we are losing about five people a year to the ban.


Another Simple, Bad Solution to a Problem Seen as a State and Not a Process

Just have people wash the re-usable bags for crying out loud! You will say.

But wait a minute! That would require water, more water being used than was used when we used throw-away bags. Further I would assume you need some type of cleaner, right? Cleaner comes in containers and require resources to produce. How much I am not sure but I know if we were to wash the bags we would be use more resources (conserving less) than we would if the bag was thrown away and incinerated at a local landfill (which is what happens to all garbage in US land fills, anyway).

The Point

There is a common saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, at least given what know right now concerning being no longer asked the question “Paper or plastic?” it seems that the way to at least five annual deaths and $11.2 million in annual losses is paved with good intentions … at least in San Francisco, CA.

Good intentions to facilitate cooperation and achieve the collective action of a better environment must be channeled through seeing the environment – not as a state but – as a process. We must always ask the question “and then what?” when deciding to institute a policy. Doing so helps to develop an ecolacy of recycling. An ecolacy is a skill whereby a person seeking to recycle (and impose that desire on others) considers the systematic nature of policy, environment, and human behavior.

Ban the bags! It is so easy and the people will be better off! Id exclaims.

But now there is more illness and death from reusable bags not being washed. Ego says back.

Then wash the bags! It is so easy and the people will be better off!
Id exclaims again.

But now we are using more water and detergents than before. It is so easy to focus on only one aspect of a process and not consider what comes next. Ego says back.

Not only can you merely never do one thing, but you cannot have everything.


Hardin, G. (1974.) Living on a lifeboat. BioScience, 24(10): 561-568.

Klick, Jonathan, & Wright, Joshua D. (November 2, 2012.) Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness. U of Penn, Inst for Law & Econ Research Paper No. 13-2. Available at SSRN: or

Laist, David W. (1987). Overview of the biological effects of lost and discarded plastic debris in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin 18, 319–326.

Lifeboat Ethics, Welfare, and Immigration

Note: The following post is based on the writings of Garrett Hardin (1974), Julian Simon (1996), and a talk given by Nobel Prize Winner Milton Friedman (

Lifeboat Ethics and Immigration

Garett Hardin uses the metaphor of a lifeboat to illustrate his fear of immigration bringing about the Tragedy of the Commons. He imagines us – the USA – in a lifeboat that, of course, is limited in capacity. Here we sit fending for our survival day to day and look over to other VERY crowded lifeboats (other less fortunate countries) that are sinking. These lifeboats begin kicking people out (or the people just leave the hostile lifeboat) who then swim over to us and ask to be let in. The problem, as Hardin believes, is that we only have so much space (or resources) to spare. We can’t let ALL of them in as there are more people then there are spaces. To avoid the hard decisions of deciding who shall live (by coming aboard) and who shall die or at least exist miserably, Hardin proposes that nothing be done — let them swim somewhere else and figure out their own problems.

Right away some people get very upset at Hardin’s attitude. But before we release the lynch mob, understand where Hardin’s position rests. Hardin assumes that people have no interest in promoting a greater cause unless coerced. (He viewed the world as Thomas Hobbes did in mid-16th century Europe, which was not a very great time to live, it would seem.) If you asked – for instance – Hardin why we pay taxes, then he would not answer “To preserve this beautiful nation’s national security, roads, leaders, and infrastructure” but rather he would answer “Because the USA government has guns and prisons.”

Hardin in the end believes that countries – and government in particular – should not interfere with one another. When left to themselves countries will find a way to survive. However, Hardin did believe that the government should dictate to its own people how to survive. Notice the difference here: Hardin believed that, say, the US government should stay out of, say, Mexico’s business when it comes to living and providing for its people, but he also believed that the US government should control what US citizens did in their day to day lives in relation to such issues as population control and the environment.

With that said, Hardin’s metaphor of lifeboat ethics – i.e., deciding on who of the masses should (must?) perish so that the few can survive – also rests on one other premise, it would seem. Those who are in the lifeboat have guaranteed access to food and other matters of sustenance (e.g., healthcare and safety) that those outside of the lifeboat do not have access to. The guarantee to access such resources suggests some type of government intervention where there exists the right to food, healthcare, and safety.

I will now say something that may disgust some – until they read the whole post and think about what it is proposing. Allowing all people to immigrate to the US in the present day (2013) is not very good for the people at large of the USA.

“How dare you say that!” Some may say.

However, notice I said “all people” and “present day”. In other words there are certain conditions in the USA right now (actually since the 1930s) that have made (illegal) immigration less appealing for the nation as a whole. If some things change, then immigration would a wonderful thing. What things need to change? What do you mean by “all people”? The answer comes in understanding how the USA is structured now compared to pre-1930s.


(I believe the original caption under this Far Side cartoon [by Gary Larson] is something like “Alright, George, I know your upset. But after all you drew the short straw and we are all starving.” source:

Lifeboat Ethics Pre- and Post the 1930s

Pre-1930s. Prior to the New Deal (or welfare policy) instituted by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, those that immigrated to the USA (or came into the lifeboat) faced a world with no guarantees. The person preparing to immigrate KNEW coming aboard the USA lifeboat that they would have to hack out their living with their own two hands or starve and suffer (local Churches and neighbors had [and still have] only so much to give to help those less fortunate). In other words, the lifeboat of the USA prior to the 1930s did not guarantee Nirvana (or an improvement on the soon-to-be immigrant’s current living condition), but rather the USA lifeboat provided the “survivor” / immigrant opportunity (or freedom) to use whatever resources they had or could acquire (through know-how, family, or employment) to improve their lives more so than the lifeboat (or home country) they had come from. Nirvana was not guaranteed but the access to move toward that ideal was guaranteed. Another way to think of it is this: an immigrant would not try to climb aboard the USA lifeboat (pre-1930s) without having some confidence that they could themselves survive by their own skills or acquire better skills.

Post-1930s. After welfare policies – like social security, food stamps, and other living subsidies – were passed in the 1930s something very different happened aboard the USA lifeboat. Post 1930s those coming here were now guaranteed welfare assistance or subsidies for being under qualified for higher paying jobs or living standards. In other words there was no longer a need to acquire new skills or produce because the welfare assistance the USA lifeboat guaranteed (and still guarantees) was (is) better than most other countries’ living conditions. In a sense the immigrant was doing exactly the same thing post the 1930s as before the 1930s: they were taking action to improve their circumstances. The difference however was that post the 1930s there was less incentive to improve your circumstances once you got on the USA lifeboat. A pseudo (or at least partial) Nirvana was now guaranteed, without the need to produce or act to acquire it, other than getting on the lifeboat.

The Point: We are Steadying Chairs on a Sinking Lifeboat

This past 2012 USA election – and I would assume the future elections – was about immigration: should we make it easier to immigrate or not? The answer to this question is not the critical question – right now. Rather, answering this question right now is like steadying chairs on a sinking lifeboat? What is the lifeboat I am talking about? I am talking about USA policy that creates a welfare state that is making the USA lifeboat take on water. If you remove welfare policy, then immigration reform should go in the direction of open borders. WHY? Because each immigrant coming here knows (or will find out very quickly) that they have NO guarantee to assistance but rather the opportunity to improve their situation in such a way (e.g., work and production) that benefits them and others.

“But that would mean they would have low paying jobs and work in bad conditions.” Some say.

That may be the case for a while but that is only because they choose to work in those jobs. And as they work in those jobs they acquire more skills that make them more marketable for better jobs. (Most people in the USA are not first-generation immigrants. Rather they – and their living conditions – are the product of their grandparents or great-grand parents coming here at a time when Leviathan [or the USA government] was not guaranteeing welfare but rather the opportunity to work for what you want.)

“But all these immigrants will come in here and take all our jobs away.” Some will say.

Actually this would only happen if they can offer the same skills at a lower cost. So it is in our best interest as US citizens to stay qualified and marketable. But none the less, what we are not considering is that these immigrants can do more than just take a job. They can create jobs. WHAT?

Think about it! As Julian Simon work – The Ultimate Resource – suggests, if welfare was removed and immigration made easier, some immigrants would come and take jobs at farms, factories, offices, etc. But some would not – or at least not forever take an existing job. Rather some immigrants would become entrepreneurs and need to hire workers to help them.

So, we now close with returning to Hardin’s original concern about avoiding the social dilemma of the Tragedy of the Commons. Hardin has reason to be afraid of immigration – especially if the lifeboat being boarded is a welfare state. The tragedy becomes even worse when immigrants who enter illegally can also access the benefits, which is the case in California. If welfare was removed – most likely through one-time upfront payments to government workers and current welfare recipients to avoid protests – then the boarders can be opened to all.

Consider the words inscribed on the Stature of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

(Statue of Liberty – source:

This quote is true – about there being a golden door – when the tired and poor can work their way out of their circumstances and make the lifeboat bigger and better than ever. But when gold is given (in small amounts) for free, the tired stay tired and poor stay poor. The homeless may stop being homeless (living in welfare housing) but become a slave to Leviathan who dictates to them what to buy, where to work, and how to raise their children.

The USA is not (or at least in my belief) a land of fairness but rather a land of liberty. When you make fairness your goal, sooner or later a leader or Leviathan must be created to define and dictate what is fair. When you make liberty your goal (and of course keep government to protect the people from each other and from external threats), people achieve the outcome they earn.

What are your thoughts? Let me know.


Friedman, M. 2013. Milton Friedman – Illegal Immigration – PT 1. posted by LibertyPen on Video accessed December 2, 2013.

Hardin, G. 1974. Living on a lifeboat. BioScience, 24(10): 561-568.

Simon, J. M. 1996. The ultimate resource 2. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Small Wins as a Large Way to Jump Start Public Goods: An Example of The Crazy Horse Monument

Many of us pride ourselves over our national monuments; e.g., The Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore. However, like all public goods, these national treasures require collective action for upkeep and, in some cases, provision. While the people foot the bill for these monuments through coercion (i.e., taxes), there may be a more excellent way to support these public goods. In this post I provide one way a central authority (the U.S. Government or Leviathan) could “help” fund public goods while leaving the choice in the hands of the U.S. Citizens. I will restrict my discussion to one particular public good that has been limping along for 84 years: The Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota.

(Crazy Horse – source:

The Crazy Horse Monument

(Before I begin I want everyone to be aware that the Monument does not currently receive government funding and that on previous occasions (several decades ago), Korczak Ziolkowski – the sculptor and owner of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation – declined several gifts from the US government to support the project’s completion.)

The Monument’s construction started in the late 1920s but has since seen little progress. Only the face of Lakota Chief Crazy Horse is visible with a long stone platform which will later be his arm. Walker (2008) reports that the Foundation needs $26 million to complete the monument. (The Foundation also wants to build a medical school next to the Monument for Native Americans and that will be a separately funded project.)

Twenty-six million dollars seems like a long shot for this one family to achieve. They get a million dollars here an another million dollars there but over the last eight decades, the Foundation is not very close to completing collective action. What can be done? For once, I will advocate using the Leviathan but not in a coercive way.

(Crazy Horse Monument – source:

A Small Solution: Small Wins

The Crazy Horse Monument is a big task that requires thousands of hours of human labor and millions of dollars in equipment and coordination. While I am not an expert in masonry, I would think the Monument could be accomplished through several masonry teams working on different sections of the statue. Right now it is the  Ziolkowski widow, her children, and a handful of Native American interns (from time to time) working on the Monument. (Even if I was wrong on using teams of masons, it sounds like the Foundation needs money to fund labor and equipment to speed up the process. It seems like a lack resources rather than a lack of will.)

Collective actions like the Crazy Horse Monument are complex. When collective actions are big and complex the first human reaction is to feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed can lead to people taking no action at all. How can we acquire $26 million to finish the project when it we are just one family?

One solution would be to break the large project up into smaller collective actions. Each smaller collective action – when complete – can be considered a “small win” and these small wins propel larger collective actions (Weick 1984). A small wins strategy can be employed by a group of people wanting to create a public good – like completing a monument (McCarter, Mahoney, & Northcraft 2011).

What small win could this Foundation go for? One would be to get H&R Block and TurboTax to ask a simple question to each of their customers “Would you like to leave 5.4 cents of your return behind to help complete the Crazy Horse Monument in honor of the Native Americans?”

Notice the word “leave” is used here instead of “give” when it comes to asking the taxpayer for 5.4 cents. Why phrase the question that way? And why ask for 5.4 cents?

Some Findings in Social Dilemma Research

More than 25 years ago, social psychologists Marlyn Brewer and Rod Kramer (1986) hypothesized that individuals would be more cooperative in collective action problems when they faced a problem framed as a taking problem compared to a giving problem. People tend to weigh cognitively giving something up more heavily that taking something of the same value (Kahneman & Tversky 1979). The result: Brewer and Kramer suspected that people would more willing to leave (not take) money behind to help a larger group compared to then they already had the money and had to give it away to benefit the group. They found that participants withheld on average 9.32 resource units per game in the give-some treatment and harvested on average 6.60 resource units per game in the take-some treatment. If we take the difference in resource units in these two treatments and convert them to money (as Brewer and Kramer did at the end of the experiment), then participants in the give-some treatment were earning for themselves 5.4 cents per game more than participants in the take-some treatment. Put another way, participants were leaving behind 5.4 cents for the group in the treatment framed as a taking program compared to the treatment framed as a giving problem.


So What?

The Brewer and Kramer (1986) experiment suggests that people are willing to leave resources behind to help a group when a situation is presented as a take-some problem compared to a give-some problem. While it is only 5.4 cents a person is willing to leave behind, the number becomes more practical and attractive when we consider the macro scheme of things.

In the 1985 (the year the Brewer and Kramer paper was submitted for publication) there were 18.81 million U.S. residents that filed a federal tax return and either owed the government nothing or received a return. Say during tax filing season each of these citizens was asked if they were willing to “leave” 5.4 cents behind to help complete the Crazy Horse Monument. Say only 18 million said “yes”, then this would leave $960,o00 to fund the public good’s provision.

“Well, that’s silly.” You will say. “First of all $960,000 is not enough. Second of all it may have cost the Foundation just as much – if not more – to coordinate the letters, tax preparers, and printing to ask 18.81 million people to leave 5.4 cents of their return behind.”

The transaction cost – the costs associated with any transaction or collective action – it would have taken in 1985 to raise $960,000 is a matter of argument. But what if we took this same question and asked the 51.63 million people that did NOT owe the government taxes in 2008 (the most recent year I can find data for). By 2008, TurboTax, H&R Block, and other providers have made it mush less costly to file taxes when it comes to time and effort (e.g., e-filing). What if each of these tax-service providers asked the 51.63 million filers (that owed nothing) to “leave” 5.4 cents of their return to complete the Crazy Horse Monument? If only 51 million said “yes” and 630,000 said “no”, then the result would be  $2,754,000 for the Foundation. Such funding could boost the foundation’s productivity on the Monument – especially if they use this strategy several times.

“But, why would these tax-service providers ever do that? Nothing is for free!” You say. You are right, we should consider these service providers and look for a win-win. What if the Foundation let H&R or TurboTax keep .3 cents of the 5.4 cents left behind? Assuming the 51 million people still left their change, the Foundation would walk away with $2.6 million and H&R and TurboTax would split $15,300. What is great about this setup is that the Foundation could have the two service providers bid for lower service charges having potentially even more of the money left by the tax payers go the Monument. (They could even start the bidding process with many tax-service providers and select the two providers that offer the best rate.) The small-wins strategy here could leave to large gains.

By small means can great things be brought to pass.

Now you may ask when keep the request at 5.4 cents. Why not just ask for 10 cents? The reason comes from some very clever panhandlers.

Can You Spare 17 cents?

Have you ever been asked for money by a stranger? What did specifically ask you for?

Most panhandlers (or others in need) ask “Could you spare some change for a stranded traveler?” (I like that request because the person asking it was on the same street corner for three years where I lived!) Others may say, “Can you spare me a dollar [or quarter]?”


Most responses to these requests is “no” either in words or by ignoring the person. However, sometimes people ask something different. “Excuse me could you spare 17 cents? I need enough to by a sandwich.” This request is different in several ways from more traditional requests like “Can you spare a quarter?” First, it is an odd amount of money. Those of us that walk busy streets on autopilot can easily tune out requests for common amounts of money. “Just another panhandler asking for a handout,” we may think to ourselves. But when the amount asked for is odd or different, our interest is “piqued”. “Why would someone ask for such a strange amount of money? There must be a good reason for it.” We ask ourselves. The pique technique has been examined by several groups of scholars in the social sciences (Santos et al. 1994; Burger et al. 2007). This body of work finds that people are more willing to comply with a request when it is unique and there is a reason for the request.

So, when trying to fund public goods, make the requested contribution seem like the person is leaving something rather than giving something. Also make the request small, unique, and give a reason for it.


Brewer, M. B., & Kramer, R. M. 1986. Choice behavior in social dilemmas: Effects of social identity, group size, and decision framing. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 50(3), 543-549.

Burger, J. M., Hornisher, J., Martin, V. E., Newman, G., & Pringle, S. 2007. The pique technique: Overcoming mindlessness or shifting heuristics?. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37(9), 2086-2096.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. 1979. Prospect theory: An analysis of decisions under risk. Econometrica, 47(2): 262-291.

McCarter, M. W., Mahoney, J. T., & Northcraft, G. B. 2011. Testing the waters: Using collective real options to manage the social dilemma of strategic alliances. Academy of Management Review, 36(4), 621-640.

Santos, M. D., Leve, C., & Pratkanis, A. R. 1994. Hey Buddy, Can You Spare Seventeen Cents? Mindful Persuasion and the Pique Technique1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24(9), 755-764.

Walker, C. 2008. Crazy Horse Memorial turns 60 with no end insight. USA Today.

Weick, K. E. 1984. Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems. American Psychologist, 39(1), 40-49.