Cheaters, Bystanders and Free-riders

There are three types of problematic players that were identified in The Externalities Game experience recently completed by engineering students at ASU in Arizona and management students at MDI in India:

  1. Cheaters produced more than the social optimum strategy agreed upon by the group, thereby accumulating more points for themselves at the expense of other players.
  2. Unfortunates attempted to submit production decisions, but were thwarted by the unreliable communications systems on CORE, and thus received no credit.
  3. Screwups did not submit a decision because they didn’t understand the instructions.

In reflecting on the game experience, it may help to think about these players as categories of human behavior and how these behaviors manifest in the real-world.  For example, people often cheat, even if it is just a little bit, in everyday situations.

In the game we saw this as there were a many players that “cheated” by taking a few more points for themselves, but only three people that took as much as they can get (and one player that took nothing).  According to Dan Ariely, players that cheat a lot are rare, but players that cheat a little are common.

The unfortunates might have tried to cheat, but because their messages never got thru to the TEG Administrator, they were disqualified from the game.  Some students (on Twitter) accused the instructor of purposefully altering the numbers, while others blamed the technology, while others say that the students themselves should have done more to make sure the message got through.  In this case, no one person or group is at fault.

The plight of the unfortunates in TEG is analogous (although nowhere near as serious) as the victims of global climate change depicted in our previous post.  In response to the “Climate Justice” video embedded therein, many students tweeted how awful it was that innocent children in Bangladesh are suffering so much and that somebody should do something about it.  But who is to blame in this case?  Is it the children’s fault they were born into poverty?  Is it the industries who create most of greenhouse gas emissions?  Or is is the consumers who buy the energy intensive products on the market?  In problems of negative externalities, it is often difficult to determine where the blame lies, which makes it difficult to reconcile the injustice.  If we don’t know who is to blame for an injustice, or even if we do know who to blame in a particular situation, does that mean we have no obligation to help those who were harmed?

A recent review article in Nature written by Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff, entitled “Climate Change and Moral Judgment”, describes why climate change poses extraordinarily difficult challenges for our moral judgment.  The authors explain that because climate change is characterized by abstractness and uncertainty, as well as perceived to negatively impact distant people (geographically and temporally), it is a particularly difficult problem to assess morally.  Therefore, climate change is most likely perceived as an unintended and unfortunate side effect of goal-oriented behavior, which is likely to be judged less harshly than harms caused intentionally, and therefore results in less motivation for mitigation and adaptation.

Unclear blame can be a cause for inaction, but so can the norms of society.  If helping someone means violating the norm of a group, individuals of that group are likely not going to offer assistance.  In what is referred to as the ‘bystander effect‘, people realize someone is in trouble and needs help, but do nothing about it.  The following video shows how people tend to overlook those in need, especially in very public places, because they would have to violate the norm of others around them.

The bystander effect was observed in our class last Thursday.  In the absence of strong leadership, many students were content to remain quiet, or tweet out their complaints, or merely call for action by “someone” to do “something,”  rather than commit themselves to do what they felt was right.  The students waiting for someone else to take action are analogous to the bystanders in the video.

Moreover, research shows that the bystander effect is strongest when the victims belong to a different identity group than the bystanders.  For example, the norm in the ASU class became figuring out how to help the unfortunates at ASU and to let the unfortunates in India figure it out for themselves.  The group assumed that the MDI players would step in and help without even asking them if that was the case.

Also, most players concluded that the ‘screw-ups’ don’t deserve any points from others.  (One self-anointed ‘screw-up’ agreed with this view).  Neither did the one student who submitted zero for her production deserve any assistance, in the minds of the consensus. Everyone knew that these players could use some help, but nobody stood up in class to make a case otherwise; it would have violated the class norm to stand up an offer an alternative opinion.

Related to the bystander effect is what is known as the free-rider problem. This is a term traditionally used in economics and game-theory where someone in the group who contributes nothing benefits from the efforts of others.  For example, in public transit a free rider is literally someone who rides for free while other passengers pay their fares.  In global climate change, if only a few countries reduce their GHG emissions (and suffer economically for it), all countries will still benefit from overall reduced emissions.

The free rider problem often results from public (i.e., non-excludable) goods, where it is impossible to enforce ownership rights that prevent others from consuming the good.    For example, national defense and many highways are public goods because we all use them and benefit from them, yet we can’t prevent others from using them, too.  (Vehicle registration and drivers licensing laws could attempt to prevent access to public highways, just as tolls and user fees attempt to assign the cost of the highways primarily to those who drive on them).  Because the benefits of public goods are shared and non-excludable, there is an incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others.  This video explains the free rider problem in the context of public goods and how a traditional solution to the problem is taxation.  The idea is that everyone contributes to paying for the public goods that the government provides, and therefore users are no longer free-riders and are less likely to misuse the public good they help pay for.

However, not all free-rider problems can be solved through taxation.  We often see free rider problems when working in groups.  For example, sometimes one person in the group ends up doing most or all the work, yet everyone in the group ends up with the same grade.  This is practically what happened in TEG, where relatively few players during the game put effort into figuring out a strategy for the class to follow, but everyone benefited.  Some students did actually stand up, offer strategies and solutions, and told the rest of the class what production plan they should follow. But the majority of the class however never got out of their seats and remained quiet.  Although there was a clear imbalance in effort, the benefit of the strategy proposed (in terms of grade points) is enjoyed by most of the class.

As for the ‘screw-ups’, this category includes at least one person that was sick and missed class and didn’t realize what they were supposed to do for the game.  Is it really their fault that they missed the deadline?  Should we just assume that those players that did not follow instructions are to blame?  Or did something prevent them from submitting that was out of their control?  If it isn’t us that this happened to, it is easy to forget that things do happen to people.  Wouldn’t we want others to sympathize if the tables were turned?

These concepts and questions posed should help prepare you for next week’s reflective class discussion and the assigned personal reflective essay.

4 thoughts on “Cheaters, Bystanders and Free-riders

  1. Ben Havens

    The link to the second video is not working in case no one else has pointed it out. It could very well be my computer because this has happened in the past.


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