Every day, people donate to charities, volunteer to clean up city parks, or scale back their driving to curb air pollution. But some take these public goods for granted and ride free on the efforts of others. They watch public television but never make a donation to fund it. Or they run their lawn sprinklers during a drought while their neighbors follow government pleas to limit water consumption.
A new report in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, examines more than 25 years' worth of studies on the use and support of public goods ranging from radio broadcasts to drinking water. Psychological researcher Craig Parks (Washington State University, Pullman) and his co-authors emphasize the urgent need to broaden thoughtful use of public goods, noting that charitable contributions are at historic lows, fossil fuel reserves are shrinking, and climate change threatens the planet's future.
In the report, the researchers discuss a variety of scientific findings on conditions that foster cooperative use of common resources, including:
Strong group identity
People are more likely to act cooperatively when they have a strong sense of belonging to a collective. A 2003 European study showed that fishermen who were strongly connected in their communities were more judicious with fishing stocks than were their counterparts in more loosely connected communities.
Smaller community size
Cooperation is likely to be stronger in smaller groups, particularly when one's contribution is easily identified. Psychological research suggests that cooperation decreases in large groups because people feel less influential, less identifiable, and less responsible for the group's welfare.
High trust in leaders
Citizens are more willing to help out in urgent situations when their government leaders act in transparent and trustworthy ways. A study
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Association for Psychological Science