Nav: Home

Game theory shows how tragedies of the commons might be averted

November 09, 2016

Lake Lanier in Georgia is the primary water reservoir serving suburban and metropolitan Atlanta. When the lake's water level drops below a certain point, calls go out for water conservation and news reports show images of the red mud shoreline. In some affected counties, water restrictions are imposed. The combination of usage restrictions and changes in precipitation eventually averts the crisis. But, when the crisis ends, water usage rebounds - until the next shortage.

Inspired by this example, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a theory to unite the study of behavior and its effect on the environment. In doing so, they combined theories of strategic behavior with those of resource depletion and restoration, leading to what they term an "oscillating tragedy of the commons." The research is reported in November 8 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study of how behavior affects resource depletion has a long history. The originating example is that of small farmers who share a common pasture. Each farmer has to decide whether to graze some or all of his flock, while also considering what actions other farmers might take. To avoid losing out to a competitor, each farmer decides to attempt to maximize the benefit by grazing as many sheep as possible. Consequently, the sheep overgraze and damage the pasture. Paradoxically, the benefit to each farmer over the long run is less than if they had cooperated and each grazed fewer sheep.

That individuals acting out of their own self-interest can be worse off than had they coordinated is termed a "tragedy of the commons" - a concept introduced nearly 50 years ago by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. (The use of the term "tragedy" denotes its inevitability). However, the originating example does not include a mechanism by which incentives for cooperation change as the resource is depleted.

"Our actions can substantively change the environment and, in turn, the changing environment influences the incentives for future action," said Joshua Weitz, who led the study and is a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Biological Sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Quantitative Biosciences. "The theory in our paper proposes a unified approach for the co-evolution of actions and environment."

Other authors on the study include postdoctoral fellow Ceyhun Eksin and graduate teaching assistant Keith Paarporn, both members of the Weitz group in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, as well as Professors Sam Brown and Will Ratcliff, both faculty in the School of Biological Sciences.

There are many other prominent examples of tragedies of the commons. One example is that of antibiotic resistance in microbes. The widespread use of antibiotics among humans and in agriculture selects for antibiotic resistance strains. Over time, the spread of resistance renders antibiotics ineffective for use in patients with otherwise curable infections. Hence, individuals trying to maximize their own benefit can unintentionally degrade the collective value of the antibiotics.

Another example stems from individual decisions about whether or not to vaccinate against childhood infectious diseases like measles, mumps and rubella. Crucially, a retracted study falsely linking autism to vaccination has inspired some parents not to vaccinate their children. Yet, when population levels of immunity drop, then these potentially lethal infectious diseases that had been prevented in the past will reappear in sporadic outbreaks or, dangerously, as large-scale epidemics.

"Individual agents acting in their own self-interest - trying to do what's right for them alone - can end up in a worse state than if they coordinated," Weitz said. "For example, the decision not to vaccinate increases the frequency of individuals having a dangerous, infectious disease. As people see the disease return, the incentives for vaccination change."

The research proposes a new model of evolutionary games with a feedback loop in which changes to the resource - whether it be water supplies, pastureland, antibiotics, or vaccine use - change the incentives for people to take action in their own interests. The environment and the incentives co-evolve and are tied to one another, allowing the outcome to be predicted.

"Incentives to use a lot of water when water is in short supply are different than when water levels are replete," Weitz said. "When things are bad and the commons is depleted, there may be greater incentives to cooperate than when the commons are in good condition."

Unlike in the originating example of the tragedy of the commons, Weitz and colleagues report that tragedies can recur again and again. Formally, the researchers unite game theory with evolutionary models in which both the tendency to cooperate and the state of the environment coevolve.

The theoretical research also pointed the way to a testable principle to avert the tragedy of the commons in specific application domains. For example, in their analyses, Weitz and colleagues found that averting the tragedy of the commons was only possible when cooperation was incentivized even when the environment was depleted and others continued to act to degrade the resources.

"Another lesson is that idealism matters," said Weitz, continuing, "A small group of cooperating individuals can, over time, change the social and environmental context for all and for the better."
-end-
This work was supported by a grant W911NF-14-1-0402 from the Army Research Office. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsor.

CITATION: Joshua S. Weitz, Ceyhun Eksin, Keith Paarporn, Sam P. Brown and William C. Ratcliff, "An oscillating tragedy of the commons in replicator dynamics with game-environment feedback," (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016). http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/11/02/1604096113.abstract

Georgia Institute of Technology

Related Antibiotics Articles:

Hygiene reduces the need for antibiotics by up to 30%
A new paper published in the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC), finds improved everyday hygiene practices, such as hand-washing, reduces the risk of common infections by up to 50%, reducing the need for antibiotics, by up to 30%.
Antibiotics: City dwellers and children take the most
City dwellers take more antibiotics than people in rural areas; children and the elderly use them more often than middle-aged people; the use of antibiotics decreases as education increases, but only in rich countries: These are three of the more striking trends identified by researchers of the NRW Forschungskolleg ''One Health and Urban Transformation'' at the University of Bonn.
Metals could be the link to new antibiotics
Compounds containing metals could hold the key to the next generation of antibiotics to combat the growing threat of global antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotics from the sea
The team led by Prof. Christian Jogler of Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, has succeeded in cultivating several dozen marine bacteria in the laboratory -- bacteria that had previously been paid little attention.
Antibiotics not necessary for most toothaches, according to new ADA guideline
The American Dental Association (ADA) announced today a new guideline indicating that in most cases, antibiotics are not recommended for toothaches.
Antibiotics with novel mechanism of action discovered
Many life-threatening bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics.
Resistance can spread even without the use of antibiotics
Antibiotic resistance does not spread only where and when antibiotics are used in large quantities, ETH researchers conclude from laboratory experiments.
Selective antibiotics following nature's example
Chemists from Konstanz develop selective agents to combat infectious diseases -- based on the structures of natural products
Antibiotics can inhibit skin lymphoma
New research from the LEO Foundation Skin Immunology Research Center at the University of Copenhagen shows, surprisingly, that antibiotics inhibit cancer in the skin in patients with rare type of lymphoma.
Antibiotics may treat endometriosis
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that treating mice with an antibiotic reduces the size of lesions caused by endometriosis.
More Antibiotics News and Antibiotics Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Our Relationship With Water
We need water to live. But with rising seas and so many lacking clean water – water is in crisis and so are we. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around restoring our relationship with water. Guests on the show include legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, and community organizer Colette Pichon Battle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Uncounted
First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all. Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote. Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it's not a state, and it wasn't until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role. Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further? This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari. Check out Latif Nasser's new Netflix show Connected here. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.