One of the most continually vexing problems in society is the variability with which citizens support endeavors that are designed to help a great number of people. In this article, we examine the twin roles of cooperative and antagonistic behavior in this variability. We find that each plays an important role, though their contributions are, understandably, at odds. It is this opposition that produces seeming unpredictability in citizen response to collective need. In fact, we suggest that careful consideration of the research allows one to often predict when efforts to provide a collectively beneficial good will succeed and when they will fail.
To understand the dynamics of participation in response to collective need, it is necessary to distinguish between the primary types of need situations. A public good is an entity that relies in whole or in part on contributions to be provided. Examples of public goods are charities and public broadcasting. Public goods require that citizens experience a short-term loss (of their contribution) in order to realize a long-term gain (of the good). However, because everyone can use the good once it is provided, there is also an incentive to not contribute, let others give, and then take advantage of their efforts. This state of affairs introduces a conflict between doing what is best for oneself and what is best for the group. In a public goods situation, cooperation and antagonism impact how one resolves this conflict.
The other major type of need situation is a common-pool resource problem. Here, a good is fully provided at the outset, and citizens may sample from it. The resource is usually, but not necessarily, partially replenished. Examples of replenished resources are drinking water and trees; examples of resources that are functionally not replenished are oil and minerals. Common-pool resources allow citizens to experience a short-term gain (by getting what they want in the early life of the resource) but also present the possibility of a long-term loss (if the resource dries up). As with public goods, there is thus a conflict between, on the one hand, acting in one’s best interest and taking as much as one wants all the time and, on the other, acting for the good of the group, which requires taking a lesser amount so that the replenishment rate can keep up with the rate of use. As with public goods, both cooperation and antagonism affect this decision.
With these situations in mind, we can now dig deeply into the dynamics of both cooperation and antagonism. Cooperation is one of the most heavily studied aspects of human behavior, yet despite this attention, there is much that is not understood about it, including its fundamental base. There are a number of different perspectives on the base. Interdependence theory argues that cooperation is driven by how one interprets the subjective value of the outcomes that will result from various combinations of behaviors. A person who sees a potential result of “50 to you, 50 to me” as “We both would do well” is more likely to cooperate than the person who sees it as “I would not outgain the other person.” Self-control theory suggests that cooperation is a function of how well a person can resist the impulse to benefit now and delay gratification. Evolutionary theory takes many forms but revolves around the extent to which cooperation is adaptive. Finally, the appropriateness framework takes a cognitive approach and assumes that cooperation is determined by a combination of social–cognitive (interpretation of self and the situation) and decision-heuristic factors. We propose that it is possible to integrate across these approaches and understand cooperation as a behavior that is influenced by all of these factors as well as other dynamics, such as cultural mores and personality traits.
Antagonism, as it relates to the collective welfare, is a phenomenon with a lesser history but one that is clearly influential. A number of facets of antagonism are relevant. Power, and its abuse, is a major factor, and a specific application to collective goods is the notion of a “gatekeeper,” or a person who can completely determine whether a public good exists or a common-pool resource can be used. Gatekeepers tend to demand ample compensation from others in order for the good or resource to go forward. If this demand is resisted, as it often is, the end result is that the good is not provided or the resource not accessed. Another facet is the desire to see an out-group be harmed. Sometimes, this motivation is so strong that people will deny themselves a good outcome in order to see the harm occur. Why someone would want to see an out-group be harmed is debatable, but it may be attributable to a desire to be seen as a winner, or it may be a strategy designed to produce a net benefit for one’s in-group. Emotions also play a role, with people tending to assume that out-group members have just basic emotions such as happiness and sadness and not secondary emotions such as guilt and shame. Because out-group members are emotionally simple, it is seen as acceptable to treat them badly. Complicating matters even further is that antagonism can sometimes be seen against in-group members who deviate, in either direction, from the group norm and against individuals who are behaving in a clearly selfless manner, like volunteers.
A number of approaches have been proposed to the resolution of public goods problems. Structural solutions act to alter the basic dynamic of the dilemma by means of interventions such as rewards for cooperation, punishment for noncooperation, and selection of a single group member to chart a course of action for everyone. Third-party solutions involve the bringing in of an external agent to help determine how group members should behave. These agents may be more passive and merely suggest solutions, or they may be more active and dictate how decisions will be made, what decision will be made, or both. Finally, psychological solutions involve changing how people view the situation.
We finish by discussing how policy makers can improve the chances of a publicly valuable good being supported. We particularly emphasize creation of a felt connection with future generations; clear demonstration of immediate and concrete consequences as a result of failure to provide the good; instillation of a sense of community; and isolation of the good from other, related issues. We also take up the general problem of distrust of those who establish policy and discuss some methods for helping minimize distrust.