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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017
Todd K. Shackelford and Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford
Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science
Emotional Solutions to Free Riding
New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM, USA
Emotions; Free rider
A free rider is an individual who benefits from accessing a public resource, but does not contribute toward
the sustainability of that resource. The core logic of an emotional solution to the free rider problem
centers on the idea that emotions can provide powerful incentives for an individual to cooperate in
sustaining a public good as well as powerful incentives to punish those who fail to cooperate in sustaining
a public good.
The classic example of free riding is Hardin’s ( 1968) tragedy of the commons in which the unregulated
grazing of cattle on a parcel of common land leads to the eventual depletion of that resource through
overuse. The role of emotions as solutions to the free rider problem can be illustrated by combining
behavioral economics methodologies (e.g., modeling social interactions as bargaining games) with
insights from evolutionary psychology (the idea of emotions as strategic decision-making devices).
The core logic of how emotions might solve the free rider problem centers on the idea that emotions can
function as strategic commitment devices that compel individuals to pursue strategies that maximize long-
term payoffs rather than pursuing strategies that promise spuriously attractive immediate rewards (see
Nesse 2001; Ketelaar 2006 for reviews). The sentiment of gratitude, for example, can compel an
individual to repay an act of kindness even when the cost of repayment exceeds the initial benefit
bestowed upon the actor (Hirshleifer 1987). While costly acts of gratitude-inspired reciprocity may
provide no immediate rewards, the benefits of such acts (e.g., stronger alliances, increased social capital)
can be reaped in future social encounters. Similarly, the emotion of guilt can compel a person to redress a
harm that they have inflicted upon another party, even when there is little chance of immediate retaliation
from the offended party. As such, guilt functions to maximize the long-term benefits of immediately
redressing such harms (or signaling your willingness to do so) by repairing the damage done to a
relationship with a potential long-term social interaction partner.
So, how can emotions such as anger or guilt function as commitment devices that solve the problem of
free riding? One mechanism by which anger can function as commitment device is by serving as a
guarantor of threats directed toward under-contributors in collective actions (see Hirshleifer 1987, 2001
for a more general discussion of emotions as guarantors of threats). The ultimatum game studied by
behavioral economists, for example, provides a nice environment in which to study anger and social
decision-making. The ultimatum game consists of a social bargaining game in which a communal
resource is split between two parties. One party (the ultimatum-giver) proposes how the resource is to be
divided, but the final decision regarding whether the resource is actually divided (in the manner proposed
by the ultimatum-giver) lies in the hands of the recipient of the ultimatum. In one study of the ultimatum
game, it was observed that feelings of anger (reported by the ultimatum recipient) were associated with
rejections of unfair ultimatums (Pilllutla and Murnighan 1996). Other studies have found that participants
make greater concessions in negotiations when they believe that their negotiation partner is angry than
when they believe that their partner is happy (Van Kleef et al. 2004). In another study that is more
directly related to the free rider problem, one third of the participants in a repeated public goods game
consistently punished group members who made deviant contributions. Of particular relevance to the role
of emotions in solving the free rider problem, it was observed that these costly acts of punishment were
directed toward low contributors and were linked to feelings of anger on the part of the punishers (Fehr
and Gaechter 2002).
Through a somewhat different psychological mechanism, guilt can also serve as a commitment device
that solves the problem of free riding. Consistent with the notion that guilt provides a powerful incentive
to cooperate when there is a temptation to behave in a self-interested fashion, one study found that 57% of
participants in a repeated ultimatum game reported feelings of guilt after proposing an unfair division of
the money in the first round of play. More important, these feelings of guilt were predictive of increased
cooperation in the second round. More specifically, 91% of the participants who felt guilty after
proposing a selfish offer made a subsequently generous offer in the second round. By comparison, only
22% of the participants who felt no guilt after making a similarly unfair offer made a generous offer in the
second round (Ketelaar and Au 2003). The link between feelings of guilt after engaging in self-interested
behavior was also demonstrated in a study of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma where increased cooperation
was associated with feeling guilty after behaving noncooperatively. This study found that individuals who
felt guilty immediately after defecting across several rounds of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma
subsequently displayed 25% more cooperation compared with those who reported felt no such feelings of
guilt after defecting (Ketelaar and Au 2003).
Emotions can “solve” the free rider problem by functioning as commitment devices that compel
individuals to contribute to a public good and to punish those who fail to cooperate in sustaining a
common resource. Certain emotions – such as guilt – can compel an individual to cooperate even when it
is not in their immediate self-interest to do so, whereas other emotions – such as anger – can compel an
individual to punish those who fail to cooperate in sustaining a public good (Ketelaar 2006).
Fehr, E., & Gaechter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 10, 137–140.
Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243–1248.
Hirshleifer, J. (1987). On the emotions as guarantors of threats and promises. In J. Dupré (Ed.), The latest
on the best: Essays on evolution and optimality (pp. 307–326). Boston: Bradford Books-MIT Press.
Hirshleifer, J. (2001). Game-theoretic interpretations of commitment. In R. Nesse (Ed.), Evolution and the
capacity for commitment (pp. 77–94). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Ketelaar, T. (2006). The role of moral sentiments in economic decision making. In D. de Cremer, M.
Zeelenberg, & K. Murnighan (Eds.), Social psychology and economics (pp. 97–116). Mahwah: Erlbaum.
Ketelaar, T., & Au, W. T. (2003). The effects of guilty feelings on the behavior of uncooperative
individuals in repeated social bargaining games: An Affect-as-information interpretation of the role of
emotion in social interaction. Cognition & Emotion, 17, 429–453.
Nesse, R. M. (2001). Evolution and the capacity for commitment. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Pilllutla, M. M., & Murnighan, J. K. (1996). Unfairness, anger, and spite: Emotional rejections of
ultimatum offers. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 68, 208–224.
Van Kleef, G. A., DeDreu, C. W. W., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2004). The interpersonal effects of emotions
in negotiations: A motivated information processing approach. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 87, 510–528.