A Reflection on the Public Goods Game

In a class exercise which required a deck of cards, our class participated in an activity aimed to start a discussion regarding the rationale and strategy behind the choice to contribute to the good of the public or to act in our own self-interest.

The instructions for the game were simple. We were each given four cards, two red and two black. For each round, we were to keep two cards, and to give away two cards to the collective pool. The collective pool represented public goods, which would ultimately benefit all of us. The red cards had monetary value which was four times greater when one kept the red card, rather than giving it to the collective pool (i.e., if you kept theĀ  red card it would be worth $4 for each red card. In the collective pool it would be worth $1). Everyone would receive the amount that was gathered in the collective pool at the end of each round; that is, if there were $10 in the collective pool, everyone would receive $10 each.

This game naturally created an internal conflict. The wealth of the collective or public would be much greater if all individuals gave away their red cards to the collective pool. This would also lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. However, the benefit for the individual is much greater when both red cards are kept.

This activity led to the discussion of several key points. The first was trust. After a couple of rounds we had a chance to discuss as a group, how we could strategize so that we could all benefit equally. Although we came to a decision to give both our red cards away, this was not carried out by everyone. Once we saw that not everyone was cooperating, and that it became evident that there were free riders in our group, we began to trust each other less, which led to a steady decline in the number of red cards in the collective pool. Although not as relevant for this activity, the issue of trust also extends further to not only among individuals in the society, but to those individuals or institutions that have the power to redistribute the contributions back to the public. If we do not trust that we will ultimately benefit from the contributions that we make to the public, individuals are less likely to voluntarily contribute to the collective pool.

Moreover, when the value of the red cards decreased (i.e., from $4 to $2), individuals were more likely to contribute voluntarily to the collective pool. However, ultimately, because of the inequality in the individual contribution to the public good, those who contributed the most were left with the least. For me, this activity demonstrated the interdependence of individual and collective wealth and well-being. Our decisions are not only based on our personal values of equity and justice, but the decisions of others, as we struggle to find the balance between the benefits of acting in self-serving ways, and making decisions that contribute to the greater good of the society.

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