Commons and Cognition

Carol M. Rose


Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons primarily concerns actions rather than thoughts. But he did famously describe the cognitive state of a hypothetical herder on a grassy field. With respect to the field and its other users, Hardin’s herder is both ignorant and indifferent; he coolly calculates that his best option is to take the full benefit of grazing his stock while suffering only a fraction of the cost — an action that contributes to the decimation of a common resource. While Hardin viewed the herder’s attitude as identical to that of actors in many other collective action situations, the work of other commons theorists suggests several different cognitive stances among such actors, largely depending on the scale of the commons issues they face. Thus participants in the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a very small commons) would appear to be dominated by distrust rather than the hypothetical herder’s ignorance or indifference. Participants in midsized commons — such as Hardin’s herders in real life — show some distrust, but also great knowledge and engagement in common pool management. Participants in the largest-scale commons issues are actually those most likely to exhibit the ignorance and indifference that Hardin attributed to the herder. This Article discusses the ways in which these different cognitive stances track the scale of collective action “tragedies” as described by major theorists and concludes with some observations about the cognitive aspects of climate change.

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