Cheaters, Bystanders and Free-riders

There are three types of problematic players that were identified in The Externalities Game experience recently completed by engineering students at ASU in Arizona and management students at MDI in India:

  1. Cheaters produced more than the social optimum strategy agreed upon by the group, thereby accumulating more points for themselves at the expense of other players.
  2. Unfortunates attempted to submit production decisions, but were thwarted by the unreliable communications systems on CORE, and thus received no credit.
  3. Screwups did not submit a decision because they didn’t understand the instructions.

In reflecting on the game experience, it may help to think about these players as categories of human behavior and how these behaviors manifest in the real-world.  For example, people often cheat, even if it is just a little bit, in everyday situations.

In the game we saw this as there were a many players that “cheated” by taking a few more points for themselves, but only three people that took as much as they can get (and one player that took nothing).  According to Dan Ariely, players that cheat a lot are rare, but players that cheat a little are common.

The unfortunates might have tried to cheat, but because their messages never got thru to the TEG Administrator, they were disqualified from the game.  Some students (on Twitter) accused the instructor of purposefully altering the numbers, while others blamed the technology, while others say that the students themselves should have done more to make sure the message got through.  In this case, no one person or group is at fault.

The plight of the unfortunates in TEG is analogous (although nowhere near as serious) as the victims of global climate change depicted in our previous post.  In response to the “Climate Justice” video embedded therein, many students tweeted how awful it was that innocent children in Bangladesh are suffering so much and that somebody should do something about it.  But who is to blame in this case?  Is it the children’s fault they were born into poverty?  Is it the industries who create most of greenhouse gas emissions?  Or is is the consumers who buy the energy intensive products on the market?  In problems of negative externalities, it is often difficult to determine where the blame lies, which makes it difficult to reconcile the injustice.  If we don’t know who is to blame for an injustice, or even if we do know who to blame in a particular situation, does that mean we have no obligation to help those who were harmed?

A recent review article in Nature written by Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff, entitled “Climate Change and Moral Judgment”, describes why climate change poses extraordinarily difficult challenges for our moral judgment.  The authors explain that because climate change is characterized by abstractness and uncertainty, as well as perceived to negatively impact distant people (geographically and temporally), it is a particularly difficult problem to assess morally.  Therefore, climate change is most likely perceived as an unintended and unfortunate side effect of goal-oriented behavior, which is likely to be judged less harshly than harms caused intentionally, and therefore results in less motivation for mitigation and adaptation.

Unclear blame can be a cause for inaction, but so can the norms of society.  If helping someone means violating the norm of a group, individuals of that group are likely not going to offer assistance.  In what is referred to as the ‘bystander effect‘, people realize someone is in trouble and needs help, but do nothing about it.  The following video shows how people tend to overlook those in need, especially in very public places, because they would have to violate the norm of others around them.

The bystander effect was observed in our class last Thursday.  In the absence of strong leadership, many students were content to remain quiet, or tweet out their complaints, or merely call for action by “someone” to do “something,”  rather than commit themselves to do what they felt was right.  The students waiting for someone else to take action are analogous to the bystanders in the video.

Moreover, research shows that the bystander effect is strongest when the victims belong to a different identity group than the bystanders.  For example, the norm in the ASU class became figuring out how to help the unfortunates at ASU and to let the unfortunates in India figure it out for themselves.  The group assumed that the MDI players would step in and help without even asking them if that was the case.

Also, most players concluded that the ‘screw-ups’ don’t deserve any points from others.  (One self-anointed ‘screw-up’ agreed with this view).  Neither did the one student who submitted zero for her production deserve any assistance, in the minds of the consensus. Everyone knew that these players could use some help, but nobody stood up in class to make a case otherwise; it would have violated the class norm to stand up an offer an alternative opinion.

Related to the bystander effect is what is known as the free-rider problem. This is a term traditionally used in economics and game-theory where someone in the group who contributes nothing benefits from the efforts of others.  For example, in public transit a free rider is literally someone who rides for free while other passengers pay their fares.  In global climate change, if only a few countries reduce their GHG emissions (and suffer economically for it), all countries will still benefit from overall reduced emissions.

The free rider problem often results from public (i.e., non-excludable) goods, where it is impossible to enforce ownership rights that prevent others from consuming the good.    For example, national defense and many highways are public goods because we all use them and benefit from them, yet we can’t prevent others from using them, too.  (Vehicle registration and drivers licensing laws could attempt to prevent access to public highways, just as tolls and user fees attempt to assign the cost of the highways primarily to those who drive on them).  Because the benefits of public goods are shared and non-excludable, there is an incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others.  This video explains the free rider problem in the context of public goods and how a traditional solution to the problem is taxation.  The idea is that everyone contributes to paying for the public goods that the government provides, and therefore users are no longer free-riders and are less likely to misuse the public good they help pay for.

However, not all free-rider problems can be solved through taxation.  We often see free rider problems when working in groups.  For example, sometimes one person in the group ends up doing most or all the work, yet everyone in the group ends up with the same grade.  This is practically what happened in TEG, where relatively few players during the game put effort into figuring out a strategy for the class to follow, but everyone benefited.  Some students did actually stand up, offer strategies and solutions, and told the rest of the class what production plan they should follow. But the majority of the class however never got out of their seats and remained quiet.  Although there was a clear imbalance in effort, the benefit of the strategy proposed (in terms of grade points) is enjoyed by most of the class.

As for the ‘screw-ups’, this category includes at least one person that was sick and missed class and didn’t realize what they were supposed to do for the game.  Is it really their fault that they missed the deadline?  Should we just assume that those players that did not follow instructions are to blame?  Or did something prevent them from submitting that was out of their control?  If it isn’t us that this happened to, it is easy to forget that things do happen to people.  Wouldn’t we want others to sympathize if the tables were turned?

These concepts and questions posed should help prepare you for next week’s reflective class discussion and the assigned personal reflective essay.

 

20 thoughts on “Cheaters, Bystanders and Free-riders

  1. I don’t think much was learned through TEG since the game was so short. Everyone was out to produce the highest possible amount of points for everyone (which is good and all), but I think the lessen that should be learned from this is that there are going to be people out there at are going to screw everyone over and take everything for themselves not thinking about the unfortunates. There are going to be people that free ride through life that are expecting to have everything for nothing. There will be unfortunate people that have been short changed in life that just want to be on the same field as everyone else.
    While there is no easy way to level the playing field, what we can do is continue to wake up and challenge the day; there will be no more bystander effects from any civil engineers; help out the unfortunates; live everyday knowing when you turn in for the night that you gave your best that day.

  2. The game turned out very similar to the results of the study of the video “the truth about dishonesty.” There were big cheaters, people who cheated a little, and people who stuck to the plan. Over all the results were as I had predicted in my hypothesis. Overall the class showed trust because most people followed the plan.

  3. The game played out just like a thought. The majority of people did what we all agreed, but there were a few people that did what was best for them. I think the best thing that could have been done is to tax the over producers, just like the last video mentions. People are taxed to pay for the public goods, so the over producers should be taxed, in this case give away some points, so it can even out the average in the class. It might not be what is best for them, but it will be what is best for everyone over all.

  4. When we took a vote on the plan, it was not unanimous. There were several that did not raise their hands. Why is it surprising that a few people overproduced? It was expected that a few people would and even assumed that they would based on the vote. The over producers weren’t necessarily being deceitful. They were just not swayed by the class discussion.

  5. The outcome of The Externalities Game (TEG) was very surprising to me. In my hypothesis, I hypothesized that since we had the opportunity of choosing whether we wanted to cooperate or compete, there would be more “trust” and “transparency” between us (classmates). I was wrong. After seeing the final spreadsheet with the grades it was astonishing to see how there were small and big cheaters in every category. For example, in the luxury population there were sadly two major cheaters, one from MDI and even sadder one from our own class (ASU). Both of these players produced – double of what they accorded in class and therefore produced more emissions which resulted at the expense of the rest of the players (population). However, the intermediate and subsistence players didn’t create as many emissions as the luxury players and therefore their contribution didn’t have a big effect.

  6. Watching some of these videos, and seeing all of the posts about the people that shafted everybody else in the externalities game makes me a little sad for humanity. But maybe we need to stop talking about the bad people, and the bad things. I think it is simply great and amazing that so many people we courteous in the externalities game. They produced just the right amount so that they could get an okay grade, and so could everybody else. The sacrificed their own grade to help out others.
    And what about the many people that gave up even more of their own points to help out those who due to no fault of their own were left with no points? And what about the people that spent a lot of time and effort trying to organize the whole group effort? It seems to me there were more good and nice people in the class than otherwise. That’s something to be happy about.

  7. TEG did not work out the way that I thought it would. I was surprised at the instant decision to collaborate as a group instead of trying to negotiate in smaller numbers. It was smart of everyone to do that because I think there were a lot of people who would have been directionless in this game, and therefore would have maxed out production so that they did not have to think about it at all. It was also interesting how instantly the class collaborated with the MDI students, even though they were in a different country and the only contact we had was through email. I was certain that the majority of the class was only going to worry about maxing out for our group and that we were going to use their trust as an advantage. Apparently I underestimated the character of my peers…no hard feelings guys?

    • I was very surprised by the direction that the class took while deciding on what production plan to follow. I do think that smaller deals between subsistence and luxury players would have made the negotiating more fun. However, I was more concerned with the following. Why is it that out of roughly an hour, 45 minutes was spent talking or striving for transparency? We had two plans on the board, called for a vote, and then a few people tried to think of ways to get everyone to tell what their number was.

      I think this is what lead to the mistrust when the transfer time came about. Who wants to work with someone who won’t trust you to be a person of your word? If the only way that we can work together is through peer pressure, how happy will we be as a group? The best groups trust each other and feed off each other’s positive emotions to assure themselves that the others are doing their part. The transparency thing felt like an overbearing parent or a micro-managing boss.

  8. I have to comment on the little part of this blog post referring to me that states: “Neither did the one student who submitted zero for her production deserve any assistance, in the minds of the consensus.” Apparently I missed the part of the discussion where people decided that I “deserved” no assistance. The “deserve” part is really funny to me, especially since I stated that I was good & didn’t need any points. “Undeserving” does seem to be the way that our society seems to view a person who is not part of the rat-race.

    Aside from all the grade points & bickering & deceit…the whole imaginary theme of the game was production units which caused pollution and the classes of people who would “pay” for this pollution in greater or lesser amounts or ways than another class…right?

    So considering that that was the theme surrounding us, I think that it is ridiculous to base studies around an activity such as this since no upper, lower, or middle class of people would ever choose to optimize a “best possible solution” for all. Anytime anyone in this country even attempts to come up with a solution that would help level the playing field, people start screaming Socialism & declare themselves Libertarian & decide that any form of regulation (whether it is community based or government imposed) is bad bad bad.

    This game did not provide the option for carbon neutral production of a “product” or the option to be self-sufficient & live off-grid. People who choose these lifestyles are certainly not financially rewarded, nor are they generally rewarded with positive treatment from others. It is not “the norm” and for some reason the general population of people tend to be cruel & disdainful to those who make the personal choice to have a more positive or neutral impact on the world.

    I chose to represent that category in this game especially after reading the grading section which I interpreted to say that we would be graded on our reflection of the game and the game points were pretty much “extra credit” points. I don’t mind having to do some sort of work for a grade…I’ve never got an A from simply sending two messages to a person. So I did think it would be “fun” or make it more interesting to ME to play a part that was not played. I guess it was naive of me to think that others would understand that a production of 0 represented non-pollution. But that is exactly the reason why this game should not be used as a basis for study…people WILL act differently depending on what their actions are benefiting. In this class, I believe that most people completely forgot the theme & simply focused in on their grade.

  9. I liked that we had a blog read getting us to start thinking further into the game. Big things I thought about is with the bystander group I think with our class it was reasonable to have a lot of them because it would be a mad house if everyone wanted to talk. So instead of giving them negative connotation in this case isn’t necessarily ok. Although, I strongly feel some people had a responsibility to themselves and the class to speak but stood back instead. The other aspect is how the blog states we should look into the idea of the screw-ups more. In a professional setting I think it is important to stay on top of all details whether it’s reviewing deadlines, if you need to make your own list of things to do, or when being absent making sure you get someone to brief you and keep you up to date. That being said I didn’t propose anything for the screw-ups just because we all have those moments, they aren’t detrimental, but we do not need our hands held through that. Totally unrelated I’m happy this class is getting me to start to speak up and really trust and stand behind what I think and say.

    • I agree with your comments about the number of bystanders in the class. Realistically, there were way too many people to have everyone contribute and maintain order in the two – hour and fifteen minute sessions we had available to us. Too many ideas and too many opinions would just lead to chaos, confusion, and frustration, which is exactly what started to happen on Thursday during the “Transfer Discussion”. Just like overproducing in TEG created pollution, an excess of input would pollute our discussion by hindering progress and preventing us from coming to a reasonable solution. In that sense, we needed bystanders.

    • I agree with your statement that if you look at this from a professional point of view, those that were “screw ups” should have stayed up to date with the assignment, as they should with any other assignment. However their lack of participation to the game did not affect the rest of us, unlike the workplace..in fact it helped us! But if this was an office setting, their mistake could have cost us a lot.
      You said that some people had a responsibility to themselves and to the class to speak up, while others should have sat back. Who were the people that should have spoken up? I’m guessing the people that overproduced, but I’m not sure that they felt that they had a connection to the class in the first place since they didn’t go with the plan that the class agreed upon. If they had spoken up, would you have wanted their reasoning for overproducing? Because in that case, I’m pretty sure they just wanted more points than everyone else. Regardless, I think the class as a whole worked hard to make sure that everyone could trust each other enough to follow the plan, or at least made it hard enough for people to hide if they did diverge.

  10. The ideas explored in this lecture and videos [leaders, bystanders, free-riders, cheaters, etc.] caused me to heavily consider the functionality of groups. I confidently believe that groups are capable of achieving an end result that exceeds the sum of the individuals’ abilities. Rare experiences in my life, both academic and athletic, have evidenced such to be true. The key word here, however, is “rare”. The great majority of my involvement with groups would have to be characterized as inefficient—or the end result being less than or equal to the collective ability of the participating individuals. The only way I know how to summarize the distinguishing difference between the two possible outcomes is as CHEMISTRY. The groups I have been a part of that excelled had the uncanny ability to create a symbiotic relationship between the goals of the individuals and the goal of the team. In a sense, the success of the group was normalized to be the success of the individual participants, and vice versa. Conversely, those groups which have performed below optimum lack this aura of chemistry.

    Now, “chemistry” should not be used synonymously with “trust”. Trust is obviously a major component of chemistry, but a balance among the roles of the individual group members is also required. Excelling groups thrive in the ideal region between having a crippling population of bystanders or free-riders and the top-heavy problem of excessive, overly-competitive leadership. This balance procures a role for each group member that capitalizes on the person’s unique strengths—thereby eliminating or effectively minimizing the negative impact of bystanders and free-riders. Once members are assigned responsibilities that fit their abilities, trust develops as people witness the success of their group members in their respective roles.

    Sound a bit challenging? I sure think so! As anyone who has had the fortune of experiencing the type of excelling group I describe can likely attest to, reaching this necessary level of chemistry frequently requires months of time, effort, and refinement. Consequently, it’s no surprise that we [MDI & ASU] were not able to perform optimally in TEG; we lack the chemistry which defines the point when the success of the group is the success of the individual, and the failure of any individual is the failure of the group. Perhaps in due time and before the end of the semester, we will make the incidence of an excelling group a little less rare.

  11. The only thing i could think of to write down is people getting deviated more and more from their Moral principles as well as their ethical rules! “Humans are selfish in their natures” and if they get the chance to work everything out toward their own interest, surly they will do it even if that would cause damage to others!

    • It was interesting to me though that a majority of the players in The Externalities Game did decide to go along with the group consensus. Sure there were cheaters, and more small cheaters than big ones, but most of the students fell in step with the group plan. Why did this happen? Was there enough social pressure or were the group norms strong enough to hold people in check? Or were these decisions to conform based off of ethical and moral grounds?

      • That is actually a good point. But, when i think of anything that happens in the classroom borders, that makes me think of grades! points! What i mean by that is we’re all students! We all look for grades and points! and that’s why we all liked the idea when Drew came up with his mathematical equation that saved us! Same thing when Michael stepped up and helped collecting points for the ones who got 0 because of some unknown error!

        On the other hand, there were people who still wanted only their own interest and screwed the whole formula we agreed upon, which i think showed very clearly that no matter how much we try to stick to the plan, there will be always some percentage of selfishness!

        • What I also found interesting was the one cheater (L08 and L11) that decided to give up most of the extra points they received from said “cheating” to the “unfortunates” in some apparent show of moral regret, or societal and group pressure. It was an India player and I don’t know exactly how they handled the cheaters but thy both gave up a considerable amount of points.

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