The Students' Dilemma: A Tragedy of the Commons

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This question may appear on my next Intro Psych exam that includes coverage of the social psychology chapter.

If you want 2 points extra credit, answer A. If you want 6 points extra credit, answer B. But wait! You will only get the points if 90% or more of the class chooses 2 points. If less than 90% of the class chooses 2 points, no one will get any extra credit.

Dylan Selterman (2015) has given his University of Maryland students a similar challenge on their term papers. Since 2008, only one class has earned the extra credit.

Why bring this ‘tragedy of the commons’ (aka ‘prisoner’s dilemma) to our students in such a real-life way? We face similar choices all of the time. Finding a recycling bin is a little inconvenient but it the end we all benefit by having less trash in landfills. Shortening a shower means more water for all of us. Driving a little slower means less fuel consumption resulting in a reduced need to drill more oil wells.

Perhaps having this experience will make our students, the next time they are confronted with such a choice, avoid acting solely in their own best interest and instead choose to give up a little in the interest of benefitting everyone.

Selterman, D. (2015, July 20). Why I give my students a 'tragedy of the commons' extra credit challenge. Washington Post. Retrieved from

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.