Tragedy of the Commons: Two examples

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Shortly before the start of World War I, as the story goes, two young Serbians—Nada and Relja—fell in love. Soon before Relja departed for war, they stood on a bridge in their hometown of Vrnjačka Banja and declared their love for each other. Unfortunately, while away, Relja fell in love with another woman and never returned. Nada, as the story goes, never recovered from this loss and died young. “A tradition was born of this tragedy: local couples began to etch their names onto padlocks, attach them to the bridge, and throw the key in the water, a symbolic and public act sealing their commitment to each other” (Mars & Kohlstedt, 2020, p. 42). Take a look at some photos of the Vrnjačka Banja bridge.

The practice of attaching locks to bridges and other public structures has become a practice in other cities around the world. Most often the locks are keyed padlocks, but sometimes they’re combination locks. (“My love, I will show my unwavering devotion to you by forgetting the combination!”)

If just one couple, or a few couples, or even a few dozen couples attach locks to, say, a bridge, there is likely no harm in it. But what happens when thousands and thousands of couples do? It becomes a tragedy of the commons example. In 2015, with “[c]lose to one million locks—weighing 45 tonnes” attached to the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris, the bridge was starting to show damage. Venice, Rome, and Melbourne all encountered similar problems to their bridges where couples in love were attaching padlocks.

If you’d like, pose this discussion question to your students:

If you were a city official presented with this tragedy of the commons problem—everyone doing a small thing (attaching a padlock to a bridge) causing a big problem (bridge is being damaged by the added weight)—how would you solve it?

Many cities replaced the bridge railings with acrylic or glass panels, e.g., Pont des Arts bridge. In Russia, they erected metal tree sculptures specifically for couples to attach their padlocks to (Mars & Kohlstedt, 2020).  

Another tragedy of the commons example. Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century champion for women’s right to vote is buried in Rochester, New York at the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery. It’s been a tradition on election day for visitors to her gravesite to put their “I voted” stickers on her gravestone. Unfortunately, the shear amount of accumulated glue from the stickers has started damaging the stone. “With this year marking 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the grave has been getting a lot of attention.” When just a few people attached stickers to the gravestone, there was virtually no damage. But many more people did the same thing, damage started to accumulate. The solution? Cemetery officials covered the stone with transparent plastic so that visitors can still place their “I voted” stickers without damaging the stone (Asmelash, 2020).



Asmelash, L. (2020). People who place their “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s headstone will notice something different there this year. CNN.

Mars, R., & Kohlstedt, K. (2020). The 99% invisible city: A field guide to the hidden world of everday design. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.


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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.