What do they have in common? Prisoner’s dilemmas and incentives that make people do irrational things.
Let’s start with gun violence.
First, the average person thinks that gun violence is a serious problem: 81% Top 10 Average claim to be very concerned about it, while 75% Middle Average are very concerned about it.
But what’s is the solution to a problem we all agree exists?
When asked, Middle Average is twice as likely as Top 10 Average to believe that more guns in people’s hands will help prevent gun violence.
Now this makes sense, because the number one reason cited for owning a gun is self-defense. But defensive gun ownership is essentially a prisoner’s dilemma where individually rational behavior leads to collectively irrational results.
In this case…let’s start with two people, you and an intruder in your home, and you’re each either armed or not armed:
Now if you’re both unarmed, maybe there’s a scuffle, you wind up in a fight, but the police are called. You have a few scratches, so on a scale of -10 to 10, say that’s a utility of negative 1, and the intruder goes to jail – let’s say it’s a utility of negative 3.
But say your intruder in unarmed, while you have a firearm, you have no injuries and shoot him dead. Or say your intruder has a gun and you have nothing with which to defend yourself. You wind up dead and he loses nothing.
But you both have an incentive to be armed, there’s a shoot out, and you’re both injured by gunfire. But no one owns a gun thinking they’ll wind up with -8 utility; no one owns a gun with the belief that they will be injured by or as a result of using it, they own their guns to protect them from danger.
So it’s no surprise that approximately the same percent of both Top 10 and Middle Average that think more guns make us safer from gun violence (22%& 42%), are the people who are gun owners themselves.
And for anyone who’s ever studied game theory, it’s no surprise that we all do what’s rationally best for ourselves. But there’s a reason why Top 10 Average is less likely to own guns, despite having higher crime rates and more concern over gun violence than Middle Average and it’s related to climate change.
And with climate change, while there are still some science rejecters or skeptics in both groups, the general consensus is that climate change is in fact a real threat.
But this risk is probably less for each of us than for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And taking steps to prevent this threat requires sacrifices that Top 10 and Middle Average probably won’t ever get the benefit of – less driving, higher gas prices, more time sorting recycling...
And because of this we find ourselves in another prisoners’ dilemma where individually rational behavior, should lead to collectively irrational results.
But in this case, let’s start with two players, you and everyone else, and make it really simple, you have a single decision: to either drive 4 miles to a football game or walk 4 miles to a football game.
And in a world where everyone does what’s best for themselves, we’d expect the world to drive (or not recycle, etc.). So action to prevent climate change should be very low, and probably even lower among Top 10 Average as they live in more populated areas where there’s a greater level of anonymity and it’s easier be a free rider, doing nothing and hoping others would pick up the slack.
But there are 3 ways to change behavior – for gun violence and climate change, and anything else: you either force people, trick people, or incentivize people.
And Top 10 average is incentivized to take steps to prevent climate change – through public transportation, recycling programs, and even composting collection; they’re forced to own fewer guns through stricter laws and regulations. These drive participation for the greater good and essentially hack the prisoner’s dilemma.
So we see 44% Top 10 Average taking steps to prevent climate change, compared with 35% Middle Average.
And so yes, we all do what’s rationally best for ourselves, but incentives can hack prisoners dilemmas and encourage what’s better for us all
And the implications is that most marketing changes attitudes so it can change behavior, but collective causes like climate change and gun control need to change behavior to change attitudes.
And if you want to change behavior, first figure out what’s driving it, and then find ways to offer collective incentives to change it.