The “tragedy of the commons” was popularised in the 1960s as a way of explaining how public or shared resources which we’re incentivised to use can become depleted or ruined by individual self-interest. And because we have shared ownership of public resources we feel we have less responsibility for them and therefore less of an impetus to contribute time, energy or money to keeping them going.
As we become more aware (and more concerned) about threats to the environment, the tragedy of the commons seems even more pertinent. How do we keep parks, rivers, lakes and other local resources well-maintained? According to a new study, published in the Journal of Marketing, it might come down to a sense of ownership — the more we feel a property or resource is ours, the better we’ll take care of it.
The focus of the first study was a lake, where 135 participants had rented kayaks. The rental service largely catered to those with no experience of the lake, meaning they were unlikely to have any sense of ownership of the area before their visit. Some of the kayak renters were asked to think of and write down a nickname for the lake, while others were not; all renters were then told that they should pick up objects or trash they found floating in the lake.
Two experimenters then watched the participants and recorded any attempts to pick up floating objects (which had been planted in the lake by the team). When the participants returned their kayaks, they indicated whether or not they had picked up any rubbish and how much ownership they felt toward the lake.
Those who had given the lake a nickname reported significantly higher levels of psychological ownership of the lake than those who had not. They were also more likely to actually take care of the lake: 41% attempted to pick up the floating objects, compared to just 7% of those in the control condition.
In the second study, participants imagined walking in a park, seeing a sign that said either “welcome to the park” or “welcome to your park” (emphasis added). Participants were then asked how much responsibility they felt for the park, how obligated they felt towards the park, how accountable they felt for it, and whether or not they would pick up rubbish in the park. Participants were also asked how much of $100 they would donate to the park.
Again, boosting feelings of ownership by highlighting that it was “your” park increased participants’ perceived responsibility for the park. This led these participants to say they would be more likely to pick up rubbish, and to increase their intended donation amount by an average of $8.
The third study, back in the real world, looked at cross country skiers. When renting skis, participants were offered a map of the park: some were asked to plan their route on the map before they set out, while others were not. All renters were then asked whether or not they wanted to add a dollar to the rental fee to help the park, before indicating how likely they would be to volunteer for the park, donate in the future, or engage with the park on social media. Participants who planned their route again reported greater responsibility for the park, and were also more likely to say they’d donate to the park and volunteer in future.
A final study, lab-based study found that a commonly used device — an attendance sign which highlighted that a participant was the 22,452th visitor of the week — reduced the beneficial effects of boosting feelings of psychological ownership. This suggests that when people see themselves as just one individual in a larger group, they felt less responsibility towards the environment.
While the results do suggest clear interventions that could benefit publicly owned goods, the whole point of such resources is that they’re shared — the fact they’re collectively owned is exactly why we’re able to enjoy their many benefits. So should we be encouraging people to think of them as their individual property? Collectivism puts an emphasis on group collaboration and shared interests — factors that could play a part in preserving local resources.
Further research could look into interventions that seek to increase feelings of local collectivity, exploring how that, rather than individualism, might change people’s relationship with their surroundings.