Date on Senior Honors Thesis


Document Type

Senior Honors Thesis

Degree Name



Psychological and Brain Sciences

Author's Keywords

Common-pool resource dilemma; conceptual understanding; exploratory learning; communication and cooperation; restorative justice


The effective management of resources on Earth is a pressing global social dilemma. An alternative solution to the traditional managing methods of these common pool resources is communal self-management facilitated through principles of restorative justice and developed through exploratory learning. We examined how communication, restorative justice techniques, and opportunity for exploratory learning impacted groups’ ability to develop a strong conceptual understanding of enforcement as well as an enforcement system in order to maintain an effective conservation strategy. Participants (N=288) were randomly assigned to 72 four-person groups in six separate conditions. Each group played nine rounds of a computer-simulated foraging task split into three phases of three rounds each. The conditions differed in the timing of communication and onset of peer sanctioning (i.e., monetary penalties) during Phase 1 and 2. In addition, half of the conditions received communication guidelines based on principles of restorative justice and conflict resolution. No group was allowed to communicate or sanction during Phase 3, a longer-term voluntary cooperation phase. We found that cooperation improved for all treatments after communication, and that the treatment which improved the most in cooperation, enforcement, and conceptual understanding of enforcement was the treatment exposed to both restorative justice and exploratory learning.

Lay Summary

Many of the ecological and resource crises we face today are rooted in fundamental flaws with the ways these resources are managed and the rules surrounding them are enforced. Historically the allocation of common resources (i.e. fishing, lumber, stone, land, etc.) has been resolved through authoritarian forces and the use of privatization to develop laws and standards, when these social rules are broken there is a punishment. The purpose of these punishments aren’t to remedy the problem but to deter deviance, and these rules are often built on premises of control and profit instead of the needs those resources would be fulfilling. We investigate an alternative method of management. Using case studies, we simulate an ecological social dilemma where players are instead tasked to manage themselves through a farm-cattle game. We examine the role communication plays in the voluntary cooperation of players as well as the role learning through exploratory failure in a task plays on their ability to manage the system better. To take it a step further we introduce elements of restorative justice rather than punitive punishment; some groups were instructed on how to form rules and punishments based on addressing each member’s individual needs as opposed to simply deterring selfish actions. This is a real-world model used in some communities and emphasizes resolving and restoring what was lost from harm while minimizing further damages that a punitive measure might inflict. When groups are left to manage resources themselves, experience failures and setbacks in those attempts, and are then allowed communication with the assistance of restorative justice techniques they end up internalizing the desire to cooperate as a group. As a result the group sees minimal punishments or rule violations, equity amongst members is higher, and net profit is higher when compared to other group management scenarios without those three features.