When Push Comes to Shove: Compensating and Opportunistic Strategies in a Collective-Risk Household Energy Dilemma

Anya Skatova, Benjamin Bedwell, Benjamin Kuper-Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


To solve problems such as climate change, every little push counts. Community energy schemes are a popular policy targeted to reduce a country’s carbon emissions but the effect they have on energy use depends on whether people can work together as a community. We often find ourselves caught in a dilemma: if others are not doing their bit, why should I? In our experiment, participants (N = 118) were matched in groups of 10 to play in a collective-risk game framed as a community energy purchase scheme. They made only one decision about energy use for their virtual household a day, while a full round of the game lasted 1 week in real time. All decisions were entered via personal phone or a home computer. If in the end of the week the group exceeded a pre-paid threshold of energy use all group members would share a fine. Each day participants received feedback about decisions of their group partners, and in some groups the feedback was manipulated as high (unfair condition) or low (fair condition) use. High average group use created individual risk for participants to be penalized in the end of the week, even if they did not use much themselves. We found that under the risk of having to pay a fine, participants stayed significantly below the fair-share threshold regardless of unfair behavior of others. On the contrary, they significantly decreased their consumption toward the end of the game. Seeing that others are doing their bit – using a fair-share – encouraged people to take advantage of the situation: those who played against fair confederates did not follow the normative behavior but conversely, increased their consumption over the course of the game. These opportunistic strategies were demonstrated by impulsive participants who were also low in punishment sensitivity. We discuss the findings in the light of policy research as well as literature on cooperation and prosocial behavior.
Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Energy Research
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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