What COVID-19 Tells Us About the Tragedy of the Commons

Why we need to stop the spread of fear, irrationality, and selfishness.

Posted Apr 03, 2020

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a few articles about COVID-19’s knock-on effects on people’s behaviour—particularly stockpiling goods—which people online have called "stupid" and "selfish." Is this behaviour a result of ignorance, recklessness, or perhaps a clash between collectivist and individualist ideals?

The more I think about the manner in which people have been stockpiling (and, to a lesser extent, disregarding warnings against public congregation), the more it brings to mind all too real-world examples of the Tragedy of the Commons—a social dilemma situation that I teach in my social psychology lectures (similar in ways to the Prisoner’s Dilemma).

A classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons is a farming community that shares its resources, wherein restraint by all (and sacrifice—using/taking less or only what is needed) will yield benefit for all in the long-term. On the other hand, over-harvesting (though ensuring more for the individual in the present) will yield suffering for all in the long-term. One problem during this time of crisis, as addressed above, is that some people have a tendency to over-harvest.

Contextually, we saw the Tragedy of the Commons at work in our preparation for the outbreak—unnecessarily loading up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, flour, and other products. If people only bought what was needed at reasonably paced purchasing, then there wouldn’t be the shortages and ordering delays we’ve seen in some cases. Again, some people will over-harvest.

Why do people do this? "Selfishness" and "greed" are words that intuitively come to mind; but, regular readers of this blog will know that relying on intuition is the opposite of critical thinking. It’d be unfair to say greed or selfishness alone; though they may be factors in some cases.

For example, consider an anecdote I came across about a young man who, foreseeing the coming demand, purchased all the hand sanitizer he could obtain from an online store (at the standard price) and then put it all back on sale at an extraordinarily inflated price, knowing that some people, no matter how vulnerable, would be willing to pay the price. Many would call what the man did selfish or greedy.

However, as part of this individual’s plan to resell the hand sanitizer, he is banking on the fearful irrationality of others to buy it at such an inflated price. For many, fear is the underlying reason for over-harvesting: "What if we run out of food? I need to stock up on canned foods, with long shelf-lives, in case this thing goes on and on! I’ll load up on flour too so that I can bake when the bread goes stale and there’s none left in the market!"

The spread of COVID-19 is scary for people, especially those in a vulnerable demographic; and one thing about fear is that it breeds irrationality; hence, many of the "stupid" behaviours observed.

Though fear may well be a critical driver of stockpiling in the context of COVID-19, let’s return to the "selfish man." My own personal morality would look upon his actions as wrong; however, as critical thinkers, we must play devil’s advocate. Let’s say that what he did was for the purpose of self-preservation. Indeed, any vendor will sell goods at a price higher than the cost at which they acquired said goods.

Now, I’m not trying to equate what this man is said to have done with typical vending, but let’s say he really needed the money. Maybe someone engaging in a similar behaviour might be doing so because it’s their only means of making an income to feed their family during this time. Of course, this may not be the case at all; but, if we’re questioning rationales, then we must also ask, is selling at an unfair price any worse than over-harvesting? That is, is the selfish vendor any worse than the stockpiling consumer?

Let me put it another way: Is it any worse than stockpiling some product that could potentially be of utmost importance to others in the near future? Arguably, they’re one and the same, given that both are essentially removing the accessibility of the product from the market. Yes, one can be considered selfishness and the other fearful irrationality. Nevertheless, both are essentially functions of self-preservation.  

To some extent, arguably, this point boils down to semantics: self-preservation is generally perceived as a positive—it’s a safe, cautious behaviour; and on the other hand, greed and selfishness have a negative connotation, even if they’re functioning in a similar fashion. Of course, it’s reasonable to argue that one can self-preserve without acting in an unnecessarily "super" selfish fashion (e.g., to the extent in the anecdote above); but it’s also reasonable to argue that there’s nothing wrong with putting yourself and your family first, especially in the context of living in a time of crisis. Of course, the concept of self-preservation can lead to some less than savoury behaviours; but, for the most part, it’s adaptive and fundamental to being human—a function of evolutionary psychology (e.g., kin selection). With that, the question becomes, where do we draw the line between what is reasonable self-preservation and what is greedy? It’s largely relative.

For example, I read another anecdote recently, in which a boy was said to have been expelled from school (before closures) for selling squirts of hand sanitizer to his classmates. Given that this anecdote was shared on social media, there was a wide array of reactions. Some were disgusted with the boy’s actions—trying to profit off his peers in a time of uncertainty. On the other hand, some applauded his entrepreneurial endeavour! The reactions were divided—and that’s because morality is relative—what’s "right" for one person isn’t necessarily for the next and what might be wrong for them is no problem for another.

When people over-harvest, it can result from any of the variables discussed here at play—and potentially more. It’s easy for us to say that if we all abstain and sacrifice, we will get through this. However, we cannot account for the actions of others. Though we may want to live in an ideal world where everyone does the right thing and refrains from over-harvesting (similar to the Just World Phenomenon), the problem is that we don’t live in an ideal world, and all it takes is the few to show us how over-harvesting has benefited them (e.g. consider the concept of corruption within various real-world examples of political and economic systems—communism and capitalism alike)

Like a virus, in its own right, the concept of benefitting from over-harvesting spreads; and soon enough, it becomes the case that over-harvesting is no longer about benefit, it’s about self-preservation. Restraint is no longer about helping everyone to win—it’s now equated with personal loss, given its abandonment by others. Therein lies the tragedy of the commons.

In conclusion, when we evaluate our actions during times of crisis (especially now as strategies for curtailing COVID-19’s spread have evolved into social distancing and isolation), consider also the Tragedy of the Commons. By all means, self-preserve. But, just as you should avoid spreading COVID-19, please stop the spread of fear, irrationality, and selfishness.