The Personal is Political: Private Interactions Can Support Public Goods

Posted: 24 May 2011

See all articles by David G. Rand

David G. Rand

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Date Written: May 24, 2011


The public goods game is the classic laboratory paradigm for studying collective action problems. Each participant chooses how much to contribute to a common pool that returns benefits to all participants equally. The ideal outcome occurs if everybody contributes the maximum amount, but the self-interested strategy is not to contribute anything. Lab experiments robustly find that contributions decline over time, recreating the 'tragedy of the commons'. But in reality, public goods provisioning does not occur in a vacuum. Our group interactions are superimposed on a network personal (pairwise) relationships. These pairwise relationships can be used to enforce good behavior in the public sphere (provided that public goods behavior is common knowledge): I can refuse you help in our pairwise interactions if you are not doing your part for the group. Thus private interactions can potentially support public cooperation in large groups, without the need to rely on destructive costly punishments. I will present experimental evidence on situations in which these productive pairwise encounters do and do not succeed in supporting contributions in the public goods game.

Suggested Citation

Rand, David G., The Personal is Political: Private Interactions Can Support Public Goods (May 24, 2011). Gruter Institute Squaw Valley Conference: Law, Institutions & Human Behavior, 2011. Available at SSRN:

David G. Rand (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

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