Motivations of Collective Action

Michael Nielsen has a nicely written overview of “The Logic of Collective Action” Mancur Olson’s classic work.

Including this nice try at enumerating how to achieve solidarity around creation and maintenance of the public (or club) good.

  • When it is made compulsory. This is the case in many trade unions, with Government taxes, and so on.
  • When social pressure is brought to bear. This is usually more effective in small groups that are already bound by a common interest. With suitable skills, it can also have an impact in larger groups, but this is usually much harder to achieve.
  • When it is people’s own best interests, and so occurs voluntarily. Olson argues that this mostly occurs in small groups, and that there is a tendency for “exploitation of the great by the small”. More generally, he argues that in a voluntary situation while some collective action may take place, the level is usually distinctly suboptimal.
  • When people are offered some other individual incentive. Olson offers many examples: one of the more amusing was the report that some trade unions spend more than ten percent of their budget on Christmas parties, simply to convince their members that membership is worthwhile.

Doesn’t that kind of list that does more damage than good?  It is thought stopping.  It would be worse if it was shorter; since really there are only two means enumerated there:  bully or bribe.    The creating of common cause is much more nuanced than that.  For example the binding forces that hold together a professional society are so numerous and so individually weak that it’s hard to comprehend the effect if you start sorting them into buckets like that.  All the real vitality in each one of them is destroyed in the process.  You can see that in the suggestion that parties are an amusing way to spend money more the maintenance of solidarity  But yet it is a fun list.  And, it raises the question how much of the typical firms spend for improving staff solidarity is allocated to parties.  You might enjoy his whole essay.

Also rattling around in the I wish people would stop being so reductionist about social motivations part of my brain; is this article at the New York Times about the amount of money some firms are raking in by tapping into people’s impulsive behaviors.  The vendor thinks the 62 million people currently playing FarmVille on Facebook will generate $100 Million in revenue this year.  The few socially embedded examples in the articlereminds me of the term “hard to fake signals” (that’s in Clay Shriky’s book).    One means to a hard to fake signal is to include a third party, who certifies it’s not fake.

The ethical questions raised by the article are striking.

Game creators talk openly about their strategies … get them addicted  …”You put intentional friction in, … want to play at a faster pace can spend money,” Mr. Pincus said.

… competitive reasons to buy, too. Wendy… discovered very quickly … she would be trounced in every … she didn’t have enough fashionable items …

Particularly, when you run this up against people’s issues with impulse control.  Games with a purpose, indeed.

2 thoughts on “Motivations of Collective Action

  1. mtraven

    “The creating of common cause is much more nuanced than that. ” — nicely put. The mechanisms in that list share a crude materialist (or economicist) view of human culture. In reality people also join organizations to give some flesh and bones to their ideals and aspirations. This applies equally to the church of your choice or the ACM.

  2. Ben Hyde

    MTraven, thanks.

    I’m liking the idea of a solidarity maintenance line item in the budget. Enumerating kinds of expenditures that improve solidarity, such as pot-lucks, (rather than getting all fixated on individuals).

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