A Conversation with
Jennifer Jacquet [11.4.13]
Introduction By: John Brockman


Interesting news this week from Nature Climate Change which published a study by Jennifer Jacquet (Edge's Roving Editor!) and her colleagues at two Max Planck Institutes, Kristin Hagel, Christoph Hauert, Jochem Marotzke, Torsten Röhl and Manfred Milinski. The study, designed by Jacquet, who is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU sparked global press coverage which included articles in Time, Der Spiegel, and a 5-minute segment on Fareed Zakaria's GPS national news program on CNN on "Why in the world can't the world get consensus on climate change?" Harvard psycholgist Steven Pinker noted that the paper is "an insightful analysis of why it's so hard to come to grips with climate change." Special thanks to Rory Hawlett, Chief Editor of Nature Climate Change for opening the paywall for one month—until the end of November—to allow public access to the paper. And a tip of the hat to Nature Editor-in-Chief and Edge contributor, Philip Campbell for his continued interest and support.

John Brockman

JENNIFER JACQUET is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU, researching shame, cooperation and the tragedy of the commons. She is also Edge's Roving Editor (see interviews with Adam Alter and Joseph Heinrich).

Jennifer Jacquet's Edge bio page 

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Why in the world can't the world get consensus on climate change? Fareed Zakaria takes a look at a new study.


[JENNIFER JACQUET:] My colleagues from UBC, the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and the Max-Planck-Institute for Meteorology, and I published a study this week in Nature Climate Change where we show that when the rewards of cooperation are delayed, cooperation significantly declines. We used a 6-player collective risk game—a variant on the threshold public-goods experiment, which requires a minimal investment into the common pool (in our case 120 Euros) for the public good to be provided (in our case, an additional 45 Euros each). No single player is capable of ensuring the group's success, and a majority of players who donate nothing guarantees that the target cannot be met. As an environmental scientist interested in large-scale social dilemmas, like overfishing and climate change, this set-up is perfect to explore some of the nuances of cooperation.

For this study, we were interested in time's effect on cooperation. Temporal discounting undermines sustainable resource use—we've known that ever since UBC mathematician Colin Clark published his paper titled "The economics of overexploitation" in 1973 in Science showing that self-interest wasn't the only thing to undermine cooperation and lead to overexploitation of a resource—even under private ownership resources could be exploited due to high rates of discounting.

Since then, many experiments have shown our bias toward instant gratification, and Thomas Schelling has discussed intergenerational discounting with regards to energy use and climate. But our study is the first to test discounting in a group setting.

In behavioral experiments about climate change to date, the set-up was optimistic: participants have received both the benefits of defection and the rewards of cooperation immediately following the experiments. Yet in most real-world collective-risk dilemma, and particularly climate change, the gains from defection can often be realized quickly, but the rewards of cooperation may be delayed by decades.

In our experiment, we gave participants 40 Euros each to invest, as a group of six, towards climate change actions. If participants cooperated to pool together 120 Euros for climate change, returns on their investment in the form of 45 additional Euros each were promised one day later, seven weeks later, or were invested in planting oak trees, and thus would lead to climate benefits several decades down the road—but not personally to the participants.

Although many individuals invested initially in the long-term, intergenerational investment, none of the groups achieved the 120-Euro target, although one group of the 11 total got as close as 116 Euros. 

In a sense, this shows real promise because our experimental was set-up was such that all players were anonymous and punishment and reward weren't available, which means that groups were likely not as cooperative as they would have been if we had introduced the possibilities of punishment, reputation, and even the threat of shame or the promise of honor.

This study confirms our desire to satisfy our desires for the now, rather than the future. But moreover, it represents an advance in experimental design, which we can use to test what kinds of interventions can lower group discount rates and allow us to cooperate to preserve natural resources for future generations. 

Jennifer Jacquet1 *, Kristin Hagel2 , Christoph Hauert3 , Jochem Marotzke4 , Torsten Röhl5 and Manfred Milinski2
The difficulty of avoiding dangerous climate change arises from a tension between group and self-interest1–3 and is exacerbated by climate change’s intergenerational nature4 . The present generation bears the costs of cooperation, whereas future generations accrue the benefits if present cooperation succeeds, or suffer if present cooperation fails. Although temporal discounting has long been known to matter in making individual choices5 , the extent of temporal discounting is poorly understood in a group setting. We represent the effect of both intra- and intergenerational discounting4,6,7 through a collective-risk group experiment framed around climate change. Participants could choose to cooperate or to risk losing an additional endowment with a high probability. The rewards of defection were immediate, whereas the rewards of cooperation were delayed by one day, delayed by seven weeks (intragenerational discounting), or delayed by several decades and spread over a much larger number of potential beneficiaries (intergenerational discounting). We find that intergenerational discounting leads to a marked decrease in cooperation; all groups failed to reach the collective target. Intragenerational discounting was weaker by comparison. Our results experimentally confirm that international negotiations to mitigate climate change are unlikely to succeed if individual countries’ short-term gains can arise only from defection.

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