Motivational foundations of communication, voluntary cooperation, and self-governance in a common-pool resource dilemma

Daniel A. DeCaro, Marco A. Janssen, Allen Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Conventional wisdom (rational choice theory) assumes that individuals are destined to collectively destroy vital ecological systems due to their narrow self-interest. In contrast, Humanistic Rational Choice Theory (HRCT) assumes individuals can cooperatively self-govern, devising effective conservation agreements and governance systems to constrain self-interest for mutual benefit. To test this assumption, we examined the motivational, perceptual, and cooperative outcomes of communication in a resource dilemma experiment. HRCT assumes that poorly managed dilemmas undermine people's fundamental needs (e.g., procedural justice, security, equity), motivating them to self-govern. Groups that make decisions fairly (e.g., democratically) and enforce their agreements, should satisfy their collective needs better, ensuring better institutional acceptance and trust, thereby improving cooperation and sustainability. Small groups of four (N = 41 groups) harvested valuable resources from a shared pool without communication (Phase 1), with communication (Phase 2), and then without communication (Phase 3). Groups destroyed the resource and reported low need satisfaction during Phase 1. During Phase 2, most groups created governance systems, greatly improving their need satisfaction (ds≥1.32), trust (d = 2.30), cooperation and resource sustainability (η2=0.87). Democratically governed groups reported the greatest need satisfaction, intrinsic motivation (i.e., institutional internalization and acceptance), and trust, especially if they primarily used positive social sanctions (e.g., praise) to enforce their agreements. Negative sanctions (e.g., shaming, threats) backfired, unless used in democratic groups. These factors accounted for 47% of the variance in Phase 3 voluntary cooperation and resource sustainability. Groups self-governed to collectively satisfy their interdependent fundamental needs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100016
JournalCurrent Research in Ecological and Social Psychology
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • Communication
  • Enforcement
  • Fundamental needs
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Reciprocity
  • Self interest
  • Self-governance
  • Trust
  • Voluntary cooperation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)


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