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March 22, 2005

Allen on altruism and group size

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Interesting speculation over on Life With Alacrity about Dunbar, Altruistic Punishment, and Meta-Moderation — Allen disucsses work on an agent-based simulation that suggests a phase transition from cooperating groups to Tragedy of the Commons scenarios at ~15 people, a much lower number than many of us assumed commons-based problems arose. (My assumptions had been closer to 25.)

This is a very interesting result. To explain it in different terms, if you have a system that depends on sharing some commons and there are no process or trust metrics, a group as small as 16 may find themselves not cooperating very effectively.
The idea of commons can be as simple as how much speaking time participants in a meeting share. The time that each participant uses during the meeting can be considered the shared “commons”. If there are no enforced rules, with a group size of 16 there will inevitably be someone who will abuse the time and speak more than their share.

The one big caveat is that this is based on studies of agents, not actual humans, making the results fairly provisional. However, the study at least points to some experimental designs that could be tried with real live groups.

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