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Nature. 2003 Sep 25;425(6956):390-3.

Volunteering leads to rock-paper-scissors dynamics in a public goods game.

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Department of Evolutionary Ecology, Max Planck Institute of Limnology, 24306 Plön, Germany.


Collective efforts are a trademark of both insect and human societies. They are achieved through relatedness in the former and unknown mechanisms in the latter. The problem of achieving cooperation among non-kin has been described as the 'tragedy of the commons', prophesying the inescapable collapse of many human enterprises. In public goods experiments, initial cooperation usually drops quickly to almost zero. It can be maintained by the opportunity to punish defectors or the need to maintain good reputation. Both schemes require that defectors are identified. Theorists propose that a simple but effective mechanism operates under full anonymity. With optional participation in the public goods game, 'loners' (players who do not join the group), defectors and cooperators will coexist through rock-paper-scissors dynamics. Here we show experimentally that volunteering generates these dynamics in public goods games and that manipulating initial conditions can produce each predicted direction. If, by manipulating displayed decisions, it is pretended that defectors have the highest frequency, loners soon become most frequent, as do cooperators after loners and defectors after cooperators. On average, cooperation is perpetuated at a substantial level.

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