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Irrigation experiments in the lab: trust, environmental variability, and collective action

Jacopo A. Baggio, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment, Arizona State University; Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University
Nathan D. Rollins, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University
Irene Pérez, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment, Arizona State University
Marco A. Janssen, Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University


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Research on collective action and common-pool resources is extensive. However, little work has concentrated on the effect of variability in resource availability and collective action, especially in the context of asymmetric access to resources. Earlier works have demonstrated that environmental variability often leads to a reduction of collective action in the governance of shared resources. Here we assess how environmental variability may impact collective action. We performed a behavioral experiment involving an irrigation dilemma. In this dilemma participants invested first into a public fund that generated water resources for the group, which were subsequently appropriated by one participant at a time from head end to tail end. The amount of resource generated for the given investment level was determined by a payoff table and a stochastic event representing environmental variability, i.e., rainfall. Results show that that (1) upstream users’ behavior is by far the most important variable in determining the outcome of collective action; (2) environmental variability (i.e. risk level in investing in the resource) has little effect on individual investment and extraction levels; and (3) the action-reaction feedback is fundamental in determining the success or failure of communities.

Key words

asymmetry; common-pool resources; feedbacks; laboratory experiments; trust; variability

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087