The Dynamics of Rules in Commons Dilemmas

Various social sciences have contributed to understanding how humans make decisions in a given rule set of experimental games, such as social dilemmas, coordination, and bargaining. However, the rules of the games are not fixed in real-life settings. No systematic studies have been performed on the question of how humans are able to change the rules in commons dilemmas. From field studies it is well known that people invest significant effort in crafting new rules. This project aimed to study what causes individuals to invest in rule development, and which cognitive processes explain the ability of humans to craft new rules. The project uses different methods: laboratory experiments, experiments in the field, and agent-based models. A series of laboratory experiments has been conducted to analyze the effect of the option to change the rules of the game on the level of cooperation. In various treatments, we the consequences of communication and different ecologies are analyzed. The field experiments were aimed to study the role of experience in the ability to choose effective rules. A number of communities in Colombia and Thailand are visited where field experiments are role games are performed. The communities have a dominant resource use of fisheries, forest, or irrigation. In these role games, groups of resource users will be asked to craft rules for a hypothetical common-pool resource, resembling the key problems of fisheries, forests, or irrigation. We will analyze the role games in order to understand the findings of the field experiments. The agent-based models are based on the experimental data. Empirically grounded agent-based models are developed to derive a better understanding of the experimental results. Furthermore, theoretical models are developed to test the co-evolution of strategies and rules. The protocols and software developed in this project are available on a related website and as open source software. This project will contribute to the methodological development of agent-based models by combining laboratory and field experiments and to the empirical testing of alternative behavioral models.

Project closed 2010

Study Locations

  • Undergraduate Students: Clint Bushman (Anthropology), Christine Hendricks (Anthropology), Daniel Merrill (Computer Science).
  • Masters Students: Deepali Bhagvat (Computer Science; did master thesis on visualization of natural resources in gaming environment inspired by the project, works now at Microsoft), Sanket Joshi (Computer Science; did master thesis on network performance inspired by downloading game, works now at Microsoft), Seema Talele (Computer Studies, finishes master thesis in May 2010 on web-based version of field experiments).
  • PhD Students: Daniel Castillo (Geography, Paris, France) is finishing his PhD thesis based on the field experiments and role games; and the role of mental models in natural resource management. Robert Holahan (Economics, Indiana University) ran the experiments of the Science paper and will finish his PhD thesis in 2010 on voting and natural resource management using experimental methods. Nicholas Radtke (Computer Science, ASU) participated in the agent-based modeling of lab experiments, and is finishing in 2010 a thesis on agent-based modeling of open source software developments.
  • Postdoc: Robert Tobias (Psychology, EAWAG, Switzerland) worked on the development of a survey to measure mental models during the experiments.



Poteete, A.M., M.A. Janssen and E. Ostrom (2010) Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons and Multiple Methods in Practice, Princeton University Press.


Cardenas, J.C, M.A. Janssen, and F. Bousquet (2013), Dynamics of Rules and Resources: Three New Field Experiments on Water, Forests and FisheriesHandbook on Experimental Economics and the Environment, edited by John List and Michael Price, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 319-345.


Anderies, J.M., M. A. Janssen, F. Bousquet, J-C. Cardenas, D. Castillo, M-C. Lopez, R. Tobias, B. Vollan, A. Wutich (2011) The challenge of understanding decisions in experimental studies of common pool resource governanceEcological Economics 70 (9): 1571-1579.
Castillo, D., F. Bousquet, M.A. Janssen, K. Worrapimphong, and J-C. Cardenas (2011) Context matters to explain field experiments: results from Thai and Colombian fishing villagesEcological Economics 70(9): 1609-1620.
Goldstone, R.L. and M.A. Janssen (2005), Computational models of collective behaviourTrends in Cognitive Science 9(9): 424-430
Janssen, M. A. (2010) Introducing Ecological Dynamics into Common-Pool Resource Experiments. Ecology and Society 15 (2): 7. [online] URL:
Janssen, M.A. and J.M. Anderies (2011) Governing the commons: Learning from Field and Laboratory experiments (Editorial)Ecological Economics 70(9): 1569-1570.
Janssen, M.A., J.M. Anderies and J.C. Cardenas (2011) Head-enders as stationary bandits in asymmetric commons: Comparing irrigation experiments in the laboratory and the fieldEcological Economics 70(9): 1590-1598.
Janssen, M.A., J.M. Anderies and S. Joshi (2011), Coordination and Cooperation in Asymmetric Commons DilemmasExperimental Economics 14(4): 547-566.
Janssen, M.A., F. Bousquet and E. Ostrom (2011), Multi-method approach to study the governance of social-ecological systemsNature Science Société 19(4): 382-394.
Janssen, M.A., F. Bousquet, J.C. Cardenas, D. Castillo, and K. Worrapimphong (2010c), Field Experiments of Irrigation GamesJournal of Environmental Economics and Management, in review
Janssen, M.A, F. Bousquet, J.C. Cardenas, D. Castillo, and K. Worrapimphong (2013), Breaking the elected rules in field experiments on forestry resourcesEcological Economics 90: 132-139.
Janssen, M.A. and C. Bushman (2008), Evolution of cooperation and altruistic punishment when retaliation is possibleJournal of Theoretical Biology 254:541-545
Janssen, M.A. and R.L. Goldstone (2006), Dynamic-persistence of cooperation in public good games when group size is dynamicJournal of Theoretical Biology 243(1): 134-142
Janssen, M.A., R.L. Goldstone, F. Menczer and E. Ostrom (2008), Effect of rule choice in dynamic interactive spatial commonsInternational Journal of the Commons 2(2): 288-312
Janssen, M.A., R. Holahan, A. Lee and E. Ostrom (2010d) Lab Experiments to Study Social-Ecological SystemsScience 328: 613-617
Janssen, M.A., and E. Ostrom (2008), TURFs in the lab: Institutional Innovation in dynamic interactive spatial commonsRationality and Society 20: 371-397
Janssen, M.A., N.P. Radtke, A. Lee (2009), Pattern-oriented modeling of commons dilemma experimentsAdaptive Behaviour 17:508-523.


Bhagvat, D. (2008), Modelling and Rendering Realistic Trees, Master Thesis, Department of Computer Science, Arizona State University

Experiment Materials


Marco Janssen
Principal investigator
Arizona State University, School of Sustainability
Elinor Ostrom
Co-Principal investigators
Founding Director of the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment
Flippo Menczer
Co-Principal investigators
Indiana State University, School of Informatics and Computing
Robert Goldstone
Co-Principal investigators
Indiana University, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
François Bousquet
Juan Camilo Cárdenas
Co-Principal investigators
Universidad de los Andes