New research paper about cooperation in groups of Saami reindeer herders

People rely on one another in fundamental ways, but cooperation in groups can be fragile. Every day, we face tensions between acting in a socially responsible manner and following our own self-interest. These situations are called social dilemmas and they come in varying shades of subtlety, from littering and eBay to overpopulation and climate change. Overcoming these dilemmas can make all the difference, especially for marginalised groups such as pastoralists – people who make their living from herding animals.

Pastoralists use about a quarter of the world’s land for grazing their herds. Nowadays, all over the world, governments are privatising many of their pastures, and so herders must work together in increasingly fragmented places.

We wanted to learn how groups of Saami reindeer herders living in Norway’s Arctic Circle worked together. Our study, just published in the journal Human Ecology, found that cooperation pivoted around the ‘siida’: a group of herders—often family members—sharing pastures and migration routes. Smaller siidas were more cooperative, but the presence of closer family members did not affect cooperation.

While interviewing the reindeer herders, we gave them vouchers for five litres of petrol and asked how much of it they wanted to contribute to their siida. The amount they’d receive in return depended not only on how much they chose to give but also on how much everyone else in their group gave.

This economic situation is known as a public goods game. A public good is any resource (or ‘good’) that’s open for anyone to access without diminishing through use. This blog post, for example, is a public good. Your enjoyment (or otherwise) of it doesn’t stop anyone else from reading.

In a public goods game, a group of people choose how much of their money to share with everybody else. The experimenters increase whatever was donated to the group’s pot (we multiplied donations by 50 percent) and then distribute the final amount equally among all players, regardless of how much each person contributed.

This kind of experiment is very much a caricature of real-life dilemmas about how best to make decisions given how other people are behaving, but caricatures are helpful shortcuts to understanding cooperation – especially in places like Norway where everything costs a lot of money and learning how reindeer herders work together out in the pastures would require decades of observation (and a hardiness to the despair of winter that I probably can’t muster).

In theory, people make their donation decisions based on how much they expect to get back. In economic parlance, this is the ‘marginal per-capita return rate’. Groups with fewer members tend to have higher return rates and so they should donate more. This is what we found:

Petrol donations by marginal per-capita return rate

Smaller groups could expect to receive more in return for every litre they donated and this corresponded with larger donations in our experiments.

We also asked people about how often they took part in a set of activities – tasks like herding, slaughtering and making handcrafts (duodji, in the Northern Saami language). Herders directed most help towards their own siida, though helping people in other siidas wasn’t unknown. This makes sense, since siidas might rely on one another to repair shared fences or to separate reindeer when their herds mix.

Cooperation, as reported by the herders we interviewed

The study is available to read for free here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10745-016-9848-3

For the overtly nerdy, we’ve also released our data and analysis code here: https://github.com/matthewgthomas/saami-pggs

Sunday Papers: No Prisoners

Darkside, like so much, begins with a scream.

A runaway train barrels down the tracks, bound for the bottom of a lake. In swoops Ethics Man. He pulls a lever, switches the train onto another track, saving a carriage full of people. The train runs over a boy standing on the other track, killing him. Did Ethics Man make the moral choice?
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