Conservation, Social Traps, and M&Ms

Social Traps - Tragedy of the Commons

Students struggle to harvest “fish”

In the Tropical Marine Conservation Biology course, we educate students about the strategies and obstacles we face as marine conservation biologists. This month we introduced the topic of “social traps.” These traps are invisible yet everywhere in our present-day society. In terms of environmental conservation, these traps often present short-term benefits for individual practices (use of fossil fuels) that come with long-term environmental and societal costs (an ever worsening climate). Benefits and costs are not directly linked, one doesn’t feel the climate change every time one uses a car. As a result, societies often oversee/ignore and fall victim to these traps.

To help students understand the pitfall of social traps, we simulated the “tragedy of the common” trap using the fishery industry as an example. Imagine a vast ocean with abundant resources and multiple fishers harvesting the resource. The risk of overfishing is subtle yet apparent when fishers gain new tools to catch more fish and natural growth of fish populations is outpaced by their harvest. This simulation reimagines the collective trap in which “individual costs and benefits are inconsistent with the costs and benefits of the collective society” (Costanza 1987). We used M&Ms to symbolize the fishery population and straws as the fishing technique performed by fishers. Each student (one fisher) is required to catch at least 2 M&Ms (fish) in order to survive but can catch more because after all, M&Ms are tasty. In the end, students realized that without cooperative strategies and collective agreements, individual short-term interests jeopardized the common resource for the collective community. Needless to say, the M&M population suffered a tremendous crash.


Costanza R (1987) Social Traps and Environmental Policy. BioScience 37(6): 407-412.


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