Mine or Ours? Neural Basis of the Exploitation of Common-Pool Resources
Why do people often exhaust unregulated common (shared) natural resources but manage to preserve similar private resources? To answer this question, in this study we combine a neurobiological, economic, and cognitive modeling approach. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging on 50 participants, we show that a sharp decrease of common and private resources is associated with deactivation of the ventral striatum, a brain region involved in the valuation of outcomes. Across individuals, when facing a common resource, ventral striatal activity is anti-correlated with resource preservation (less harvesting), whereas with private resources the opposite pattern is observed. This indicates that neural value signals distinctly modulate behavior in response to the depletion of common versus private resources. Computational modeling suggested that over-harvesting of common resources was facilitated by the modulatory effect of social comparison on value signals. These results provide an explanation of people’s tendency to over-exploit unregulated common natural resources.