The Tragedy of the Communal Kitchen

This might be divisive but before you read the following scenarios just be aware that I hate, hate, double hate, loathe entirely anyone who falls under the following categories. You are the worst kind of person. Just the worst.

  1. Gym bros who leave weights lying around
  2. Anyone who has ever worn a plaster as they enter a pool knowing full well it may come off
  3. People who leave dirty mugs in the office kitchen for someone else to clean up

The creatures who do these things clearly have something in common (other than my hatred for them) which is – they are all acting out of self-interest. But according to some Economists, we all behave this way to a degree. We all act out of self-interest, some go as far to say that it is innate, we simply cannot help it. You’ll have to decide for yourself how much you agree with that. But in this edition of The Tulip Teacher, let’s explore why communal spaces are horrible and the ramifications of this are actually quite serious.

Communal kitchens are particularly a breeding ground for ‘self-interested’ behaviour. The chances are you will have experienced at least one of these. In your shared kitchen at university, it’s the flat mate who uses the one working hob ring to cook Super Noodles and leaves the pan plus any remnants to turn neon green. Another classic case is the office kitchen, where someone probably named Nigel is on his third tea-stained mug of the week that some poor sod will have to wash up.

A communal space is shared by all and needs to be maintained by all, that is its downfall.

A communal resource or space creates the opportunity for its users to have an easy life by leaving the maintenance to someone else; wash the mug, rack the weights, fish out that plaster. Why not…right? Afterall, anyone else would probably do the same, wouldn’t they? It’s only one tiny mug, how much difference can one more really make?

This is known as the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ which was originally associated with shared ‘commons’ a grassy area where any local could place all their sheep and cattle to graze, anyone could use it. All it took was one selfish farmer to place more animals on it than the rest and the grass would be munched away with little left for the others.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ captures the idea that an individual or a group may over consume or misuse a resource to the detriment of others despite the potential benefits of avoiding this behaviour. If everyone simply pulls their weight or accepts their portion, everyone (society as a whole) would be better off.

Imagine it:

  1. Need two 10kg dumbbells? Sure, no problem they’re all racked up for you!
  2. Want to jump into the pool without inhaling a plaster? Go for it!
  3. You only have a spare minute to make a quick drink you say? Well, what are you waiting for
    all the mugs are clean and the milk is in date!

Heaven, but it is best to not dwell on these elusive dreams and unattainable realities. We are all but simple creatures with simple minds.

Whilst these three examples can only amount to pet peeves at best the ramifications of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ extend well beyond invasive plasters and dirty crockery. The same self-interested behaviour we exhibit has led to some catastrophic outcomes, such as over-fishing, deforestation and pollution.

For example, the Amazon Rainforest is surrounded by many Brazilian farmers who are struggling to make a living, many of whom are struggling to feed their family. In their desperation, the temptation to burn or clear a small section of the forest to make room for more farming land can become too great. Afterall, for the Brazilian farmer this could be a question of their family’s survival. This thought process doesn’t just occur to one farmer though, which is why one self interested decision (rightly or wrongly) can lead to the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest.

But there is hope, one of the best solutions I’ve personally seen that addresses ‘self-interest’ issue was in Berlin, a remarkably simple solution to a low uptake of recycling (specifically the disposal of plastic and glass bottles). The measure was introduced such that, for every glass bottle you brought back to the supermarket (to be disposed of properly and reused) you would receive a small amount of change (maybe 10-20 pence a bottle). It worked; the recycling machines are in most Belin supermarket.

It’s an elegant solution because not only are more people recycling their bottles, but it has also helped to clean up the streets too. Bottles that would have been dumped and left around in ditches, parks and pavements are now collected by the homeless who take them to the supermarkets and receive the change. Unfortunately, this is only one example.

I suppose this ultimately raises the question, are we forever doomed to act in our own self-interest, incapable of thinking of others? The view that we all act out of self-interest was once widely accepted, but has since been challenged with Economist’s suggesting alternatives and solutions to the ‘Tragedy of the Communal Kitchen’.

Some have suggested the use of ‘nudges’. The cash for recyclable bottles scheme, in Berlin, is an example of this. ‘Nudges’ are small incentives that nudge us towards a desired behaviour.

Elinor Ostrom, the first female to ever win the Nobel prize in Economics, suggested that the problem could be solved through; co-operation, monitoring the use of the resource, and enforcing the agreed upon rules. In other words, we agree to all use the kitchen properly, and if someone leaves another dirty dish, they are called out for it and receive an appropriate sanction.

Sounds simple enough, but not so much. Nobody wants to be ‘that’ person, the one who stands out, the one who leaves the passive aggressive note on the kitchen fridge, it requires effort and a risk of becoming unpopular within the group. Meaning the safest option that most of us take is to do our part, and grumble about anyone who doesn’t.
Maybe one day we’ll see monthly prize draws for those who rerack their weights or clean their own mugs. For now, you’ll have to remain satisfied with complaining on some blog post that probably no one will read.

Published by James Oliver

The Tulip Teacher Discussing all things business, economics and education

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