The Duck of Minerva

Classroom Activity: Coordination and Collaboration Problems

24 February 2014

This fifth activity comes after students are to have listened to lectures about coordination (slides) and collaboration (slides) problems.

I led off with a coordination problem that might not have been too difficult to overcome even if I didn’t allow them to confer, but was trivially solved given that I did. (If you’re wondering, I allowed that precisely because it would allow me to draw a contrast between coordination problems and collaboration problems. Though the former are not trivial, I don’t think, they’re certainly easier to overcome.)

Then came the tricky part.

The dominant strategy here, of course, is to keep all 20 points. If the class as a whole surpasses the threshold, you end up with 40. If they don’t, end up with 20. If, on the other hand, you give 20 away, you either end with 20 (if you’re really, really, really lucky) or 0. Only if your contribution was going to make the difference between the class passing that threshold and not would it make sense to contribute anything, and there’s little reason to expect as much in a large introductory course. Especially given the strategy that the vocal, self-appointed leaders tried to get everyone to adopt when I again allowed them to confer, which was for each and every student to donate precisely 15 of their points. That, of course, left the entire class vulnerable to a single defection of the smallest order.

Stunningly, there were indeed some defections.

Granted, most of the class did contribute 15 points. But those who defected kept all 20, delivering a huge blow to the group effort. So even though a few actually over-contributed, giving 16 or in some cases all 20, it wasn’t enough to make a difference.

Needless to say, many students were stunned by this. Some were even angry. One asked what message I was trying to send by making them trade with the previous activity and then rewarding selfish behavior this time. I suppose one could look at it that way, but my goal as an instructor is not to instill moral values but to help students understand international politics, and if you labor under the delusion that bad things won’t happen because they’re bad (which is, almost verbatim, the protest many offered), I humbly submit that your  understanding of (international) politics could be stronger. Though I don’t take any pleasure in upsetting students, particularly to the degree that I apparently did one student, I’m not about to apologize for forcing students to grapple with some uncomfortable truths, such as: behaving contrary to one’s interests comes at a cost, more or less by definition; overcoming coordination problems is much easier than collaboration problems, since cooperation is self-enforcing in the former case but unstable in the latter; the odds of being pivotal really do decline as the size of the group increases, and quite rapidly at that; and informing people that cooperation is nice hardly constitutes the most powerful strategy for generating cooperation.