Back by one forward by two: Does planning for norm failure encourage it?

Most people who care about resource management care about big global common resources: oceans, forests, rivers, the air. But the commons that we deal with directly — shared fridges, flagging book clubs, public restrooms — may be as important. These “mundane” commons give everyday people experiences of governance, possibly the only type of experience that humanity can rely on to solve global commons dilemmas.

I think that’s important, and so the problems of maintaining mundane commons always get me. One community of mine, my lab, has recently had trouble with a norm of “add one clean two.” Take a sink shared with many people, at an office or in a community. There are a million ways to keep this kind of resource clean, and I see new ideas everywhere I look. Still, most shared sinks have dirty dishes. One recent proposed idea was “add one clean two.” If you can’t count on every individual to clean their own dish, why not appeal to the prosocial people (the ones most likely to discuss the problem as a problem) to clean two dishes for every one they add?

On the one hand, this cleverly embraces homogeneity of cooperativeness to solve an institutional design problem. On the other, a norm built on the premise that violators exist makes it OK for people continue to leave their dishes undone. It isn’t clear to me what conditions would make the first effect overpower the second. Seems testable though.