• brinkmanship;
  • conflict;
  • cooperation;
  • public good;
  • social dilemma;
  • social evolution;
  • strategy;
  • volunteer’s dilemma


Conflict and cooperation for the exploitation of public goods are usually modelled as an N-person prisoner’s dilemma. Many social dilemmas, however, would be described more properly as a volunteer’s dilemma, in which a certain number of individuals are necessary to produce a public good. If volunteering is costly, but so is failure to produce the public good, cheaters can invade and form a stable mixed equilibrium with cooperators. The dilemma is that the benefit for the group decreases with group size because the larger the group is, the less likely it is that someone volunteers. This problem persists even in the presence of a high degree of relatedness between group members. This model provides precise, testable predictions for the stability of cooperation. It also suggests a counterintuitive but practical solution for this kind of social dilemmas: increasing the damage resulting from the failure to produce the public good increases the probability that the public good is actually produced. Adopting a strategy that entails a deliberate risk (brinkmanship), therefore, can lead to a benefit for the society without being detrimental for the individual.