Skip to main content

Behavioral Aspects of the International Law of Global Public Goods and Common Pool Resources

  • Anne van Aaken (a1)

Collective action problems with public good characteristics such as climate change have important implications for international law. This note argues that behavioral insights from laboratory experiments, in which individuals engage in public goods games, can contribute to our understanding of how best to optimize the design of international legal regimes dealing with global public goods and common pool resources. Behavioral economics, to the extent it supplements or displaces rational-choice models in institutional design, may enable deeper and more sustained forms of international cooperation.

Hide All

1 For details of a rationalist account on collective action problems in international law with further references, see Barkin, Samuel & Rashchupkina, Yuliya, Public Goods, Common Pool Resources, and International Law , 111 AJIL 376 (2017).

2 See id. (relying on the rationalist approach). See also Brunnée, Jutta, The Kyoto Protocol: A Testing Ground for Compliance Theories? , 63 Heidelberg J. Int'l L. 255 (2003).

3 Compliance theories are also theories about “the nature and operation” of international law more generally. Kingsbury, Benedict, The Concept of Compliance as a Function of Competing Conceptions of International Law , 19 Mich. J. Int'l L. 345, 346 (1998). For a rationalist treatment in the field of international relations, see Downs, George W., Rocke, David M. & Barsoom, Peter N., Is the Good News About Compliance Good News About Cooperation? , 50 Int’l Org. 379 (1996).

4 As analyzed by Hardin, Garrett, The Tragedy of the Commons , 162 Sci. 1243 (1968).

5 As analyzed by Olson, Mancur, The Logic of Collective Action (1971).

6 Sandler, Todd, Global and Regional Public Goods: A Prognosis for Collective Action , 19 Fiscal Stud. 221 (1998); Sandler, Todd, Strategic Aspects of Difficult Global Challenges , 7 Glob. Pol'y 33 (2016).

7 Ostrom, Elinor, A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action , 92 Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 1, 2 (1998).

8 For details, see Goldsmith, Jack L. & Posner, Eric A., The Limits of International Law 195–96 (2005); Barrett, Scott, Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Public Goods 1618 (2007).

9 See Cornes, Richard & Sandler, Todd, The Theory of Externalities, Public Goods, and Club Goods (1986); and for global public goods, see Barrett, supra note 8; Barrett, Scott, International Cooperation and the International Commons , 10 Duke Envtl L. & Pol'y F. 131 (1999); Snidal, Duncan, The Game Theory of International Politics , 38 World Pol. 25, 27, 28 (1985).

10 Posner, Eric A. & Sykes, Alan O., Economic Foundations of International Law 232 (2013).

11 Ostrom, Elinor, Burger, Joanna, Field, Christopher B., Norgaard, Richard B. & Policansky, David, Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges , 284 Sci. 278, 279 (1999).’

12 Ostrom, supra note 7, at 3.

13 Tversky, Amos & Kahneman, Daniel, Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases , 185 Sci. 1124 (1974); Tversky, Amos & Kahneman, Daniel, The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice , 211 Sci. 453 (1981); Camerer, Colin, Behavioral Economics: Reunifying Psychology and Economics , 96 Proc. Nat’l Acad. Sci. 10575 (1999); Rabin, Matthew, Psychology and Economics , 36 J. Econ. Lit. 11 (1998).

14 But see van Aaken, Anne, Behavioral International Law and Economics , 55 Harv. Int'l L.J. 421 (2014); Broude, Tomer, Behavioral International Law , 163 U. Penn. L. Rev. 1099 (2015). International relations scholarship has begun to incorporate behavioral insights, although primarily in pieces that do not address international law. See Hafner-Burton, Emilie M., Haggard, Stephan, Lake, David A. & Victor, David G., The Behavioral Revolution and International Relations , 71 Int'l Org. Supp. S1 (2017). A discussion on the value of experiments in international law is found in Dunoff, Jeffrey L. & Pollock, Mark A., Experimenting with International Law , Eur. J. Int'l L. (forthcoming 2017), available at doi:10.1093/ejil/chx076.

15 Ostrom, supra note 7, at 1 (emphasis in original). “Social-dilemma situation” is another term for a collective action problem.

16 I use psychology and behavioral economics interchangeably. Both fields have contributed to relevant insights and seek to understand deviations from behavior predicted by rational choice models.

17 For constructivist approaches to collective action problems in international law, see, instead of many, Brunnée, Jutta & Toope, Stephan J., Legitimacy and Legality in International Law. An Interactional Account (2010); Brunnée, supra note 2.

18 See McDermott, Rose, Political Psychology in International Relations (2004).

19 For an entire journal issue devoted to the subject, see The Behavioral Revolution and International Relations , 71 Int'l Org. (2017). For a call for experiments in international law, see Chilton, Adam S. & Tingley, Dustin H., Why the Study of International Law Needs Experiments , 52 Colum. J. Transnat'l L. 173 (2013).

20 Gowdy, John M., Behavioral Economics and Climate Change Policy , 68 J. Econ. Behav. & Org. 632, 632 (2008) (“[Behavioral economics] suggests that the standard economic approach to climate change policy, with its focus on narrowly rational, self-regarding responses to monetary incentives, is seriously flawed.”).

21 Moravcsik, Andrew, Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics , 51 Int'l Org. 513 (1997); Slaughter, Anne-Marie, A Liberal Theory of International Law , 94 ASIL Proc. 240 (2000). See Birnie, Patricia, Boyle, Alan E. & Redgwell, Catherine, International Law & the Environment 268335 (2009).

22 Kaul, Inge, Blondin, Donald & Nahtigal, Neva, Understanding Global Public Goods: Where We Stand; and Where to Next , in Global Public Goods, at xix (Kaul, Inge ed., 2016); Kaul, Inge & Mendoza, Ronald U., Advancing the Concept of Global Public Goods , in Providing Global Public Goods: Managing Globalization (Kaul, Inge, Conceição, Pedro, Goulven, Katell Le & Mendoza, Ronald U. eds., 2003).

23 Slaughter, Anne-Marie, Remarks, The Big Picture: Beyond Hot Spots & Crises in Our Interconnected World , 1 Penn St. J. L. & Int'l Aff. 286, 294 (2012).

24 For details, van Aaken, supra note 14, at 439–49.

25 Hart, Oliver & Moore, John, Contracts as Reference Points , 123 Q. J. Econ. 1 (2008).

26 For other deviations from the rational choice model, see van Aaken, supra note 14, and Broude, supra note 14.

27 See generally Güth, Werner, Schmittberger, Rolf & Schwarze, Bernd, An Experimental Analysis of Ultimatum Bargaining , 3 J. Econ. Behav. & Org. 367 (1982).

28 See Engel, Christoph, Dictator Games: A Meta Study , 14 Experimental Econ. 583 (2011).

29 Ostrom, supra note 7, at 2.

30 Cosmides, Leda & Tooby, John, Better than Rational: Evolutionary Psychology and the Invisible Hand , 84 Am. Econ. Rev. 327 (1994).

31 Ostrom, supra note 7, at 3.

32 Fehr, Ernst & Rockenbach, Bettina, Detrimental Effects of Sanctions on Human Altruism , 422 Nature 137, 137 (2003).

33 See Cookson, R., Framing Effects in Public Goods Experiments , 3 Experimental Econ. 55, 55 (2000), and Ellingsen, Tore, Johannesson, Magnus, Mollerstrom, Johanna & Munkhammar, Sara, Social Framing Effects: Preferences or Beliefs? , 76 Games & Econ. Behav. 117, 118 (2012) for different theories about framing.

34 Cookson, supra note 33, at 55; Tversky & Kahneman, The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice, supra note 13.

35 Ellingsen & others, supra note 33.

36 Tversky & Kahneman, The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice, supra note 13; Tversky, Amos & Kahnemann, Daniel, Rational Choice and the Framing of Decisions , 59 J. Bus. S251 (1986).

37 Dufwenberg, Martin, Gächter, Simon & Hennig-Schmidt, Heike, The Framing of Games and the Psychology of Play , 73 Games & Econ. Behav. 459 (2011).

38 Camerer, supra note 13, at 75.

39 Richard J. Eiser & Kum Kum Bhavnani, The Effect of Situational Meaning on the Behaviour of Subjects in the Prisoner's Dilemma Game, 4 Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 93 (1974).

40 Skyrms, Brian, The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure (2004) (framing the prisoner's dilemma as a trust game).

41 Cf. Camerer, Colin, Behavioral Game Theory. Experiments in Strategic Interaction 3 (2003).

42 Gowdy, supra note 20, at 633 (with further references to experiments). See also Fehr, Ernst & Schmidt, Klaus M., The Economics of Fairness, Reciprocity and Altruism—Experimental Evidence and New Theories , in Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity Vol. I, at 618 (Kolm, Serge & Ythier, Jean Mercier eds., 2006) (“[T]he real question is no longer whether many people have other-regarding preferences, but under which conditions these preferences have important economic and social effects.”).

43 Gächter, Simon, Human Pro-social Motivation and the Maintenance of Social Order , in Handbook on Behavioral Economics and the Law 37 (Zamir, Eyal and Teichman, Doron eds., 2014).

44 Id. at 38. For a discussion of how guilt aversion influences behavior, see Haidt, Jonathan, The Moral Emotions , in Handbook of Affective Sciences (Davidson, Richard J., Sherer, Klaus R. & Goldsmith, H. Hill eds., 2003) and Charness, Gary & Dufwenberg, Martin, Promises and Partnership , 74 Econometrica 1579 (2006).

45 See Gächter, supra note 43, at 38 et seq.

46 See, instead of many on expressive law theory, McAdams, Richard H., The Expressive Powers of Law: Theories and Limits (2015).

47 Bolton, Gary E. & Ockenfels, Axel, A Theory of Equity, Reciprocity and Competition , 90 Am. Econ. Rev. 166 (2000); Fehr & Schmidt, supra note 42; Charness, Gary & Rabin, Matthew, Understanding Social Preferences with Simple Tests, 117 Q. J. Econ. 817 (2002).

48 Serge Kolm, Reciprocity: Its Scope, Rationales, and Consequences, in Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity Vol. I, supra note 42, at 371. Keohane, Robert O., Reciprocity in International Relations , 40 Int'l Org. 1, 3 (1986). See also, extensively, Bowles, Samuel & Gintis, Herbert, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution (2011).

49 Gintis, Herbert, Strong Reciprocity and Human Sociality , 206 J. Theoretical Bio. 169 (2000); Bowles & Gintis, supra note 48.

50 Keohane, supra note 48, at 4 (defining specific reciprocity as “situations in which specified partners exchange items of equivalent value in a strictly delimited sequence”).

51 Id. (defining diffuse reciprocity as “conforming to generally accepted standards of behavior”).

52 See, e.g., Gintis, supra note 49; Bowles & Gintis, supra note 48, at 20.

53 Surveyed in Gächter, Simon & Herrmann, Benedikt, Reciprocity, Culture, and Human Cooperation: Previous Insights and a New Cross-Cultural Experiment , 364 Phil. Transactions Royal Soc’y B – Biological Sci. 791 (2009).

54 Ostrom, Burger, Field, Norgaard & Policansky, supra note 11, at 279.

55 Mitchell, Ronald B., Flexibility, Compliance and Norm Development in the Climate Regime , in Implementing the Climate Regime: International Compliance 77 (Hovi, Jon, Stokke, Olav & Ulfstein, Geir eds., 2005).

56 Van Aaken, supra note 14, at 474.

57 U.S. Dep't of State Press Release, Communication Regarding Intent to Withdraw from Paris Agreement (Aug. 4, 2017), at For an analysis of the legal consequences, see Rajamani, Lavanya & Brunnée, Jutta, The Legality of Downgrading Nationally Determined Contributions Under the Paris Agreement: Lessons from the US Disengagement , 29 J. Envtl L. 537 (2017).

58 Daniel Boffey & Arthur Neslen, China and EU Strengthen Promise to Paris Deal with US Poised to Step Away, Guardian (June 1, 2017), at https://

59 See, e.g., Goldsmith & Posner, supra note 8, at 175–80.

60 See Charness, Gary, Self-Serving Cheap Talk: A Test Of Aumann's Conjecture , 33 Games & Econ. Behav. 177 (2000).

61 Ostrom, supra note 7, at 7; Camerer, supra note 41, at 76 with further references.

62 Ostrom, supra note 7, at 7.

63 Id.

64 Falk, Armin, Fehr, Ernst & Fischbacher, Urs, Testing Theories of Fairness—Intentions Matter , 62 Games & Econ. Behav. (2008).

65 Gürerk, Özgür, Irlenbusch, Bernd & Rockenbach, Bettina, The Competitive Advantage of Sanctioning Institutions , 312 Sci. 108 (2006). This has been shown in common pool resources (CPR) experiments as well. See Falk, Armin, Fehr, Ernst & Fischbacher, Urs, Appropriating the Commons—A Theoretical Explanation , in The Drama of the Commons (Ostrom, Elinor, Dietz, Thomas, Dolsak, Nives, Stern, Paul C., Stonich, Susan & Weber, Elke U. eds., 2002) (finding that there is less appropriation in CPR and more contibution to public goods if the institutional setup allows for (informal) sanctions and communication).

66 See Chayes, Abram & Chayes, Antonia Handler, The New Sovereignty: Compliance with International Regulatory Agreements 3233 (1998). See also Downs, Rocke & Barsoom, supra note 3.

67 Bowles & Gintis, supra note 48, at 28.

68 This experimental research has also been validated by field research, most prominently by Tyler, Tom R., Why People Obey the Law (1990).

69 O'Gorman, Rick, Henrich, Joseph & Vugt, Mark Van, Constraining Free Riding in Public Goods Games: Designated Solitary Punishers Can Sustain Human Cooperation , 276 Proc. Royal Soc’y B – Biological Sci. 323 (2009).

70 Ginther, Matthew R., Bonnie, Richard J., Hoffman, Morris B., Shen, Francis X., Simons, Kenneth W., Jones, Owen D. & Marois, René, Parsing the Behavioral and Brain Mechanisms of Third-Party Punishment , 36 J. Neuroscience 9420 (2016) (showing that “third-party punishment is … crucial to the emergence and maintenance of elaborate human social organization and is central to the modern provision of fairness and justice within society”).

71 Brunnée, supra note 2, at 272 (“This mandate is designed to preserve the technical and factual focus of expert review and to clearly separate it from potentially sensitive and politicized compliance issues.”). See also United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, May 9, 1992, 1771 UNTS 107; Marrakesh Accords, Jan. 21, 2002, UN Doc. FCCC/CP/2001/13/Adds. 1–4.

72 Brunnée, supra note 2, at 256.

73 Mitchell, supra note 55, at 73 et seq.

74 For further examples, see Brunnée, supra note 2, at 274.

75 Decision 27/CMP.1, Procedures and Mechanisms Relating to Compliance Under the Kyoto Protocol, at V.6, UN Doc. FCCC/KP/CMP/2005/8/Add.3.

76 Jon Hovi, Olav Stokke & Geir Ulfstein, Introduction and Main Findings, in Implementing the Climate Regime: International Compliance, supra note 55, at 3.

77 Shishlov, Igor, Morel, Romain & Bellassen, Valentin, Compliance of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in the First Commitment Period , 16 Climate Pol'y 768 (2016).

78 Hathaway, Oana A. & Shapiro, Scott, Outcasting: Enforcement in Domestic and International Law , 212 Yale L.J. 252 (2011).

79 Id. For the definition of club goods, see Buchanan, James M., An Economic Theory of Clubs , 32 Economica 1 (1965).

80 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, Sept. 16, 1987, 1522 UNTS 29.

81 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Mar. 3, 1973, 993 UNTS 243. Articles III, IV, and V regulate the trade in endangered species differently depending on the how endangered the species is. Without import and export certificates, no trade can take place.

82 For details, see van Aaken, Anne, Effectuating Public International Law Through Market Mechanisms , 165 J. Institutional & Theoretical Econ. 33 (2009), and van Aaken, Anne, Trust, Verify or Incentivize? Effectuating Public International Law Regulating Public Goods Through Market Mechanisms , 104 ASIL Proc. 153 (2011). On the efficacy of this device, see Gary Charness & Chun-Lei Yang, Public Goods Provision with Voting for Exclusion, Exit, and Mergers: An Experiment, at 21 (Working Paper, 2010), available at; Cinyabuguma, Matthias, Page, Talbot & Putterman, Louis, Cooperation Under the Threat of Expulsion in a Public Goods Experiment , 89 J. Pub. Econ. 1421 (2005) (finding “that contributions rose to nearly 100% of endowments with significantly higher efficiency compared with a no-expulsion baseline.” Expulsions were strictly of the lowest contributors, and there was an exceptionally strong fall-off in contributions in the last period, when the expulsion threat was unavailable.).

83 Charness & Yang, supra note 82.

84 Chakravarty, Surajeet Chakravarty & Fonseca, Miguel A., Discrimination via Exclusion: An Experiment on Group Identity and Club Goods , 19 J. Pub. Econ. Theory 244 (2017) (finding that club goods allow subjects to display their preferences for interaction with their in-group members, as well as positive in-group reciprocity).

85 Bowles & Gintis, supra note 48, at 29 et seq.

86 As here, Hafner-Burton, Haggard, Lake & Victor, supra note 14, at S3.

87 For a comparison between rationalist and constructivist approaches, see Fearon, James & Wendt, Alexander, Rationalism v. Constructivism: A Skeptical View , in Handbook of International Relations (Carlsnaes, Walter, Risse, Thomas & Simmons, Beth A. eds., 2002).

88 See Brunnée, supra note 2, at 257, and seminal: Finnemore, Martha & Sikkink, Kathryn, International Norm Dynamics and Political Change , 52 Int'l Org. 887 (1998).

Special thanks go to Johann Justus Vasel, Tomer Broude, Jutta Brunnée, and Dan Bodansky for very helpful comments, as well as the International Law Cyber Colloquium participants and the participants at the Oxford International Law Group.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Journal of International Law
  • ISSN: 0002-9300
  • EISSN: 2161-7953
  • URL: /core/journals/american-journal-of-international-law
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed