According to Spock, from the Star Trek T.V. series and movies, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. While this is a beautiful sentiment, we should consider what is behind it. In Chapter 12 of The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates, edited by Decker and Eberl, discuss the idea in more depth. The needs of the many are what we need to consider when we are thinking of the greater good and the allocation of resources among people. Many people do consider it, but our respective personalities and experiences can change how we view things and what choices we make. According to Chapter 12, the utilitarianistic thinking of the aforementioned quote is the basis of what tells us whether man’s actions are morally right or wrong when considered from a perspective of balance between benefits and harm. (Decker and Eberl, 2016). How a person chooses to cooperate, share resources, supports his or her community, and more, are all swayed by his personality, his environment, experiences, and other situational influences. We all like to think we will choose what is for the greater good, but no one knows how they will react until they are faced with a situation of hard choices, like those involved in resource dilemmas.
In the current climate with the effects of COVID-19 on travel, shipping, employment, groceries, education, agriculture, and more we are seeing more and more examples of people facing resource dilemmas. From toilet paper shortages to grocery store shelves standing bear people must make the hard choices. These are common-pool resource dilemmas as well as social dilemmas, affecting whether or not there is enough of a resource to provide the community’s needs and also affecting how people take care of turn their back on the needs of others. In these cases, we see people reaching for the extra pack of toilet paper or an extra bottle of hand sanitizer which often leads to supplies running out and other people having to do without. According to the study by Kortenkamp and Moore, this is because “Individuals who choose to overconsume may do so to maximize personal gain as opposed to social welfare or because they prefer the immediate gain (and delayed loss) as opposed to the delayed gain (and immediate loss).” (2006, p. 603). Maximum personal gain does not focus on the greater good or the needs of the many instead it focuses solely on the wishes and needs of the one.
According to Koole, Jager, van den Berg, Vlek, and Hofstee, “The capacity for cooperation is probably present within every human being. Nonetheless, the strength of that capacity may vary across situations and persons” (2010, p. 289). A person’s personality, whether they are extraverted, agreeable, and narcissistic can influence what they choose. It also affects what they think is important, for instance, cooperation, the greater good, personal gain, or that ever ambiguous correct or moral choice. In addition, it depends on whether the person is fixated on the present conditions or the future needs and desires. “The extent to which a person cares about future outcomes, in general, is another individual characteristic that could predict cooperation rates in resource dilemmas given the temporal conflict embedded within these dilemmas.” (Kortenkamp and Moore, 2006, p. 605).
The aspect that makes such situations so hard and yet so revealing, is that “to reap the rewards of individual cooperation, individual group members frequently have to make personal sacrifices.” (Koole, Jager, van den Berg, Vlek and Hofstee, 2010, p. 289). We must not only give but give up something in order to reap the benefits. According to the study, Koole and associates found that certain aspects of the personality impacted people’s ability and willingness to cooperate. “Extraversion was generally negatively related to cooperation” (Koole et al., 2010, p. 289), meaning that people with this type of personality were less likely to cooperate. On the other hand, the same study revealed that “Agreeableness was generally positively related to cooperation” and that further, that those with agreeableness as a personality trait “exercised more self-restraint when the common resource was severely threatened.” ((Koole et al., 2010, p. 289). It is not a surprise that those people who have an agreeable nature are more cooperative in general, but it may be a bit surprising to find that these people also show greater restraint in service of the common good in matters of resource consumption.
The present pandemic has been a good field in which to study resource usage, resource management, and the personal choices that create or contribute to resource dilemmas. In the study The Impact of Personal Metering in the Management of a Natural Resource Crisis: A Social Dilemma Analysis executed by Van Vugt and Samuelson, it was reported that “The conflict between self-interest and collective interest is perhaps most salient when society is threatened by an immediate resource crisis because this situation stresses the need for widespread conservation but, at the same time, motivates people to consume as much of the resource while they still can.” (1999, p. 736). Current events connected to the pandemic, like quarantine orders and rationing at grocery stores and the halting of migrant workers in the produce fields have created a plethora of shortages, from toilet paper to tomatoes. As a result, society is facing shortages of key resources. Some of these shortages are because workers are not producing or did not produce or deliver items during the shutdowns, but a good many of the shortages were caused by panic buying by the masses. These individuals were largely trying to make sure they had enough resources for their own homes and families. However, still others bought up large amounts of things only to turn around and sell them to needy people at exorbitant prices causing false inflation of the market.
In the study by Van Vugt and Samuelson, they studied the effect that metering usage of endangered resources would have on their consumption and what that could mean for helping to control shortages and ensure better handling of such crises. Consistent with expectations of the study the results showed that conservation efforts were greater among metered individuals vs. unmetered participants when they perceived a shortage was severe. (1999, p.735). Revealing that even more than personality, the knowledge that we are being monitored affects an individual’s behavior and choices.
People can and do cooperate for the greater good, but not everyone does. People have the potential to work together and make sacrifices for the greater good, but how much an individual does is a matter of personal choice influenced by the situation, the person’s history, and their personality. It is sad to think that even in the case of a situation like we have seen in 2020, with a pandemic, employment shutdowns, and unsteady food supplies, people still need to be monitored. People need to know that someone is watching out for them in order to live up to their best intentions and take care of their fellow man. Let us learn to put down the toilet paper and pick up our humanity without big brother watching over our shoulder.
Decker, T. and Eberl, J. (2016). The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates. John Wiley & Sons.
Koole, S. L., Jager, W., van den Berg, A. E., Vlek, C. A., & Hofstee, W. K. (2001). On the social nature of personality: Effects of extraversion, agreeableness, and feedback about collective resource use on cooperation in a resource dilemma. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(3), 289-301.
Kortenkamp, K. V., & Moore, C. F. (2006). Time, uncertainty, and individual differences in decisions to cooperate in resource dilemmas. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(5), 603-615.
Van Vugt, M., & Samuelson, C. D. (1999). The impact of personal metering in the management of a natural resource crisis: A social dilemma analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(6), 735-750.