I am trying to identify a specific sociological phenomena which seems pretty obvious to me that it is well known and studied but after quite of googling, its name remains elusive - I'm just not hitting the right search terms.

Imagine a social situation where there are many individuals with a competing interest and a way to satisfy it. There is a burden associated with realizing these interests and there are rules or norms of the situation. A selfish individual can benefit from not obeying those rules. BUT, if enough individuals start act in selfish ways - a race to skip the line, if you will - the whole system breaks and, without it, ensuing chaotic situation is less efficient for realizing the interests of an average individual than in the case where everyone is obeying the rules!

a) Skipping the queue

Classic example is queue. Ignoring common understanding of fair queuing, selfish individuals can benefit but here tolerance is low - successful skips encourages others to ignore the rules, which quickly leads to queues to skip queues, made-up exceptions and ultimately creating chaos.

b) Leaving the roundabout

There is a traffic rule where cars that leave the roundabout must indicate so with their outer turn light. The rule is in place so that car that wants to enter roundabout on the next entrance can do so without without necessary wait. At the same time, turning on indicator is a bother to some people - its easier to just move through without it, but if everyone is using it, it makes traffic more efficient and everyone benefits from it. On the other hand, if considerable share of people don't bother for extended time, everyone has the initiative to not bother as well.

c) Vaccinating against deadly disease

Let say there is a disease for which there is a effective vaccine. But the vaccine has nasty side-effect manifesting perhaps 1-10000 where treated patient dies or suffer horrible consequences. Let say that everyone is safe is everyone is vaccinated and collective immunity holds until share of vaccinated drops below certain level and ensuing epidemic creates massive suffering. Point is that no matter what are the odds, it is natural for a individual to try to avoid vaccinating, to enjoy safe environment and avoiding any risks associated with vaccine.

What are such situations called? These seems to me so ubiquitous and so relevant, but I don't know its name.

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    These are examples of the muti-person prisoner's dilemma of game theory, where individually optimal strategies lead to inferior outcome for everyone. The phenomenon has multiple manifestations in sociology and economics, the most famous being the tragedy of the commons: if a common finite resource is used without restraint by each participant the result is ruin for all.
    – Conifold
    Aug 14, 2023 at 10:59
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    no matter what are the odds, it is natural for a individual to try to avoid vaccinating - sorry, but this makes no sense until we compare vaccine odds with the odds of dying from a disease for this individual taking into account his age and health status data. And disease obviously kills as well
    – user66933
    Aug 14, 2023 at 11:58
  • @SergZ. I concede that was badly written. It wasn't antivaxx point, but more artifact of my thinking of antivax movement; apparent unwillingness to compare risks - percentage for percentage - of voluntary vaccination against external risks. Unfavorable comparison from open source data makes them make up orders of magnitude of additional vaccination risk to make their argument work. Nonetheless, I hope you agree my point does not depend on that subtlety. Aug 14, 2023 at 14:12

1 Answer 1


Might you be thinking of the "tragedy of the commons"?

  • What if everyone said that?
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 15, 2023 at 1:45
  • @ScottRowe Don't they?
    – Olivier5
    Aug 15, 2023 at 9:20
  • And you see what happened? :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 16, 2023 at 1:45
  • @ScottRowe Yes. The tragedy of the commons explains quite well why our civilisation is dying: because it unleached global environmental impacts but has no global government able to deal with them.
    – Olivier5
    Aug 16, 2023 at 6:33
  • "Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." (old joke saying)
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 16, 2023 at 11:34

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