Concerns about society


A majority of people care about climate change, however, very few act upon those concerns. This gap between concern and behaviour, often referred to as the value-action gap, is at the crux of many problems that are faced by society in the 21st century. This phenomenon cuts across a variety of modern problems: people care about the way their society is governed yet they fail to vote and Individuals have empathy and concern for animals yet they continue to eat from factory farms. These diverse scenarios all share the same foundation – they are collective action problems. A collective action problem refers to situations where a number of people are required to work together to achieve some common goal, but, because of conflicting interests between individuals (e.g., short term benefits from not cooperating), joint action is discouraged (Roser-Renouf et al., 2016). Why do individuals choose the uncooperative option? A myriad of studies have targeted this particular question, with a majority putting it down to free-riding behaviour. Free-riding is placing an individual’s self-interest above that of the group’s interest, and is commonly referred to as the tragedy of the commons. While a majority of research assumes defection (i.e., the noncooperative option) occurs because of free-riding, work is beginning to emerge demonstrating other motives underscoring non-cooperative behaviour. For one, individuals may choose not to cooperate as they do not trust others to cooperate (Van Lange et al., 2013). Because acting is costly, an individual may not want to cooperate if they believe others are also not doing their part. This explains why people cooperate more when individual action is transparent and when there is a possibility of punishment for non-cooperators (Wu et al., 2020). A third and under-explored motivation for defection is the feeling that one’s behaviour is ‘a drop in the bucket’. The drop in the bucket bias may be observed across a variety of circumstances, and several commonalities underpin these situations. For one, the drop in the bucket bias will only occur in collective action problems, where many individual actions are required to achieve a goal. As it suggests, one act cannot resolve the problem on their own. Second, the action must be costly for an individual, otherwise, in the absence of cost, the incentive to defect is absent. Finally, an individual must acknowledge the issue, and wish to resolve the issue. It’s this third criterion that separates the drop in the bucket bias from the tragedy of the commons – an individual is not choosing self-interest over the collective interest. Rather, they want to help achieve the solution for the problem, but they feel there is little their individual action can do. As noted, the drop in the bucket bias can only occur in collective action situations, where many individuals are required to act to achieve a solution. Using this logic, the bias should be less likely to occur in circumstances where only a few individuals are needed to achieve an outcome. As it suggests, smaller numbers of actions required to solve a problem would make an individual’s action more effective at alleviating said problem. Thus, when fewer actions (or people) are needed to solve a problem, cooperation should increase. Research demonstrates that increased group size does indeed lower cooperative behaviour in public goods games (Shank et al., 2015; Wu et al., 2020). However, whether this relationship can be explained, in part, by the drop in the bucket bias is unexplored.

Research Questions / Hypotheses

Experiment 1: This study will explore whether drop in the bucket thinking occurs in collective action problems, and thus, in problems where many actions are required to achieve an outcome. Additionally, we aim to explore whether drop in the bucket thinking relates to reduced cooperation in these circumstances. We hypothesise that more actions needed to solve a problem will result in greater drop in the bucket thinking, which will, in turn, be associated with reduced cooperation.

Pilot 1 & 2: A series of surveys will be included as filler surveys so participants are not aware of the main aim of the study. However, we have included several surveys that will represent exploratory pilot studies for other research questions. First, we will assess the relationship between qualitative descriptions of the stereotypical middle class and quantitative measures of the wealth distribution. Second, we will assess the link between the likelihood of moralising different behaviours (i.e., the extent to which one thinks many issues are moral issues) and rational/dialectical thinking.


In total, 200 REP participants completed the study. Participants were excluded for either not passing the attention check (i.e., a question asking participants to select option '3') or for completing the study in less than 1/3 of the median completion time. The final sample included 182 participants.


Study 1: Participants were asked to pledge some of their time to edit letters from school children directed towards politicians urging them to do something about an important cause (e.g., climate change). Participants were either be told there were a) only a small amount of letters left to edit before they can be sent out to politicians or b) there were a large amount of letters left to edit before they can be sent out to politicians. Critically, participants were then asked how much of their time they would like to pledge to help edit the letters as well as reasons for why they chose that particular time (e.g., whether or not they felt their part wouldn't make a difference for climate change).

Pilot 1 & 2: Participants filled out several surveys measuring their perceptions of the wealth distribution, as well as surveys measuring their engagement in rational/dialectical thinking and how wrong they thought particular scenarios were.


Study 1: Using independent samples T-tests and correlation analyses, we will look at the relationship between condition and cooperation, as well as condition and how much one thinks their behaviour is 'just a drop in the bucket'. Depending on our findings, we may also see if the feeling that one's behaviour is a 'drop in the bucket' mediates or moderates the relationship between condition and cooperation.

Pilot 1 & 2: In a series of correlation analyses, we will examine the relationship between quantitative measures of the wealth distribution and qualitative descriptions of the size of the middle class (e.g., that most people struggle to afford a house or make ends meet). We will also run a series of correlation analyses to assess how moralising relates to various measures of rational and dialectical thinking.


This study will hopefully shed light on why people do not cooperate in situations when their behaviour affects others. We believe the feeling that your contribution is small and won’t affect the outcome may be a reason why this occurs, and this feeling will be enhanced when you make decisions in the face of larger problems. Depending on our findings, we may run several follow up studies and hope to publish the results in a journal article and present the work at conferences.