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Deadlock between conservationists implementing biodiversity programmes and local people might be avoided more easily if the former used game theory to support their project designs, say scientists.

Conservation projects usually affect many people from different interest groups including indigenous people.

'Mechanism design' — the conventional approach to such projects, which uses incentives to encourage people to behave in certain ways — relies heavily on providing economic reasons for people to accept conservation measures, according to Sahotra Sarkar, a biologist and philosopher at the University of Texas, Austin, United States, and co-author of the study.

But this approach is narrow and can fail because in some situations economic incentives discourage people from cooperating, Sarkar told SciDev.Net.

Game theory is a mathematical approach to investigating people's behaviour when the success of their choices depends on the choices of others involved in the same situation, the 'game'. It compares the outcomes of different choices, both for individuals and the group as a whole.

The researchers examined published studies of the conservation of wild dogs in South Africa, and fish and corals in the Philippines.  

They found that game theory could identify the situations in which stakeholders act in ways that protect themselves from the unexpected actions of others — a strategy that appears to lead to worse conservation outcomes.

In some cases game theory revealed that by basing conservation approaches on an appeal to the material self-interest of others, more productive approaches may be crowded out. For example, motivation may be more powerful if it appeals to moral or religious impulses. Some conservation projects could even use less money and achieve better results.

Sarkar said they are now developing software decision-support tools, based on game theory, to help practitioners in developing countries identify the best ways of making these group decisions.

"This is a very valid approach, and policymakers could make good use of game theory and its applications to work on conservation, climate change and other public good problems," said Nicola Raihani, a game theorist from the UK-based Institute of Zoology.

"If you want to find a cooperative solution you need to find payoffs of cooperating and cheating — what makes people cooperate or cheat in a certain situation — and game theory provides you with a tool to do this.

"Economic incentives can work, but you have to think carefully about the context you're applying it to — a lot of time human behaviour is not economically rational. Sometimes, by putting a price on something, you might undermine people's motivation to do things."


PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010688 (2010)