Asking Amanda Palmer about cooperation in the public goods game

In the late summer of 2010 I was homeless — living in hostels, dorms, and on the couches of friends as I toured academic events: a total of 2 summer schools, and 4 conferences over a two and a half month period. By early September I was ready to return to a sedentary life of research. I had just settled into my new office in the Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at the University of Waterloo and made myself comfortable with a manic 60 hour research spree. This meant no food or sleep — just sunflower seeds, Arizona iced tea, and leaving my desk only to use the washroom. I was committing all the inspiration of the summer to paper, finishing up old articles, and launching new projects.

A key ingredient to inducing insomnia and hushing hunger was the steady rhythm of music. In this case, it was a song that a burlesque dancer (also, good fencer and friend) had just introduced me to: “Runs in the Family” by Amanda Palmer. The computer pumped out the consistent staccato rhythm on loop as it ran my stochastic models in the background.

After finishing my research spree, I hunted down more of Palmer’s music and realized that I enjoyed all her work and the story behind her art. For two and a half years, I thought that the connection between the artist and my research would be confined to the motivational power of her music. Today, I watched her TED talk and realized the connection is much deeper:

As Amanda Palmer tells her story, she stresses the importance of human connection, intimacy, trust, fairness, and cooperation. All are key questions to an evolutionary game theorist. We study cooperation by looking at the prisoner’s dilemma and public goods game (Nowak, 2006). We look at fairness through the ultimatum and dictator game (Henrich et al., 2001). We explore trust with direct and indirect reciprocity (Axelrod, 1981; Nowak & Sigmund, 1998). We look at human connections and intimacy through games on graphs and social networks (Szabo & Fath, 2007).

As a musician that promotes music ‘piracy’ and crowdfunding, she raises a question that is a perfect candidate for being modeled as a variant of the public goods game. A musician that I enjoy is an amplifier of utility: if I give the musician ten dollars then I receive back a performance or record that provides me more than ten dollars worth of enjoyment. It used to be that you could force me to always pay before receiving music, this is equivalent to not allowing your agent to defect. However, with the easy of free access to music, the record industry cannot continue to forbid defection. I can chose to pay or not pay for my music, and the industry fears that people will always tend to the Nash equilibrium: defecting by not paying for music.

From the population level this is a public goods game. Every fan of Amanda Palmer has a choice to either pay (cooperate) or not (defect) for her music. If we all pay then she can turn that money into music that all the fans can enjoy. However, if not enough of us pay then she has to go back to her day job as a human statue which will decrease the time she can devote to music and result in less enjoyable songs or at least less frequent releases of new songs. If none of us pay her then it becomes impossible for Palmer and her band to record and distribute their music, and none of the fans gain utility.

The record industry believes in homo economicus and concludes that the population will converge to all defection. The industry fears that if left to their own devices, no fans will chose to pay for music. For the highly inviscid environment of detached mass-produced pop music, I would not be surprised if this was true.
The record industry has come up with only one mechanism to overcome this: punishment. If I do not pay (cooperate) then an external agent will punish me, and reduce my net utility to lower than if I had simply paid for the music. Fehr & Gachter (1999) showed that this is one way to establish cooperation. If the industry can produce a proper punishment scheme then they can make people pay for music. However, as evolutionary game theorists, we know that there are many other mechanisms with which to promote cooperation in the public good’s game. Amanda Palmer realizes this, too, and closes her talk with:

I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is: “how do we make people pay for music?” What if we started asking: “how do we let people pay for music?”

As a modeler of cooperation, in some ways my work is as an engineer. In order to publish, I need to design novel mechanisms that allow cooperation to emerge in a population. In this way, there is a much deeper connection between my research and one of the questions asked by Amanda Palmer. So I ask you: What are your favorite non-punishment mechanisms for allowing cooperation in the public goods game?


Axelrod, R. (1981). The emergence of cooperation among egoists. The American Political Science Review, 306-318.

Fehr, E., & Gächter, S. (2000). Cooperation and Punishment in Public Goods Experiments American Economic Review, 90 (4), 980-994 DOI: 10.1257/aer.90.4.980

Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Gintis, H., & McElreath, R. (2001). In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies American Economic Review, 91 (2), 73-78.

Nowak, M. A., & Sigmund, K. (1998). Evolution of indirect reciprocity by image scoring. Nature, 393(6685), 573-577.

Nowak, M. A. (2006). Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. science, 314(5805), 1560-1563.

Szabo, G., & Fath, G. (2007). Evolutionary games on graphs Physics Reports, 446 (4-6), 97-216