Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Barry Markovsky


The problem of collective action occurs when individual and collective interests are at odds. Actors in social dilemmas are typically confronted with two choices: to cooperate with group interests, often at some expense of self-interest, or to free-ride off others' cooperation. A dilemma thus ensues in that the individually rational strategy of free-riding leads to failure in the group's efforts to achieve the desired ends of its members. In this dissertation, I focus on actors' perceptions of free-riding. Specifically, I use Markovsky's (1985) multilevel justice theory to compare the effects of emphasizing actual contributions to the group effort versus contributions relative to ability to contribute. I argue that focusing on absolute contributions makes actors more sympathetic toward group members with the least to contribute to the group. Focusing on relative contributions, however, shifts actors' sympathies toward those with the most to contribute to the group.

I conducted two experiments to test for these effects. In Experiment 1, I focused on how cooperation is enforced through costly punishment. Experiment 2 incorporates a retaliation mechanism into Experiment 1, thus testing for reactions to being punished unfairly. The findings of both experiments were generally consistent with the argument.