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We study the practice of self-control in an organizational social dilemma when the stakes are large, using 47 years of vital census data from 18th century Sweden. From 1750 to 1800, eighty percent of Sweden lived in a simple-structure organization called a bytvång or village commons. The amount of resources a village family received was a function of their size. During this period, crop failures left the population facing starvation. Using autoregressive time-series modeling, we test whether the people of Sweden continued to take steps toward increasing the stress on the commons by marrying and birthing children or practiced self-control. We find evidence that the peasantry–with little education, archaic agricultural practices, strong barriers to abortion and infanticide, and pressures by the Church and State to procreate–were less likely to marry and birth children (in or outside of wedlock) when the quality of the previous year’s harvest was poor compared to when it was bounteous. Post hoc analyses support the idea that the reason behind declining fertility after a famine was human decision rather than human physiology. Our findings are consistent with the idea that human population growth is not a social dilemma called a collective trap–which has been the assumption for 50 years. Rather, human population growth may be an individual dilemma–suggesting that members of simple-structured organizations can unilaterally exercise self-control and manage resources through self-organizing.


This article was originally published in PLoS ONE, volume 13, issue 12, in 2018. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0207808

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.



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