Marco Janssen: Information as a Guiding Principle of the Evolution of Institutions

By Peter Turchin April 4, 2012 One Comment

The fit between ecological dynamics and institutional arrangements is at the forefront of the study of the governance of social-ecological systems. How do resource users create new institutional arrangements? Does that relate to the knowledge of the ecological dynamics? When Ostrom and myself started to develop agent-based models of rule evolution, we came to the puzzle of how the individuals and groups create new institutional arrangements (Janssen and Ostrom, 2006). In an attempt to observe institutional innovation we made use of experiments in the lab and the field. We wanted to understand what type of institutional arrangements people come up with, and how knowledge of the ecological dynamics affected this process.

Lab experiments with college students in the USA showed common patterns in which students developed informal arrangements to govern a spatially explicit dynamic resource (Janssen, 2010; Janssen et al. 2010; Janssen and Ostrom, 2008). It was surprising to see that in the more than 100 groups in which communication experiments have been performed similar institutional arrangements are proposed. The participants tried to divide the resource in equal parts, coordinate how and when to harvest and nullify the rules at the end of the round to enable the participants to scoop up all the resource units available. In the text of the chat messages we see the importance how, when and where to harvest, not how much.

Similar experiments, but based on paper and pencil exercises have been performed in rural villages in Colombia and Thailand where the dominant resource was fishery, forestry or irrigation. Fishery, forestry and irrigation based experiments where performed in each village, as well as with students in Bogota and Bangkok (Castillo et al. 2010; Janssen et al. 2012). The results show that resource relevant experience did often not matter. Whether an irrigation game was played with students, irrigators, or fishers did not affect the outcome. More important was the trust they had in members of their community.

Based on this work I start to reflect on the importance of the actual rule configurations. For effective governance it seems less important what the precise rules are if one can communicate and if there is high level of trust. If this is lacking the specifics of the institutional arrangements matter more. However, the institutional arrangements can facilitate the trust relationships by exchange of information of appropriation activities. One cannot see what a fisherman is doing on the sea, but having gear restrictions can be confirmed in the harbor and will ensure other fishermen the kind of appropriation activities that can be done.

Successful governance of common resources seems to be largely dependent on our knowledge of each other and less on the knowledge of the ecosystem. Effective institutional arrangements reinforce information that maintains trust relationships.


Janssen, M.A., and E. Ostrom (2006). Adoption of a New Regulation for the Governance of Common-Pool Resources by a Heterogeneous Population. In Inequality, Cooperation, and Environmental Sustainability, ed. Jean-Marie Baland, Pranab Bardhan, and Samuel Bowles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 60-96.

Janssen, M.A., and E. Ostrom (2008), TURFs in the lab: Institutional Innovation in dynamic interactive spatial commons, Rationality and Society, 20: 371-397

Janssen, M. A. (2010) Introducing Ecological Dynamics into Common-Pool Resource
Experiments. Ecology and Society 15 (2): 7. [online] URL:

Janssen, M.A., R. Holahan, A. Lee and E. Ostrom (2010), Lab Experiments for the Study of Social-Ecological Systems, Science 328: 613-617.

Castillo, D., F. Bousquet, M.A. Janssen, K. Worrapimphong, and J-C. Cardenas (2011) Context matters to explain field experiments: results from Thai and Colombian fishing villages, Ecological Economics 70(9): 1609-1620.

Janssen, M.A., F. Bousquet, J.C. Cardenas, D. Castillo, and K. Worrapimphong (2012), Field Experiments of Irrigation Dilemmas, Agricultural Systems in press

Published On: April 4, 2012

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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