Teaching Tools

Payoff matrix

Many situations in our everyday experience are social interactions - outcomes for us are not just influenced by how we behave individually, but also by how others around us behave. This is because we humans live in social groups and in a world that is constantly being changed and created by other humans.

Evolutionary biologists, economists and sustainability scientists sometimes represent the costs and benefits that people (or other animals) get from a behavior through a so-called payoff matrix.

Using payoff matrices in the classroom helps us reflect on the possible causes and consequences of behaviors in particular situations.

Essential questions that the payoff matrix helps explore:

  • What motivates humans to behave in a certain way in a particular context, and what outcomes does this behavior create?
  • In what situations are consequences of a behavior influenced by what other individuals do? (social interactions)
  • Can benefits and other consequences of a behavior be different between the short-term and the long-term?

Payoff matrices help to identify whether there is a social interaction between individuals. This helps us understand the level or size of group we need to look at in order to understand the causes and outcomes of behaviors in a social-ecological system.

Do outcomes for me change depending on how other people behave? And/or are outcomes for others infuenced by how I behave? Then we are talking about social interactions. If I or my community prefer certain outcomes, I will have to engage those individuals who interact with me, so that we can all agree to behave in a way that is best for all of us. But his requires that we all agree on what the preferred outcomes should be!

Payoff matrices also help to identify whether there is a social dilemma between what individuals are motivated to do in the short-term and what is best for the community in the long-term.

Social dilemmas seem to be at the heart of sustainability challenges. Sustainability scientist explore how we can solve such dilemmas by finding ways to align the interests of individuals with the interests of the whole group.

Cars and traffic jam as a social dilemma.


Image source: https://getmeoffthisplanet.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/trafficjam.jpg?w=620

Are benefits and other consequences of a behavior different between the short-term and the long-term?

If yes, how can we assure that the short-term motivations for certain behaviors are aligned with long-term goals?