Overcoming Collective Action

Revolutions require collective action.  This simple activity, used during the week on revolutions, demonstrates the difficulty of carrying out collective action.  Upon entering class, students are given the following directions:  

"Take out a small piece of paper, and put your name on it. You have two options for how section will end this week. Your first option is that you may leave five minutes early, no questions asked. I will not be covering any material in the last five minutes, so students who remain in class will gain no advantage either from substantive discussion or from participation. To take this option, write “5 min” on your sheet of paper. The second option you have is to gamble for the opportunity to leave 10 minutes early. If you choose to gamble, write “gamble” on your sheet of paper. After everyone has made a decision, I will collect all of the sheets of paper. I will count the number of people who chose to gamble, and I will roll a die that many times. If I roll a 6 in any of those tries, EVERYONE may leave 10 minutes early.  As should be obvious, the more students who choose to gamble, the better your odds are of leaving 10 minutes early. If I do not roll a 6, those who gambled must stay the entire section, while those who chose to leave 5 minutes early may do so.

Consider your decision, and write it on the piece of paper. There are no consequences for your grade or participation to your decision."

After making their choices, the class compares the outcome to situation of peasants in a revolution and discusses anyone did or did not choose to free ride.