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The volunteer's dilemma game models a situation in which each of N players faces the decision of either making a small sacrifice from which all will benefit, or freeriding.

William Poundstone[1]presented the game using a scenario in which the electricity has gone out for an entire neighborhood. All inhabitants know that the electricity company will fix the problem as long as at least one person calls to notify them, at some cost. If no one volunteers, the worst possible outcome is obtained for all participants. If any one person elects to volunteer, the rest benefit by not doing so.

Payoff matrixEdit

The payoff matrix for the game is shown below:

Volunteer's dilemma payoff matrix (example)
at least one other person cooperates no other person cooperates
cooperate 0 0
defect 1 -10

When the volunteer's dilemma takes place between only two players, the game gets the character of the game 'chicken'.

Examples in real lifeEdit

The story of Kitty Genovese is often used as a classic example of the volunteer's dilemma. Genovese was stabbed to death in an alley where various residential apartments overlooked the assault. Although many people were aware of the assault at the time (even though they may not have been aware of the exact scope and nature of the assault), few people contacted the police.

It was assumed that people did not get involved because others would contact the police and people did not want to incur the costs of getting involved in the dispute.[2]

See alsoEdit


  1. William Poundstone: Prisoner's Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb (1992)
  2. Asymmetry and timing in the Volunteer's Dilemma

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