Elias Fernández Domingos, Jelena Grujić, Juan C. Burguillo, Georg Kirchsteiger, Francisco C. Santos, Tom Lenaerts
Human social dilemmas are often shaped by actions involving uncertain goals and returns that may only be achieved in the future. Climate action, voluntary vaccination and other prospective choices stand as paramount examples of this setting. In this context, as well as in many other social dilemmas, uncertainty may produce non-trivial effects. Whereas uncertainty about collective targets and their impact were shown to negatively affect group coordination and success, no information is available about timing uncertainty, i.e. how uncertainty about when the target needs to be reached affects the outcome as well as the decision-making. Here we show experimentally, through a collective dilemma wherein groups of participants need to avoid a tipping point under the risk of collective loss, that timing uncertainty prompts not only early generosity but also polarized contributions, in which participants’ total contributions are distributed more unfairly than when there is no uncertainty. Analyzing participant behavior reveals, under uncertainty, an increase in reciprocal strategies wherein contributions are conditional on the previous donations of the other participants, a group analogue of the well-known Tit-for-Tat strategy. Although large timing uncertainty appears to reduce collective success, groups that successfully collect the required amount show strong reciprocal coordination. This conclusion is supported by a game theoretic model examining the dominance of behaviors in case of timing uncertainty. In general, timing uncertainty casts a shadow on the future that leads participants to respond early, encouraging reciprocal behaviors, and unequal contributions.