A collective action problem or social dilemma is a situation in which all individuals would be better off cooperating but fail to do so because of conflicting interests between individuals that discourage joint action. The collective action problem has been addressed in political philosophy for centuries, but was most clearly established in 1965 in Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action.
Problems arise when too many group members choose to pursue individual profit and immediate satisfaction rather than behave in the group's best long-term interests. Social dilemmas can take many forms and are studied across disciplines such as psychology, economics, and political science. Examples of phenomena that can be explained using social dilemmas include resource depletion, low voter turnout, and overpopulation. The collective action problem can be understood through the analysis of game theory and the free-rider problem, which results from the provision of public goods. Additionally, the collective problem can be applied to numerous public policy concerns that countries across the world currently face.
Although he never used the words "collective action problem", Thomas Hobbes was an early philosopher on the topic of human cooperation. Hobbes believed that people act purely out of self-interest, writing in Leviathan in 1651 that "if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies." Hobbes believed that the state of nature consists of a perpetual war between people with conflicting interests, causing people to quarrel and seek personal power even in situations where cooperation would be mutually beneficial for both parties. Through his interpretation of humans in the state of nature as selfish and quick to engage in conflict, Hobbes's philosophy laid the foundation for what is now referred to as the collective action problem.