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UMD 'tragedy of the commons' tweet goes viral

When Shahin Rafikian, a rising junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, first saw the extra credit question on his final online Social Psychology paper, he was intrigued by the prospect of extra points. But he was confronted with a dilemma.

"Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added onto your final paper grade," the prompt read. "But there's a small catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points."

His professor, Dylan Selterman, was positing a "tragedy of the commons" or "prisoner's dilemma." Troubled by the prospect of selfish classmates choosing the six-point option, Rafikian took to Twitter, where he expresses views about things that upset or interest him.

"WHAT KIND OF PROFESSOR DOES THIS," the tweet read, with a photo of the prompt.

The dilemma struck a chord -- though Rafikian has only about 600 Twitter followers, the tweet has garnered more than 3,800 retweets and 3,100 favorites.

"I was first upset because I was thinking, 'I know there's going to be some selfish kids in the class,' but I am still hoping that everyone was choosing two points," Rafikian said (he chose two points).

Selterman, who has conducted this exercise since 2008, described the concept as "the way in which people are torn between doing what is best for them in a selfish way, so consuming more of a resource, versus limiting your own consumption and doing what's best for the group." (If the group suffers, however, all in the group suffer, Selterman added.)

Though Rafikian sent the tweet on July 1, only in the past few days has it transformed into a debate of ethics and psychology.

"It first started off with a bunch of UMD kids and teenagers in general retweeting it," with responses like, "Typical UMD. This is why I didn't go there," Rafikian said.

The tweet picked up major traffic, however, looping in other professors along the way, and illustrating the concept in action to Rafikian.

"In the past two days, it has turned into a huge philosophical decision-making process among so many people," he said. "Before it blew up on Twitter I was thinking people would just choose two points. A lot of those responses are surprisingly telling me, 'choose six points.'"

Though Selterman was surprised to hear of the tweet's popularity, he wasn't surprised by the class' results; more than 10 percent of the class selected the six-point option, rendering everyone extra credit-less. Only one time in Selterman's time using this exercise (which he borrowed from one of his college professors at Johns Hopkins University) did students take the selfless route.

"It's too big a temptation for some students to take the greater points option, and it seems to me like just a piece of human nature," Selterman said.

Rafikian's tweet may have come across as angry, but he insisted he had no hard feelings -- after all, it was extra credit at stake, not earned points on an assignment.

"He's a really, really good professor," Rafikian said. "What he did was risqué in a sense, but I appreciate that he did that, because it was interesting."

As for what made the tweet go viral?

"The 'tragedy of the commons,' it is such a dilemma in its own sense," Rafikian said. "Social dilemmas are like drama."

qkelley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/quinnrkelley

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