If you belong to a church, you likely face the temptation to free ride. By free riding, I mean you want to enjoy the benefits of membership without performing the obligations with which membership may come. By way of illustration, I’ll use an example I’m very familiar with–the obligation to attend Sunday School in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is occasionally a little boring. Here are the particulars of that example:

The Good: Membership in the Church

Obligation attached to the good: Meeting attendance

Free riding scenario: Enjoying membership without attendance

Free riding punishment mechanisms: The church teaches that we ought to attend our meetings, and therefore non-attendance causes guilt. It may also cause shame if we care about others seeing us sneak out of the church building before Sunday School begins. Furthermore, obtaining a Temple Recommend requires meeting attendance.

Free riding costs: Nobody wants to go to a sparsely attended meeting.

Or we could think of it as being a prisoner’s dilemma, where choosing our favourite outcome could lead to the worst outcome.

Attend Defect
Attend -10, -10 -10, 10
Defect 10, -10 -100, -100

The hypothetical values represent payouts for one’s actions. So if you attend Sunday School you get -10 points (it’s boring); if you skip Sunday School you get 10 points (you get to do something else you’d rather do). But you’re not playing alone. In the simplified version above, you’re only playing with one other person, but of course, in reality you’re playing with all the other potential attendees. But, using our game above, we can see that the ideal outcome is one where we skip out but everyone else comes. A less desirable outcome is where we attend thinking everyone else will come, but others don’t come through. And the worst outcome is when we all skip out, as then the class won’t happen, which will probably jeopardize the local church. What’s the point of having a church where no-one attends? So, if everyone chooses their best outcome (skipping), the worst outcome will occur by default.

Long story short, you should probably attend and not free ride.1 Every time you skip out, it makes the outcome worse for everyone else. The meeting is sparser and nobody gets to hear the unique contribution you have to offer.

  1. Provided you want the other benefits of membership, that is. ↩︎