The Free Rider Problem

27 Sep 2013, Keegan Johnson

Free by Alan O'Rourke

Free by Alan O’Rourke Flick


The bane of any movement is the free rider problem.  Think of it this way.  If I knew you and everyone else in the world was going to raise money for cancer research and find the answers …why would I donate?  Once you create the cure for cancer, I’m still going to be able to get access to it.  Why wouldn’t I let you do all the work while I can still get all the benefit … and that’s the free rider problem.

Why should I conserve energy, if everyone else is doing it.  The amount I can save isn’t going to make a difference.  In any situation where I can still get the results, why should I spend any time, energy or resources finding the solution if everyone else is working on the solution?

In the workplace it’s the employee that does just enough on the team to get by (or not get noticed) and celebrates the most when bonuses are handed out.  Luckily there are a few ways to handle the situation:


  • If you can (like at work), provide conditional benefits (you only get a bonus if you hit your sales targets)
  • Highlight the time sensitivity of your movement.  If I donate to cancer research we are going to get the answers faster … which will save more lives.
  • Acknowledge the situation and point out the fact that if everybody waits nothing will get done.