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Suppose some number of altruistically minded actors each have the ability to take an action that would cause accidental harm to others. The “unilateralist’s curse” refers to the principle that, in such a case, the probability that the action will be taken will be higher the more actors there are who come to their decisions independently. This principle follows from the assumption that there is at least some chance that each additional actor will misjudge the situation.

Salient examples include decisions to leak information about weapons technologies, potential decisions by individual nations to use geoengineering to mitigate climate change, and the unilateral decision to introduce rabbits to Australia.

To avoid the unilateralist’s curse, members of a group might implement a group decision-making procedure, deliberate with others before taking action, or create a norm of deferring to the beliefs or actions of the other members of the group.

Further Reading

Bostrom, Nick. 2013. The Unilateralist’s Curse: The Case for a Principle of Conformity.
Original paper in which the term was coined.

Wikipedia. 2016. Winner’s Curse.