What do corruption, resource overexploitation, climate inaction, vaccine hesitancy, traffic congestion, and even cancer metastasis have in common? All these socioeconomic and sociobiological phenomena are known as social dilemmas because they embody in one form or another a fundamental conflict between immediate self-interest and long-term collective interest. A shortcut to the resolution of social dilemmas has thus far been reserved solely for highly stylised cases reducible to dyadic games (e.g., the Prisoner’s Dilemma), whose nature and outcome coalesce in the concept of dilemma strength. We show that a social efficiency deficit, measuring an actor’s potential gain in utility or fitness by switching from an evolutionary equilibrium to a social optimum, generalises dilemma strength irrespective of the underlying social dilemma’s complexity. We progressively build from the simplicity of dyadic games for which the social efficiency deficit and dilemma strength are mathematical duals, to the complexity of carcinogenesis and a vaccination dilemma for which only the social efficiency deficit is numerically calculable. The results send a clear message to policymakers to enact measures that increase the social efficiency deficit until the strain between what is and what could be incentivises society to switch to a more desirable state.
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