Of punishment and punishers

Punishment as a means to maintain cooperation was pop this March.

It was discussed in Nature 20 March 2008 in the article by Dreber, Rand, Fudenberg, and Nowak Winners don’t punish, as well as in the Editor’s Summary Victors don’t punish, and in the comment by Milinski and Rochenbach Human behavior: Punisher pays.

In a nutshell: researchers haven’t quite figured out why costly punishment in social-dilemma situations has evolved. On the basis of experimental evidence, Dreber et al. suggest that costly punishment is maladaptive as it does not pay off for the punisher nor for the group. Even if costly punishment frequently induces cooperation, it does not seem possible that it may have evolved for inducing cooperation. Moreover, in some instances costly punishment does not even enhance cooperation: In some societies, it is not only free-loaders who are punished but also high contributors. As a result the cooperation-enhancing effect of punishment is removed or at best dampened.

Herbert Gintis in Punishment and Cooperation on Science 7 March 2008 discusses the punishment of high contributors, that is, antisocial punishment. Antisocial punishment reduces both contributions and altruistic punishment by high contributors.

Interestingly, there appear to be significant cultural differences in the use of antisocial punishment. Herrmann, Thöni and Gächter in Antisocial Punishment Across Societies, Science 7 March 2008, found that among the countries included in their study, those high in political rights, civil liberties, and press freedom as measured by World Democracy Audit (WDA) were low in antisocial behavior. On the other hand, countries with a high level of antisocial punishment, had a low score on the WDA evaluation.

Here is the abstract

We document the widespread existence of antisocial punishment, that is, the sanctioning of people who behave prosocially. Our evidence comes from public goods experiments that we conducted in 16 comparable participant pools around the world. However, there is a huge cross-societal variation. Some participant pools punished the high contributors as much as they punished the low contributors, whereas in others people only punished low contributors. In some participant pools, antisocial punishment was strong enough to remove the cooperation-enhancing effect of punishment. We also show that weak norms of civic cooperation and the weakness of the rule of law in a country are significant predictors of antisocial punishment. Our results show” that punishment opportunities are socially beneficial only if complemented by strong social norms of cooperation.”

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