Antisocial Punishment

Why do people punish others when it costs them to do so? This is one of the most important questions in social life. Society occasionally holds together because people are confident they can’t cheat without being punished by bystanders.

An interesting take on the problem was studied by Herrmann, Thoni and Gachter (2008). These authors ran public goods games in 16 societies from Riyadh to Melbourne.  In a public goods game participants can choose to contribute (or not) to a public good which benefits everyone. The problem is that the personally best action is not to contribute at all and just accept the benefits that come from everyone else’s contributions. Punishment matters because in the game after contributions are declared participants can choose to punish. The participant’s won’t play with the same group again so, given punishing others costs you, it isn’t in your financial best interests to punish. People still regularly punish however.

Herrmann and his colleagues’ unusual angle was to study antisocial punishment. This was punishment targeted towards those that contributed to the public good. I.e., the people who got punished were doing the right thing by the group which is why the punishmenty was anti-social. With prosocial punishment a punishment opportunity encourages cooperation. When antisocial punishment happens you get punished when you cooperate which removes the incentive to cooperate. As they note: “In some particpant pools, antisocial punishment was strong enough to remove the cooperation-enhancing effect of punishment”, (Herrmann, Thoni and Gachter, 2008, page 1362). Punishment doesn’t maintain social order if punishment isn’t targeted at those who deserve punishment.

After showing the existence of antisocial punishment they go on to consider why some groups showed a lot more antisocial punishment than others.  The general logic seems reasonable, greater social ties mean punishment is more pro, and less anti, social. (Their actual model feels a little ad hoc. They look at pre-existing differences between societies and without the ability to manipulate differences they can be less confident they have the correct explanation.)

Still the paper is interesting. The take away message is hard to argue with — punisment can keep society together but not when punishment is perceived as unfair.

<b>Read</b>: Benedikt Herrmann, Christian Thoni, and Simon Gachter, 2008, March 7, <em>Science</em>, volume 31.