Site icon Marketing Thought

What Is 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. We tend to do the right thing when we are confident that we can’t cheat without being punished by bystanders. This helps hold society together. People who punish despite there being no social benefit, indulge in something called antisocial punishment. This creates a big problem. This is a major concern for anyone wanting a robust society.

Public Goods Game Show How People Punish Others

Herrmann, Thoni and Gaechter (2008) have an interesting take on the problem. These authors ran public goods games in 16 societies from Riyadh to Melbourne.  In these games, participants can choose to contribute (or not) to a public good. This good benefits everyone. The problem is that the personally best action is not to contribute at all. Selfish optimization suggests just accepting the benefits that come from everyone else’s contributions.

After contributions are declared then participants make a choice whether to punish. This gives a role for punishment. You know you won’t play with the same group again. Remember, punishing others costs you. It isn’t in your financial best interests to punish. People still regularly punish, however. This willingness to punish is critical to stopping cheating. Bystanders maintain social order.

Antisocial Punishment In Public Goods Games

Herrmann and his colleagues’ unusual angle was to study antisocial punishment. Antisocial punishment is targeted towards those that contributed to the public good. This is why the punishment was anti-social. Why punish the good people?

With prosocial punishment a punishment opportunity encourages cooperation. Concern about potential punishment drives co-operation. Antisocial punishment involves punishing those who are doing the right thing. This clearly removes the incentive to cooperate. You are less likely to do the right thing if you can get punished for it. As they note: “In some participant pools, antisocial punishment was strong enough to remove the cooperation-enhancing effect of punishment”. (Herrmann, Thoni and Gaechter, 2008, page 1362). At the risk of stating the obvious. If punishment isn’t targeted at those who deserve punishment it does not maintain social order. (I am editing this in 2020. There is probably a message about prison policy. Still, I don’t want to stretch things too much).

Antisocial Punishment Doesn’t Help Anyone

After showing the existence of antisocial punishment the authors 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.

That said, I would say that their actual model feels a little ad hoc. They look at pre-existing differences between societies. The authors’ choice of these differences seems a little random. Without the ability to manipulate differences they can be less confident they have the correct explanation. Basically, they suggest ideas without having a solid explanation. Still, I don’t want to criticize too much. What else could they do? It is hard to see how you manipulate societies to create an experiment.

Punishment Helps Maintain Society But Not Antisocial Punishment

Still, the paper is interesting. The take away message is hard to argue with. Our response to the threat of punishment can help maintain society. Yet punishment is counterproductive when it is perceived as unfair.

I have written elsewhere on antisocial behaviors. For example the need to beat others. See Competitor Orientation and The Evolution of Business Markets – Marketing Thought ( and Beating Rivals – Marketing Thought (

Read: Benedikt Herrmann, Christian Thoni, and Simon Gaechter, Antisocial punishment across societies, 2008, March 7, Science, volume 319

Exit mobile version