New study on altruistic punishment: people prefer groups that punish free-riders, if punishment increases profit to members

By Howard Rheingold, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 10 years 45 weeks ago.

Study Links Punishment to an Ability to Profit is the New York Times headline about recent research results, published today in Science:

Sociologists have long known that communes and other cooperative groups usually collapse into bickering and disband if they do not have clear methods of punishing members who become selfish or exploitative.

Now an experiment by a team of German economists has found one reason punishment is so important: Groups that allow it can be more profitable than those that do not.

Given a choice, most people playing an investment game created by the researchers initially decided to join a group that did not penalize its members. But almost all of them quickly switched to a punitive community when they saw that the change could profit them personally.

The study, appearing today in the journal Science, suggests that groups with few rules attract many exploitative people who quickly undermine cooperation. By contrast, communities that allow punishment, and in which power is distributed equally, are more likely to draw people who, even at their own cost, are willing to stand up to miscreants.

An expert not involved in the study, Elinor Ostrom, co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, said it helped clarify the conditions under which people will penalize others to promote cooperation.

"I am very pleased to see this experiment being done and published so prominently," Dr. Ostrom said, "because we still have many puzzles to solve when it comes to the effect of punishment on behavior."

Dr. Ostrom has done fieldwork with cooperatives around the world and said she often asked other researchers and students whether they knew of any long-lasting communal group that did not employ a system of punishment. "No one can give me an example," she said.