Altruistic Punishment in Humans

Summary of: Altruistic Punishment in Humans

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Altruistic punishment may be the glue that holds societies together - by distributing and internalizing policing of free-riding, solving the second-order social dilemma that is an obstacle to collective action.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Nature, 415, 137 - 140
January 10, 2002


  • Altruistic punishment is a cornerstone of cooperation theory, linking biological-evolutionary, psychological, and collective action elements. Free-riders are an obstacle to collective action, and organizing punishment for free-riders is itself a collective action problem (a "second order social dilemma"). Linking negative emotions to free-riders, thus making punishment a satisfying act, distributes the policing function through the society and internalizes the rule that makes more complex rules possible.

The evolutionary origins of human cooperation pose a puzzle - why do people so frequently cooperate with non-relatives, including people they are not likely to meet again? Existing theories for explaining the evolution of cooperation in a competitive environment include kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and costly signaling. Kin selection, performing altruistic acts at a cost to oneself but at the benefit of one's genes, does not explain non-familial cooperation. Reciprocal altruism does not explain generalized reciprocity, in which one performs altruistic acts for a member of a group, but not limited to actors who have specifically performed altruistic acts one one's behalf in the past. Signalling theory, which holds that altruistic acts enhance one's reputation and increase the chances of mating or useful alliances, does not explain human cooperation when reputation enhancement is not a factor. Using economic games like Prisoner's Dilemma, in which players were given the opportunity to punish free-riders from previous rounds at a cost to themselves, Fehr and Gachter show that cooperation flourishes when free-riders are punished, and that negative emotions toward free-riders "are the proximate mechanism behind altruistic punishment." These results suggest that future study of the evolution of human cooperation should include a strong focus on explaining altruistic punishment.