Study on Punishment from Science Mag
From: Tim Clark (
Date: Mon, 10 Apr 2006 17:53:45 -0700 (PDT)
The lastest cohousing L message and this from a friend arrived within a day
of each other. The universe can be a scary place.





Study Links Punishment to an Ability to Profit 


Sign In to E-Mail This 






Published: April 7, 2006

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. 

In the experiment, investigators at the University of Erfurt in Germany
enrolled 84 students in the investment game and gave them 20 tokens apiece
to start. In each round of the game, every participant decided whether to
hold on to the tokens or invest some of them in a fund whose guaranteed
profit was distributed equally among all members of the group, including the
"free riders" who sat on their money. Because the profit was determined by a
multiple of the tokens invested, each participant who contributed to the
fund enjoyed less of a return than if the free riders had done so as well.

The tokens could be redeemed for real money at the end of the experiment.

About two-thirds of the students initially chose to play in a group that did
not permit punishment. In the other group, the students had the option in
each round of penalizing other players; it cost one token to dock another
player three tokens. All participants could see who was contributing what as
the game progressed, and could choose to switch groups before each round. 

By the fifth round, about half of those who began the study in the
no-penalty group had switched to the punitive one. A smaller number of
students migrated in the other direction, but by Round 20 most had come back
and the punishment-free community was a virtual ghost town.

"The bottom line of the paper is that when you have people with shared
standards, and some who have the moral courage to sanction others,
informally, then this kind of society manages very successfully," said the
study's senior author, Bettina Rockenbach, who was joined in the research by
Bernd Irlenbusch, now at the London School of Economics, and Ozgur Gurek. 

Switching groups frequently prompted remarkable behavioral changes in the
students. Many of those who had been free riders in the laissez-faire group
eagerly began penalizing other selfish players upon switching. Dr.
Rockenbach compares these people to heavy smokers who are insistent on their
right to light up, until they quit. "Then they become the most militant of
the antismokers," she said. 

Being exploited appeared to cause deep frustration and anger in most
students, she said.

Other experts said the results were an important demonstration of how
self-interest can trump people's aversion to punitive norms, at least in the
laboratory. Out in the world, they said, it is not usually so clear who is
free-riding, or even whether a given group is encouraging cooperative
behavior in most people. 

"The mystery, if there is one, is how these institutions evolve in the first 
place," Duncan J. Watts, a sociologist at Columbia, wrote in an e-mail message, 
"i.e., before it is apparent to anyone that they can resolve the problem of 

  • (no other messages in thread)

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.