Coordinated Punishment Leads to Cooperation


A new study suggests that cooperation is maintained by punishment

Humans are incredibly cooperative, but why do people cooperate and how is cooperation maintained? A new research study by UCLA anthropology professor Robert Boyd and his colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico suggests cooperation in large groups is maintained by punishment.

This study looks to be attempting a solution to the “free-rider” problem in human behavior research.  A free-rider is someone who, in a large enough society to support such things, refuses to cooperate, or play by the rules, but still benefits from the cooperation of others.  Think of someone who doesn’t pay their taxes in Canada, but still gets to use their health care system. 

The “problem” we face when dealing with the free-rider issue is not that it exists, but that it doesn’t exist MORE.  It should by any good Game Theoretic reading.  It’s in the best interest of the individual to NOT pay their taxes, and to still get the health care.  That’s a win-win. But, the reality is that the vast majority of Canadians DO pay their taxes.  Why?

But it turns out that most members of large groups cooperate. Why? Boyd and his colleagues suggest cooperation is maintained by punishment, which reduces the benefits to free riding. There are tribes, for example, that punish free-riders who do not participate in warfare by not allowing them to take a bride. Thus, there is the threat of losing societal benefits if a member does not cooperate, which leads to increased group cooperation.

The results of their model look a lot like what is seen in most human societies, where individuals meet and decide whether and how to punish group members who are not cooperating. This is coordinated punishment where group members signal their intent to punish, only punish when a threshold has been met and share the costs of punishing.

The important point being that the cost of punishment (to the society) is not higher than the cost of allowing the person to free-ride. 

Since theft and other forms of (non-violent) crime can be seen as free-riding, one has to ask, if the current system of punishment in the US has not resulted in lowered crime rates (think of marijuana related cases, for instance) then might it be because the cost of the punishments outweighs that of the crime to us as a whole?  Just a thought.

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