Cooperation Decays Without Punishment

An excellent paper at NIH summarizes scientific research about cooperation. It provides insights into why people cooperate, or, destroy the common good — for example, litter in a public park.

If you’d prefer to watch a video, Moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt summarizes it here, at 11:30 in.

In short, without punishment, cooperation dwindles towards 0. Adding punishment increases cooperation towards 100%.

Numerous studies have been conducted where participants receive “income,” for example 10 coins per turn. They may spend those coins to give to the Public Good, or, keep them for themselves. After the first round of giving, they’re informed about the other participants’ giving. They’re offered a second way to spend money: They can spend a coin to reduce someone else’s income by 1.

People who give most to the Public Good will repeatedly punish those who gave less, and with repeated rounds, giving to the Public Good consistently rises.

The same experiment is conducted without introducing the punishment. Giving to the Public Good gradually decreases towards 0.

The strength of the data needs to be stressed. The paper summarizes more than 100 studies on cooperation, and concludes: “This observation has been made in all public goods experiments with punishment we are aware of.”

It’s important to note that in context social scientists don’t just mean punishment like harming someone else — in this case garnishing their wages, or fining or imprisoning them. Negative Reinforcement is also punishment, where you provide a privilege that can be taken away for non-participation. As a farcical example: Free parking unless you share fake news.

There’s also an interesting insight: Some who would’ve likely given the most to the Public Good, gradually dwindle off towards 0 themselves when there is no punishment. The paper explores the impact of the belief that others are giving, and the impact of expecting punishment.

One of the papers cited notices that this is complicated when you add inequity. When a privileged few have higher income, and the less privileged are aware, the privileged few’s punishments have less impact on the giving of the less. Interestingly, the privileged few also seem to do a poorer job of targeting the biggest free loaders than in an equal-income study, which damages expectation of punishment.

It might explain why in real life, some well-off seek to punish the poor, like when cities slash homeless tents: They view them as inadequately contributing to the public good, and some humans have an innate urge to punish those who contribute anything less than they do.

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