It pays to punish

Punishment not only strengthens cooperation, but is also economically advantageous – at least in the long run

The fact that we are able to live in such rough communities at all, to pay taxes, to buy a ticket on the bus and to go to the cashier at the gas station instead of getting into the car from the pump, is essentially due to the action of three factors: cooperation, punishment and reputation. The exact relationship between these three influences is still an area of research. Apart from that, the opinion about it is naturally subject to social influences – the necessity of punishment, for example, was not very popular for some time.

Cooperation has existed ever since man was a human being (and has also been observed in animals). Cooperation is always worthwhile when a certain goal is easier to achieve together than alone. Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is the big game hunting of prehistoric man, but cooperation also pays off when it comes to gathering food: Less time is spent searching if you share information freely than if you have to search an area already searched by others over and over again. Just with this example it becomes however already clear that a Freerider has here easy play: Always tapping others, but never contributing anything oneself, is economically the most favorable solution for the individual.

This is not just a problem that died out with our ancestors: the tremendously protracted discussion about climate protection is a current example of a so-called public-goods game. In the experiments of the researchers, such games usually collapse after a few rounds – if the influence of the punishment is not added. In fact, only this instrument makes it possible to keep public-goods-games stable for a long time. However, as was previously thought, with one drawback: punishment costs resources. One accepts these costs nevertheless cheaply.

In the current ie of Science magazine, researchers show that punishment even has a positive net result – namely, in the long run. The scientists from the University of Nottingham love test persons to play two public-goods-games, once over ten, another time over 50 rounds. In each round, the participants had 20 monetary units at their disposal, which they could either keep selfishly or invest altruistically. For each unit of money kept, there was a return of a whole monetary unit, while for each unit invested, each member of the group received 0.5 units. With an investment thus the whole group became richer, with saving only the individual.

So is punishment at the core of any cooperation?

In addition, the test persons had the possibility to punish others. This cost them one unit, while the punished person had to give up three units. So in total the group lost four units. In the short version of the game, i.e. after ten out of ten rounds, the groups with the possibility of punishment almost always performed worse than those in which no punishment was foreseen.

If, on the other hand, the public-goods game ran for more than 50 rounds, the groups worked most efficiently with penalties. Interestingly, in this case, even after only ten out of 50 rounds, there was a gain in efficiency compared to the groups without penalties and compared to the game in ten rounds. One could now speculate what this means for the Public-Goods-Games, in which all mankind is currently involved. It should be made clear to the participants that the game goes on for a very long time – and how does that fit in with election periods of four or five years??

Is punishment therefore the core of any cooperation? At least it was, when people in their groups still had to deal directly with each other. Today our society is organized differently. The participants in today’s Public-Goods-Games do not necessarily meet each other directly anymore. As a result, another tool has gained importance, the concept of reputation (see One’s own reputation is more important than punishing others).

It has the advantage that it costs nothing: You gain reputation by being cooperative – no investment is necessary. Unfortunately, the concept has a drawback: it works only if the participants cannot act anonymously. If you know that no one is looking at the newsstand, you don’t care about your reputation – you just forget to pay. Only that additionally with being caught a punishment threatens, lets at the end the cash register ring nevertheless still.

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