People prefer coordinated punishment to make others cooperate new study finds

People are more likely to punish a selfish individual if someone else does it first according to the findings of a large-scale experiment.

In countless settings, people work together to get things done that no individual could do on their own. From a simple task of moving an object to the complex activity of building a bridge, teamwork is essential but can be undermined by ‘free riders’ who reap the benefits of cooperation without contributing to its costs.

A research team, from the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics, in collaboration with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and the University of Cologne, used a controlled experiment to investigate how people punished ‘free riders’. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour

Over 4,000 people took part in the experiment. To test their reaction, the team devised an economic game in which participants were first given the choice whether to cooperate or to ‘free ride’. Cooperation offered most points for the group but ‘free riding’ earned most for the individual. Subsequently, the roles of ‘punisher’ and ‘target’ were allocated. ‘Punishers’ were told whether their ‘target’ cooperated or chose to ‘free ride’. Punishers could then choose to punish the ‘target’, by paying a small cost to reduce the target’s earnings.

The experiment revealed that if one person discovered their colleague had punished the ‘target’ they were more likely to follow their example. This option was particularly common among people who were reluctant to start punishment by themselves. Punishing someone, irrespective of what others do and punishment only if others do not was observed much less frequently.

By identifying what motivates people to react against selfish behaviour we hope people will be able to better tackle the problem and increase cooperation.

Lucas Molleman, an expert in decision making and human cooperation from Nottingham University’s Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics said: “In our experiment we tested theories, drawn from biology and psychology, that punishment can be particularly effective when people coordinate their sanctioning of ‘free riders’. When people sanction their peers jointly, rather than on their own, these sanctions can have more impact and the risk of retaliation can be much reduced.

“This supposed ‘free-rider problem’ affects countless real-world situations, ranging from day-to-day work in teams and paying taxes to curbing overfishing and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. By identifying what motivates people to react against selfish behaviour we hope people will be able to better tackle the problem and increase cooperation.”

The findings are published in the journal, Nature Human Behaviour.

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