Punishment and altruism

An interesting paper in Science (a publicly available summary is here; link via Brain Ethics) shows that human beings’ propensity to punish (unfair acts by others) is correlated with their altruism. This finding is based on a pretty large scale study involving populations in no less than 15 different societies or tribes. The implication is that these two cultural traits co-evolved. Here’s a key quote:

A hallmark of humanity is that people help other people–not just relatives and friends but even complete strangers. Such altruism, which goes beyond the mere exchange of favors and forms the scaffolding of large-scale cooperation in human societies, has long been an evolutionary mystery. On page 1767, anthropologist Joseph Henrich of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleagues take a crack at solving the puzzle, concluding that such helpful behavior may have arisen as a result of punishment.

Reporting on experiments they conducted in 15 different societies on five continents, the researchers argue that altruism evolved hand in hand with a willingness to punish selfish behavior. Their results lend support to models of gene-culture coevolution that propose that cultural norms such as the punishment of unfair actions drive the selection of genes favoring altruism.

What was interesting (to me, at least) was the use of three fairly simple prototype games that allowed the researchers to assess the participants’ inclination towards “costly punishment” and “altruism”. For assessing punishment, they used the Ultimatum Game and Third Party Punishment Game; for assessing altruism, they used the Dictator Game. In case you are not able to access the paper from the Science website, Brain Ethics has a description of the three games (with links).

Over at Reason Online, Ronald Bailey has an article explaining this ‘punishment-and-altruism’ research, and this is his concluding paragraph:

The results are intriguing. It turns out that the societies in which the player ones in the dictator game were willing to give more to the player twos are also the societies in which people were more willing to punish less generous players in the other two games. In other words, societies that punished strongly were also the most likely to have strong altruistic impulses. The moral of the story is that if you want to live in a world of caring generous cooperative people, make sure that you thoroughly thrash all the greedy, chiseling scoundrels you come across. It may cost you, but the world will be a better place. [bold emphasis added]


3 thoughts on “Punishment and altruism

  1. Abi,
    I am glad that you mentioned this topic. I have been trying to follow this topic for a few months and I mention some of the references below hoping that you or somebody else may make more sense of it. I think the topic took off in the 70’s after the work of Hamilton and Trivers and some of this is discussed in “The origins of virtue” by Matt Ridley (1996). It is highly readable and Richard Dawkins said that this is what a second volume of “The Selfish Gene” would have been like. But some of the extrapolations in the book drew criticism from Allen Orr in his review “The softer side of sociobiology” in the Boston Review. Pl. check http://www.tsujiru.net/?p=209 for this review as well as the exchange between Orr and Gintis. One recent book(2006) “The evolution of morality’ by Richard Joyce gives a survey of the work until recent times but this book is not so great. Paul Seabright, an econimist, discusses trust and reciprocity (Fehr seems to be one of the popular names since 90’s) in his excellent book “The company of strangers: a natural history of economic life”. According to Richardsen and Boyd in “Not by genes alone”, there is no concensus on these topics. Recently, there is a spate of articles both in popular journals and scholarly journals talking of breakthroughs. some of it seemed to recycling old ideas. I have been googling and trying to find more. Yesterday, I saw a review of “The origin of mind” by David Geary
    The review praises the book highly and the book discusses some of these topics. Overall, the topic seems very difficult and we may not be able to draw conclusions from a few simple experiments. Perhaps some psychologist will be able to tell us more about this. Regards,

  2. This seems almost official. Not only is there altruism in humans, but that is what distinguishes humans from apes (whales?):

    Child Development. 2006 May-Jun;77(3):640-63. Cooperative activities in young
    children and chimpanzees.

    Warneken F, Chen F, Tomasello M.

    Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for
    Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany.

    Human children 18-24 months of age and 3 young chimpanzees interacted in 4 cooperative activities with a human adult partner. The human children successfully participated in cooperative problem-solving activities and social games, whereas the chimpanzees were uninterested in the social games. As an
    experimental manipulation, in each task the adult partner stopped participating at a specific point during the activity. All children produced at least one communicative attempt to reengage him, perhaps suggesting that they were trying
    to reinstate a shared goal. No chimpanzee ever made any communicative attempt to reengage the partner. These results are interpreted as evidence for a uniquely human form of cooperative activity involving shared intentionality that emerges
    in the second year of life.

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