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Posted: 1/10/2002 3:47:13 AM EST
[B][size=5] Prosperity through punishment [/size=5][/B] [size=3] Retribution can breed cooperation. 10 January 2002 JOHN WHITFIELD[/size=3] [size=2] Notions of fairness may outweigh selfish considerations. © Corbis [/size=2] Cooperation can flourish if the public-spirited majority can punish freeloaders, say Swiss economists. People will pay to punish - suggesting that their notions of fairness outweigh selfish considerations. The work may help explain why people cooperate in society. In an investment game with shared profits, players punish those who do not contribute to the group's good, despite the personal cost. The emotional satisfaction of dispensing justice seems to spur them on: "People say, 'I like to punish'," says Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich. The fear of being fined keeps potential defectors in line, and the power to punish gives willing cooperators a sense of security. These dynamics may explain why early humans banded together into cooperative groups for hunting or warfare. Explanations of cooperation have tended to focus on what the altruist gets out of it, either through the swapping of good turns or the benefits to family members. "For a very long time in economics and biology there's been an assumption of self-interest," says economist Herbert Gintis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Instead, he says, it seems that egalitarianism is "a basic part of human behaviour". The research may hold lessons for policymakers attempting to build social cohesion, he believes. Decisions may be more acceptable if they come from within the community and not from a remote central government. "There could be more community-based policing, and more emphasis on shaming [criminals] and rehabilitation within the community," Gintis says. (continued…)
Link Posted: 1/10/2002 3:47:55 AM EST
(…continued) Pay or be punished Fehr and his colleague Simon Gachter, of the University of St Gallen, devised an economic game where four anonymous participants had to decide how much to invest in a common pot. Returns were balanced so that the 'rational' strategy was to invest nothing and reap the benefits of other's contributions. But by investing a lot, the whole group could gain. Egalitarianism seems to be a basic part of human behaviour Herbert Gintis, University of Massachusetts The amount invested by the players was revealed after each round. In some games, players could then fine each other, but they had to pay a small sum for this. The make-up of the group changed with each round, preventing players from learning whether they could trust one another. When penalties were allowed, the common good prevailed, and the investment by each group member climbed.1 "But if there's no opportunity for punishment, cooperation unravels," says Fehr, with investment declining rapidly. Union power Cohesion-through-punishment is an influential force in contemporary western society. In industrial disputes, for example, the hatred heaped on strike-breakers cements solidarity, says Fehr. If there's no opportunity for punishment, cooperation unravels Ernst Fehr, University of Zurich Conversely, the waning of support for state welfare programmes among the US middle class over the past few decades was caused by a perception that too many freeloaders were exploiting the system without fear of detection or punishment, says Gintis. Gintis acknowledges the potential pitfalls of using local action to stamp out social scrounging: it might fragment communities into opposing factions, or breed resentment of nonconformists. There are also problems if fear of punishment cultivates antisocial aims, Fehr points out. "You see it in the Mafia," he says, where the threat of reprisal maintains a code of silence. References Fehr, E & Gachter, S. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415, 137 - 140, (2002). [URL]http://www.nature.com/nsu/020107/020107-6.html[/URL]
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