Punishment Does Not Improve Cooperation

Using a game to study human behavior, researchers in Japan have found that punishment is an ineffective means for promoting cooperation among players.

AsianScientist (Jan. 5, 2018) – A research group in Japan has demonstrated that punishment might not be an effective means to get members of society to cooperate for the common good. They published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Human societies maintain their stability by forming cooperative partnerships. However, cooperation often comes at a cost. For example, individuals who raise the alarm to alert other members of a group to impending danger could be losing valuable time to save themselves. It is unclear why natural selection favors cooperation among individuals who are inherently selfish.

In theoretical studies, punishment is often seen as a means to coerce people into being more cooperative. To examine this theory, a team of international researchers led by Assistant Professor Marko Jusup of Hokkaido University in Japan and Assistant Professor Wang Zhen of Northwestern Polytechnical University in China has conducted a ‘social dilemma experiment.’

The team investigated if providing punishment as an option helps improve the overall level of cooperation in an unchanging network of individuals. They used a version of the commonly employed ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ game. Two hundred and twenty-five students in China were organized into three trial groups and played 50 rounds each of the game.

Students in one group played against opponents that were swapped each round, while students in a second group played against the same opponent for all 50 rounds. In a third group, students played against the same opponent for 50 rounds, but had the ability to punish their opponent for not cooperating.

The expectation is that, as individuals play more with the same opponents over several rounds, they see the benefit of cooperating to earn more points. Introducing punishment as an option is basically saying: if you don’t cooperate with me, I’ll punish you. Hypothetically, punishment should lead to greater cooperation.

The researchers found that players in groups with constantly changing partners only cooperated in 4 percent of games played. When players were able to interact with their opponents over multiple rounds, the level of cooperation increased to 38 percent.

Surprisingly, however, adding punishment as an option did not improve the level of cooperation (37 percent). The final financial payoffs in this trial group were also, on average, significantly less than those gained by players in the static group. Interestingly, less defection was seen in the punishment group when compared to the static group as some players replaced defection with punishment.

“While the implied message when punishing someone is ‘I want you to be cooperative,’ the immediate effect is more consistent with the message ‘I want to hurt you,’” said the researchers.

Punishment seemed to have an overall demoralizing effect, as individuals who were punished on multiple occasions saw the majority of their total payoff vanish in a short period of time, the researchers explained. This could lead players to lose interest in the game and play the remaining rounds with a less rational strategy. The availability of punishment as an option also seemed to reduce the incentive to choose cooperation over competition.

“It could be that human brains are hardwired to derive pleasure from punishing competitors,” said Jusup.

“However, it is more likely that, in real life, a dominant individual has the ability to punish without provoking retaliation,” Wang noted.

Although the study provides valuable insights into how cooperation arises in human society, the team advises it would be unwise to extrapolate the implications of their study far beyond the experimental setting.

The article can be found at: Li et al. (2017) Punishment Diminishes the Benefits of Network Reciprocity in Social Dilemma Experiments.


Source: Hokkaido University; Photo: Shutterstock.
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