Altruistic Punishment

What Is Altruistic Punishment?

Altruistic punishment involves the willingness of individuals to punish free riders at a personal cost. It serves as a simple mechanism for increasing cooperation when there is a tension between private and group interest, but also from a desire to understand how the propensity to punish at a cost could have evolved.

In the words of Fehr & Gaechter (2002) who coined the term: “Altruistic punishment means that individuals punish, although the punishment is costly for them and yields no material gain.” (p. 137) This implies that altruistic punishment is costly. However, as the following passage suggests, not all costly punishment is altruistic.

  • “Punishment may well benefit the future group members of a punished subject, if that subject responds to the punishment by raising investments in the following periods. In this sense, punishment is altruistic.” (p. 137)

An act is altruistic if it is costly for the acting individual and beneficial for someone else. Thus, punishment is altruistic if it is costly for the punisher and if the punished person’s behavior changes such that others benefit. Therefore, for punishment to be altruistic it must have the potential to benefit others.

An Example to Consider

Think of queuing as an instructive example. Telling a queue jumper to stand in line is probably (psychologically) costly for the person confronting the queue jumper. If the queue jumper gets back into line, all people who were put at a disadvantage by the queue jumper benefit.

Scientific evidence for altruistic punishment comes from laboratory “public goods” experiments. In a typical public goods experiment, participants are randomly allocated to groups of four players. Each player is endowed with money units and has to decide how many to keep for him- or herself and how many to invest into a “the public good.”

The experimenter doubles the sum invested into the public good and distributes the doubted sum equally among the four group members. Thus, every group member receives a quarter of the doubled sum, irrespective of his or her contribution.

This experiment describes a cooperation problem: If everyone invests into the public good, the group is better off collectively; yet free riding makes everyone better off individually.

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