611: Altruistic Punishment

A Thousand Things to Talk About
611: Altruistic Punishment

What was the most effective punishment you have given or received?

Full episode script

When you start researching punishment and negative social interactions, one topic ended up coming up a lot — and it’s one that I hadn’t considered before research. Specifically, cooperation. A not-insignificant amount of the research out there is about larger-scale, social punishments, and starts with the assumption that cooperation is a puzzle.

In a January 2002 issue of the journal Nature, two researchers explain it like this:

Human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle. Unlike other creatures, people frequently cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers, often in large groups, with people they will never meet again, and when reputation gains are small or absent. These patterns of cooperation cannot be explained by the nepotistic motives associated with the evolutionary theory of kin selection and the selfish motives associated with signalling theory or the theory of reciprocal altruism.


Which, if i understand it correctly, is basically saying that humans cooperate more than they would need to to get benefits for themselves or their families.  

One of the theories presented in the last decade or so to try and solve for this quote-unquote problem is altruistic punishment. Basically defined, a third party that is neither the harmed party nor the aggressor choosing to punish the aggressor on behalf of the harmed party, even when it costs the punisher themselves.

The original drama triangle, it seems, may have some basis in evolutionary biology or sociology, because it helps keep those who would otherwise not help out the community in line. As a 2006 study published in Science put it:

[…] experimental results from 15 diverse populations show that (i) all populations demonstrate some willingness to administer costly punishment as unequal behavior increases, (ii) the magnitude of this punishment varies substantially across populations, and (iii) costly punishment positively covaries with altruistic behavior across populations.

This doesn’t mean that everyone thinks so-called altruistic punishment is the explanation for why humans cooperate, though. Or that punishment is really fully effective in all situations. In a article from 2013, the authors discussed a study where, quote:

scientists at the University of Miami posited that the evidence for these results is possibly affected by experimental artifacts, and is therefore questionable. To address their hypothesis, the researchers designed and performed an experiment without such artifacts, finding that while victims punished offenders, witnesses did not – and moreover reacted with envy for ill-gotten gains rather than moralistic anger. In addition, a second experiment showed that previous evidence was due to what is known as affective forecasting error (inaccurate estimations of reactions to hypothetical situations). The scientists concluded that evidence supporting human altruistic punishment has been overstated.


Without getting too deeply into exactly what does and doesn’t work about a punishment – or how we even measure that effectiveness, it’s worth taking a deep look at punishment itself. As David Garland, author of Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory put it::

“… in common with other social institutions, punishment displays a complexity of function and a richness of meaning sufficient to challenge sociological understanding and to repay social analysis. Studied with sufficient care and attention, it is a form of life which can yield a surprisingly rich crop of insights and illuminations about the society in which it takes place and about the people whom it involves.”

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.