The benefits of punishment

Dec 05, 2008

( -- The stick rather than the carrot could be a better approach to encouraging slacker colleagues to pull their weight in the workplace, research published in the prestigious journal Science has revealed.

A paper by economists at The University of Nottingham entitled 'The Long-Run Benefits of Punishment' has shown that, in the long-term, using punishment as a means of coercing co-operation can prove to be a successful strategy.

Previous experiments into evolutionary models of altruistic co-operation and punishment have suggested that the costs of punishment outweigh the gains from cooperation, although the Nottingham researchers believed this could be because they were conducted over a short timeframe.

They aimed to find out whether over a longer time punishment could actually improve co-operation by organising a series of public goods experiments. For the experiment, groups of three people were given 20 tokens which they could keep or contribute to a public good. Each token kept was worth one money unit (MU) to the holder and each token invested was worth 0.5 MUs for each group member.

Individuals could choose to give up one MU in exchange for deducting three MUs from another group member's 'earnings' to punish them if they haven't invested enough for the greater good of the group.

The experiment was broken into two time periods in which the experiment was carried out either 10 or 50 times. These 'short' and 'long' games were carried out both with a punishment element and without.

Overall, co-operation was higher where players were able to punish each other. This is because people were willing to punish free riders, and this helped induce co-operative behaviour.

Differences in results from the short and long games also suggest that people behave differently, depending on whether they see themselves working in that group over the short term or the long term. While punishment was moderately harmful in the short games — where the experiment was carried out only 10 times — it was highly beneficial in the long games.

The authors point out that punishment is most effective when it doesn't have to be used, but some people are ready to use it when the need arises. Under a long horizon the mere possibility of social sanctions sufficed to steer people to pro-social behaviour, and therefore the sanctions had to be used rarely.

This suggests that having the ability to monitor the contribution of others is beneficial for people who work together frequently or over a long period of time, but not for those working together only occasionally.

Professor Martin Sefton said: “We would suggest that having the ability to monitor the contribution of others can be beneficial to those working together frequently. If team members can observe each other's efforts then they can impose sanctions on those who shirk as it may encourage them to pull their weight.

“We found there was definitely an emotional side to the punishment, targeted to the people who contribute little to the group. Even in the last play of the game people were willing to punish 'free riders' even though there would be no future benefit. It suggests that they were punishing for an emotional reason and willing to incur a financial cost to get even or teach the person a lesson in some way.”

Provided by University of Nottingham

Explore further: Ig Nobel winner: Using pork to stop nosebleeds

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Evolution of lying

May 16, 2013

( —Ultimately, our ability to convincingly lie to each other may have evolved as a direct result of our cooperative nature.

NKorea rocket launch shows young leader as gambler

Dec 14, 2012

(AP)—A triumphant North Korea staged a mass rally of soldiers and civilians Friday to glorify the country's young ruler, who took a big gamble this week in sending a satellite into orbit in defiance of ...

Recommended for you

Ig Nobel winner: Using pork to stop nosebleeds

23 hours ago

There's some truth to the effectiveness of folk remedies and old wives' tales when it comes to serious medical issues, according to findings by a team from Detroit Medical Center.

History books spark latest Texas classroom battle

Sep 16, 2014

As Texas mulls new history textbooks for its 5-plus million public school students, some academics are decrying lessons they say exaggerate the influence of Christian values on America's Founding Fathers.

Flatow, 'Science Friday' settle claims over grant

Sep 16, 2014

Federal prosecutors say radio host Ira Flatow and his "Science Friday" show that airs on many National Public Radio stations have settled civil claims that they misused money from a nearly $1 million federal ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.1 / 5 (7) Dec 05, 2008
"The beatings will continue until morale improves!"

Funny, a couple months ago there was an article to the contrary... Ah here:


I assume this was a focus on the short term impact, however. This article suggests punishment may offer the best results "in the long run."

I fail to see how the "coddle" approach as in little to no punishment, or "alternative" punishments benefit anyone in the long term. Justice should be hard and swift!
5 / 5 (3) Dec 05, 2008
I'm sure the tax payers were punished.
3.3 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2008
Maybe what's more important to take from this is that people who are involved are less likely to need punishment. Since this article suggests that "freeloaders" were subject to punishment, then those who involved themselves were less likely to be punished, since they were not freeloaders.

This could explain why disenfranchisement leads to anti-social behaviors (requiring social punishment.) If everyone is allowed (or forced) to be involved in the community in which they survive, maybe they will be more likely to exhibit social behaviors.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2008
Conformity will be enforced...
4 / 5 (2) Dec 06, 2008
This isn't rocket science people. History proved punishment to be effective long before the 'modern man' turned themselves into self-centered spoiled brats for lack of it.