New Study Eyes Evolution of Fairness and Punishment

March 18, 2010

( -- Researchers have long been puzzled by large societies in which strangers routinely engage in voluntary acts of kindness, respect and mutual benefit even though there is often an individual cost involved.

While evolutionary forces associated with kinship and can explain such among other primates, these forces do not easily explain similar behavior in large, unrelated groups, like those that most humans live in.

A new study co-authored by University of California, Davis, Richard McElreath and published today in Science magazine suggests that the cooperative nature of each society is at least partly dependent upon historical forces - such as and the growth of market transactions.

The study also found the extent to which a society uses punishment to enforce norms increases and decreases with the number of people in the society.

"It is likely that small and large communities regulate cooperation - mutual defense, conservation, etc. - in different ways, because different mechanisms of monitoring and enforcement of norms work better at different scales of society," explained McElreath, an associate professor of anthropology at UC Davis.

"A small town in Kansas, for example, can likely rely upon and the fact that everyone knows everyone else, while the residents of New York City need some mechanism, like punishment, that can work in the absence of reliable reputations," he said.

McElreath was one of 14 researchers on three different continents who participated in the project detailed in the paper, "Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment." The first author is Joseph Henrich, an associate professor in the departments of Psychology and Economics at the University of British Columbia.

The researchers probed why communities often cooperate in diverse ways, from mutual defense to conservation. People engage in such mutually beneficial acts even though they may be individually costly.

Using behavioral experiments administered across 15 diverse populations, the study sought to measure the influence of three different mechanisms - punishment, market integration and religious beliefs - that might maintain cooperation within societies. Market integration is the extent to which individuals use anonymous, rule-governed transactions to buy and sell goods.

The researchers found that overt punishment, religious beliefs that can act as a form of psychological and market integration each were correlated with fairness in the experiments.

Explore further: Religion makes people helpful and generous -- under certain conditions: UBC researchers

Related Stories

Carrots are better than sticks for building human cooperation

September 3, 2009

Rewards go further than punishment in building human cooperation and benefiting the common good, according to research published this week in the journal Science by researchers at Harvard University and the Stockholm School ...

Brain's 'social enforcer' centers identified

October 3, 2007

Researchers have identified brain structures that process the threat of punishment for violating social norms. They said that their findings suggest a neural basis for treating children, adolescents, and even immature adults ...

Recommended for you

Averaging the wisdom of crowds

December 12, 2017

The best decisions are made on the basis of the average of various estimates, as confirmed by the research of Dennie van Dolder and Martijn van den Assem, scientists at VU Amsterdam. Using data from Holland Casino promotional ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Mar 18, 2010
The researchers found that overt punishment, religious beliefs that can act as a form of psychological punishment and market integration each were correlated with fairness in the experiments.

So threats to withhold ultimate reward is a form of psychological punishment (you'll go to hell if....)

So if religion is capable of the ultimate punishment for the most minor of infractions, then why hasn't it died out, where is the beneficial side, unless they are all expecting the ultimate reward for the little bit of work they put forth to their faith?
5 / 5 (4) Mar 18, 2010
Virtue, as they say, is its own reward.

Beyond that, a functioning society, where trustworthiness can be counted on even from strangers, is full of benefits.

I grew up in such a functioning society-- a small farming community-- where business took place on a handshake, neighbors could be counted on to help when trouble arose, and strangers could be trusted for the most part. Hardly anyone so much as locked the doors to their houses and vehicles could be left with keys in them even in remote fields for weeks on end with no fear of theft or vandalism.

And when I was a young boy in the 1960s I remember taking cross-country trips with my parents and my father using personal checks to purchase fuel, eat at restaurants, and pay for motel rooms/vehicle repairs.

Urbanism is a large part of the problem-- it provides too much anonymity for sociopaths to commit their crimes and then melt into the crowd. That, and the love of money, which is the root of all evil.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.