To build a cooperative society, is it better to punish or reward?

( -- One of the basic components of a functional, cooperative society is a code of law, where the laws are usually enforced by some kind of incentive. Social incentives can either be positive (rewards) or negative (punishments), and a society must decide which combination to use to achieve the greatest efficiency, or the highest level of cooperation at the lowest cost. Using a game theoretic model, a new study has analyzed this social dilemma in order to investigate how individuals are swayed by incentives, and how cooperation can emerge due to various incentive strategies.

Christian Hilbe and Karl Sigmund, mathematicians from the University of Vienna, have published the study, called “Incentives and opportunism: from the carrot to the stick,” in a recent issue of the . Overall, their results show how a population can evolve to become dominated by individuals who cooperate by default (that is, they cooperate unless they know they can get away with uncooperative behavior) when faced with negative incentives.

As the researchers explain in their study, the efficiency in terms of a benefit-to-cost ratio of the two types of incentives depends on the circumstances. In a society where most people cooperate, then it will be costly to reward them all, while a society in which most people defect would pay a high price for trying to punish them all. So the obvious way to transform an uncooperative into a cooperative one would be to first provide positive incentives, and later punish the few remaining individuals who refuse to be swayed.

“In the last 10 years, there has been an intensive discussion about whether and how (human) cooperation can be promoted by offering incentives,” Hilbe told “Especially the effect of punishment is heavily disputed; some researchers argue that the extensive use of punishment could lead to a downfall of overall welfare (for example, as punishment might provoke counter-punishment). Our study is one of the first examining the interplay of both types of incentives. We found that opportunism makes both types of incentives profitable, but they have different effects. In our model, rewards are very effective in increasing cooperation but, ironically, increased cooperation makes rewards expensive. At some point punishment might be more efficient.”

The researchers capture this dynamic in a game that is generally similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma game or the ultimatum game, except that here only the first player chooses to cooperate or defect, while the second player chooses how to respond with incentives, and each player receives respective pay-offs. More specifically, the first player can choose one of four strategies: always cooperate (cooperation comes with a small cost), always defect, cooperate unless they know they can defect without being punished, and defect unless they know that their co-player rewards cooperation or punishes defection. The last two strategies are opportunistic, meaning that players use them to take advantage of a possible incentive, regardless of whether they must cooperate or defect to attain the incentive. The second player then responds with one of four strategies: offer no incentive, only use punishment, only use rewards, or use both incentives. In any interaction between two random players, there is only a limited probability that player one knows player two’s strategy.

In the way that the pay-off values are arranged, the first player can gain the most by receiving a reward for their cooperation. Although the second player gets a slight benefit from rewarding cooperation, they gain even more if the first player cooperates for no reward (which can occur because the first player does not always know if they will be receiving a for cooperation).

Hilbe and Sigmund found that, since the frequency of how often a certain strategy is used changes, a wide variety of evolutionary dynamics can occur. Some pairs of strategies tend to be dominated by other strategies, meaning that some strategies tend to evolve into certain others. However, other pairs of strategies are stationary and only change due to small random shocks. Further, there is one pair of strategies that tends to be the ultimate evolutionary outcome, and that is when player one uses opportunistic cooperation (i.e. they cooperate unless they know they can defect without being punished) and player two uses only punishment. The mathematicians call this pair of strategies a Nash equilibrium, since neither player can benefit by changing their strategy while the other player keeps theirs unchanged.

While many populations evolve toward this Nash equilibrium, the researchers identified one essential step in this evolution, which is when player one transitions from opportunistic defection to opportunistic cooperation. Moreover, the researchers found that the time until this transition occurs is greatly reduced if player two has a strategy involving rewarding, which entices player one to become more cooperative. In other words, the model accurately represents the two-step incentive strategy stated earlier, where step one is rewarding and step two - the more lasting step - is punishment. In this way, using the model may offer the potential to help determine the effectiveness of incentives in social programs by providing a glimpse into the future.

“At the moment, the discussion about the evolution of (human) is on a rather theoretical level,” Hilbe explained. “The main aim is to understand under which circumstances individuals tend to cooperate with each other and to which extent they behave selfishly. But the knowledge about the nature of human altruism might eventually lead to optimally adapted incentive schemes (for example, for increasing worker motivation).

“However, we don’t expect our study to be the final say on this topic. It is a delicate matter to capture the complexity of human interactions in game theoretic models and usually those models are very sensitive to the underlying assumptions. It will take much further research to get a conclusive understanding of the effects of incentives.”

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Carrots are better than sticks for building human cooperation

More information: Christian Hilbe and Karl Sigmund. “Incentives and opportunism: from the carrot to the stick.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.0065

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Apr 19, 2010
Trying to rig cooperation will most likely not work as planned. Just let things work out natural yo.

Apr 19, 2010
Its not so much whether its punishment or reward it matters who is giving it and whence its source. (duh)

if the cooperative people punish the lazy for not participating, its certainly different than if the lazy use their numbers to punish the productive for not producing enough in slavery for them

dont ya think?

[for those that dont get it, the former is life in freedom, the latter is slavery to the brutish, lazy and amoral]

Apr 19, 2010
What is the reward for following religious morals? At the best, nothing that can be proved, at the worst, living lies.

What is the reward for following societal codes? Acceptance, higher incomes, comrade and a society that we are proud of, and proud to hand to our children.

Apr 19, 2010
There is NO such thing as ALTRUISM! Every action is incentive driven. Even Mother Teresa was laying up her treasure in Heaven!

Apr 19, 2010
Why not both? Punish those who dont cooperate and reward those who do. Best of both worlds :)

Apr 19, 2010
Why not both? cause if you start off rewarding good behavior with no punishment you seem kind and forgiving, then you can punish all those poor souls who just dont understand that their way is wrong. that way you not only control the people you seem like your doing it for their own good.

Apr 19, 2010
What is the reward for following religious morals? At the best, nothing that can be proved, at the worst, living lies.

increased odd of better outcomes in life.

after all, go aroud killing, stealing, jealous and envious, among other things.. and your life outcomes are nto as good.

or ahvent you noticed that as a marker those that follow judeo christian ethics tend to do better than others that follow other things.

which is why the west is in so much trouble!!!!

our system produced less crime, more output, and at much less cost. so rather than join us, they are deconstructing it.


Apr 19, 2010
Regarding the relationship between religion and moral code, there is no consistent relationship. Religion sets out a moral code, but it is not constant and has changed with the times. Government sets out a moral code, but it also has changed with the times. The only constant is that people discover that some behaviors are good or bad for society and those behaviors are regulated by the current moral code (religious or secular). In other words, morality is based on helping the group. It works evolutionarily because helping the group helps the individual.

I'd like to see some psychologists team up with these theoreticians. Studies of human psychology suggests that some people view the presence of a stimulus as a reward and others don't, but they might view it's absence as a punishment. So as more people come to expect a certain reward it no longer is a reward, and it's absence is now a punishment. Parents can't give an allowance as a reward anymore, they can only withold it as punishmen

Apr 19, 2010
In any interaction between two random players, there is only a limited probability that player one knows player two’s strategy.
This aspect of the study is somewhat unrealistic, when we talk of societies. In societies, the laws are generally known, and so the "strategy" is quite known to all players.

I think this may have some applicability to child rearing. For example, early in a child's life, one would use rewards to encourage good behavior, as opposed to punishment to prevent bad behavior. Then, gradually taper off the rewards and ratchet up punishment. Many (though not all) parents already do something like this, instinctively. But few do it systematically.

Apr 19, 2010
It is seldom immediate apparent to many individuals why they shouldn't murder others to get what they want.
You exaggerate. The number of such individuals is relatively small. They are called sociopaths (formerly and still occasionally referred to as psychopaths.)

Their major malfunction is a congenital dysfunction of empathy -- something that most people outgrow when they get past the age of 4. But a small percentage is afflicted with a permanent disability in that regard. Based on the history of your posts, odds are high you're one of those.

But sociopathy isn't something any religion, or any psychological intervention, can fix. The only ways to combat it short of tit-for-tat murder, are either through pharmacology (when applicable), through exile, or through permanent incarceration.

Apr 19, 2010
But sociopathy isn't something any religion, or any psychological intervention, can fix.

I'm not sure that is exactly correct, as the world isn't black and white (fix or don't fix). Sociopaths live amongst the general population. Those that are able to adapt their outward behaviors are highly capable, according to society. Many CEOs, religious leaders and movement leaders have been suspected of being sociopaths, a disorder that helps their "success". Those that can't adapt become the tormented or antisocial criminals that get noticed and then the fix/don't fix conundrum comes into the discussion.

Sociopathy is demonized because it can be so frightening and I actually think that Martha Stout's estimation of 4% might be low.

Apr 19, 2010
I am wondering how modifying the system of rewards could effect our drug policy.

Based on this research, if we really want to drive drug use down, we would offer full support for addicts in treatment and rehabilitation, training, etc. This would provide a reward for getting off drugs.

Then we need to allow private industry under gov't regulation to sell all drugs that are currently illegal for a profit (heavily taxed of course). This has 2 benefits; it will remove the incentive for criminal distribution, and it will help reduce the burden on our society caused by drug deaths. \

Then we should leave or increase the prison penalties for unregulated distribution with particularly stiff penalties for distributing to anyone under 18. Because we have reduced the profit motive so much, this would simply force the dealers out of business.

This would be both more humane and more likely to attack the problem.

Apr 19, 2010

I guess I didn't make it explicit that I was talking about violent sociopaths. I thought the context was evident, since I was replying to marjon's point of how some people can't figure out why it's wrong to commit murder.

And I was also over-simplifying, for the sake of clarity and brevity. Like most disorders, sociopathy spans a spectrum of symptoms and degrees of disability.

Apr 19, 2010
Why is it not wrong to kill others to get what you want?
Because for NORMAL people, the very prospect makes them physically ill.

We have a built-in hard-wired emotional apparatus, that strongly defines us as social animals.

But a few mutants among us are antisocial. Some of these lone wolves have no problem with wanton murder.

However, taking these psychos as a template for the whole human race is rather delusional. Even for you.

But then again, I suspect you're one of them. So in assuming that everyone else is just like you, you probably quite simply just don't know any better.

Apr 19, 2010
A study like that was likely done or thought up by sociopath control freaks.

Apr 19, 2010
How can this be built in?
The same way your brain is.
What evidence do you have to support that empathy is innate?
Any person actually exhibiting empathy, needs no more evidence than their own self-examination. But for you, I'd recommend Google. Go to the homepage, type in "empathy innate research", and click "Search".

Apr 19, 2010
History demonstrates that in hierarchical organizations, sociopaths invariably rise to the top. Once again, you judge the whole of humanity by its worst deviants. Clearly, you think everyone is just like you. You're wrong.

Apr 20, 2010
This is all just evolution in another context. Society gravitates to what works based on it's "environment". In ages past having a leader who is a sociopath and willing to unflinchingly sacrifice the lives of it's members to further the interests of society was of great advantage. But you could never have so many such individuals that chaos results.

Apr 20, 2010
artflDgr said: "if the cooperative people punish the lazy for not participating, its certainly different than if the lazy use their numbers to punish the productive for not producing enough in slavery for them

dont ya think?"

lazy people would have to co-operate amongst themselves in order to punish the productive. Now, this totally destroys the logic in your 1st sentence. cause lazy ppl are the cooperative ones. By the way, who judges who to punish or not? The article seems to imply that there is a third party who could categorize the public into these two categories and punish them or reward them as they will. If so, why bother? Let them do what ever they feel like. Reward us or punish us, I don't really care!

Apr 20, 2010
I agree with marjon overwhelmingly here. His reference to the Milgram experiment is the icing on the cake. Regarding religion, if he's wrong, then so are most of the religious titans of Christianity(Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, etc).

I question this logical systems applicability to long term situations because it wouldn't remain consistent. Over one generation, standards of both reward and punishment change. These changes could make the model contradictory and even subject to Godelian incompleteness perhaps(I make the last claim tentatively).

Have you ever read [/u]The Time Machine[/u] by H.G. Wells? It has a message that would surprise you and anyone else who think the wealthy are always the masters.

Apr 20, 2010

One should look at the "educational theories" teachers have to read and comment on to update their certification to assess the establishment's politics.

Apr 20, 2010
For people with nothing to lose, giving them something to gain(a reward) is better.

Apr 20, 2010
Studies have been conducted where people would voluntarily give someone an electric shock
You're missing one important aspect: this is done at the insistence of an authoritative scientist, who is directing the experiment. These experiments demonstrate that the impulse of submission to authority can override our better instincts.
How do such sociopaths obtain positions of power without support from others?
Because others assume that these people are normal -- i.e. not sociopaths. The sociopaths abuse peoples' trust, and play people against each other. That's how they climb social ladders: by stepping on the necks of others.
those who work hard, play by the rules, become wealthy
There's a laugh. Most people who become wealthy this way, don't play by the rules. Perhaps even more so today, than in the recent past. Today, the fastest and best route to wealth, is defined by a single word: fraud. Thanks be to Wall Street.

Apr 20, 2010
US liberals don't support standards or discipline, basic ingredients for a quality education.

If you're referring to No Child Left Behind, then you're completely ignorant of what liberals really want.

If you're referring to teachers' Unions being against the ideas of standardized testing to grade teacher performance, it still proves you have no idea what the liberals really want.

But you like to make broad troll statements to get responses, don't you?

Apr 20, 2010
First we have to agree upon the direction we want that society. In the USA we have reached a crossroads. There is a big division over where we go from here. There comes a time when war is the inevitable answer. It is how conflicting ideologies are resolved. The winner is not the 'right' one it is simply the victor. War is how social creatures resolve conflicts of interest; from the sea anemone on up to humanity. We have a fight coming now. Choose your side. I stand with the wild and free side. That means no nannies.

Apr 20, 2010
I said, people who work hard and play be the rules.
But the overwhelming majority of such people never get rich. Indeed, since the 1970's such people, on average, have been getting poorer as their inflation-adjusted earnings continue to fall. Or else, your implication is that anyone who isn't getting rich, must be either lazy or a rule-breaker: a typical slur in the quiver of the right wing, when it comes to class warfare...

Apr 20, 2010
Support your assertion.
Google to the rescue: this time, your search keywords are "tax shelter", "Ponzi finance", "insider trading", "war profiteering", "organized crime", "financial fraud", and "illegal labor".

But I was being fair-minded. I said "most", not "all".

Apr 21, 2010
A large % of man's problems lie in the simple truth of what "fourthrock" said. For the most part, Society is not serious about Deterrance.
So unless and until at least a basic set of 'Laws for Human Living' with real, tangible deterrence is instituted, we'll continue to see society and the quality of life decay for everyone.
A good start: If you intentionally take another persons life, you lose the privilege of keeping yours...period.
In 2007, there were 16,929 people murdered in the U.S....In 2008, there were just 37 executions in the U.S. ALL YEAR.
You want deterrence? Broadcast them live on TV! If they murdered someone with a gun, execute them with the SAME GUN! Poisoned someone? Use the same poison.
Now it is obvious that you cannot legislate Morality. But people will have to come to agree on what constitutes violations of basic human rights and there can be Zero Tolerance of such.

It will take Supernatural intervention for mankind to make such changes.

Apr 21, 2010
@TodatEfek: How many innocent people have been executed in the US in the last 100 years? If you can't say, with 100% assurance, that the number is absolutely 0, then the death penalty is wrong.

@marjon: how far right wing are you? Scalia must look like a leftist from your vantage.

Apr 23, 2010
The problem of letting religion being the guide of social construct is that many religions dictate the killing of outsiders and heretics. Morality is not the same as ethics and certainly not if the morals of a religion condone and dictate genocide. Read Leviticus and Deuteronomy, part of the 613 laws of being Jewish is killing certain groups on sight or at least charging those groups interest on loans. Most of these laws are very strict, involve negative incentive and to a very high degree, such as stoning to death. How well has this worked? Where is the cohesiveness and acceptance that builds a solid society?

Apr 23, 2010
The ignorance of the premis of this inquiry is stunning. There is no way to argue with madness.

May I recommend Federalist Paper No. 10. to understand how the greatest cooperative community in history lived, until recently, when these incentive people took control.

Apparently, mathematicians live in a Skinner box. Skinner abused his children by using these "incentives." Recall, he wrote "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" whose thesis is individualism is absurd - just program people. Seig heil.

By definition, a cooperative society is one where people cooperate. Duh. It is not a way to control inmates. I don't break laws because, applying right reason, I do not transgress laws which, generally, reflect morality and cooperation. Civilization does not speak in terms of fascism.

This dictatorial perspective requires each of us to carry a library of codes around; in my society, you act fairly and you are fine. Laws must make sense, not subjects

Apr 25, 2010
This has great general implication in life. I.e.: Disciplining a child. You reward, to advance and solidify the trait/action that is desired. Then once it's established you punish to diminish deviations(or can be done concurrently). Point being, rewarding all the time is very costly.

Look at dopers, that's a reward system gone awry with little punishment (sacrificing health, money, and sometimes friends/family).

Our govt needs to take this and use it stands, US is such a pansy, pampering to everyone and it's getting toooooooo costly.

Apr 25, 2010
Reward then punish, i think the world is a little bit more strict when it comes to punishments, it feels like we are being punished for everything, but most of it we cannot controll, so thus it is overwhelming and keeps people sad and miserable.

Apr 25, 2010
Otto Von Bismarck applied whip and sugar plum policy and it worked well.

Apr 27, 2010

You argue that empathy and morality cannot be a natural state for humans without religion.

Then why haven't the atheist nuclear physicists destroyed the Vatican with their disregard for morality and empathy via nuclear war and subdued the rest of the planet under technocracy?

Apr 27, 2010
Star Trek proves everything. Kirk is God. Uhuru was the devil. Jesus built my hotrod (The Enterprise). George Takei should be in jail.

Apr 27, 2010
Instead of using a stupid TV show from the 70's, how about I provide a citation?

http://www.emory....ments/de Waal (2008).pdf

Or maybe I should provide examples of it from The Brady Bunch, CHiPs or The Bride of Frankenstein? Which one would be more convincing to a troll with leading questions?

Apr 27, 2010
Star Trek had great writers and tackled many serious issues that are still not resolved today. That is called literature.

So did Fonzi on Happy Days. Let me know when Star Trek is part of an accredited sociological program at a leading American University.

Apr 27, 2010
Yep, and since christianists make up 80% of the US populace, the odds are all of those passing by were just to enraptured to pay attention to the homeless guy.

Or did that not occur to you, marjoke?

Apr 28, 2010
I was told empathy was an inherent human trait. Were those people who ignored a dying man not human?

Most New Yorkers aren't humane because of the tendency of those among us, like yourself, who'd use another's empathy to take advantage of the person rendering aid.

Learned survival mechanisms override inherent traits by design.

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