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Altruistic punishment in humans

Nature volume 415, pages 137140 (10 January 2002) | Download Citation

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Abstract

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. Here we show experimentally that the altruistic punishment of defectors is a key motive for the explanation of cooperation. Altruistic punishment means that individuals punish, although the punishment is costly for them and yields no material gain. We show that cooperation flourishes if altruistic punishment is possible, and breaks down if it is ruled out. The evidence indicates that negative emotions towards defectors are the proximate mechanism behind altruistic punishment. These results suggest that future study of the evolution of human cooperation should include a strong focus on explaining altruistic punishment.

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Acknowledgements

Support by the MacArthur Foundation Network on Economic Environments and the Evolution of Individual Preferences and Social Norms, and the EU-TMR Research Network ENDEAR is gratefully acknowledged. We also thank R. Boyd, A. Falk, U. Fischbacher, H. Gintis and J. Henrich for comments, and M. Näf and D. Reding for research assistance. We are particularly grateful to U. Fischbacher for writing the computer software.

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Affiliations

  1. *University of Zürich, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, Blümlisalpstrasse 10, CH-8006 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Ernst Fehr
  2. †University of St Gallen, FEW-HSG, Varnbüelstrasse 14, CH-9000 St Gallen, Switzerland

    • Simon Gächter

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Ernst Fehr.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/415137a

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