Detrimental effects of sanctions on human altruism

Abstract

The existence of cooperation and social order among genetically unrelated individuals is a fundamental problem in the behavioural sciences. The prevailing approaches in biology and economics view cooperation exclusively as self-interested behaviour—unrelated individuals cooperate only if they face economic rewards or sanctions rendering cooperation a self-interested choice. Whether economic incentives are perceived as just or legitimate does not matter in these theories. Fairness-based altruism is, however, a powerful source of human cooperation. Here we show experimentally that the prevailing self-interest approach has serious shortcomings because it overlooks negative effects of sanctions on human altruism. Sanctions revealing selfish or greedy intentions destroy altruistic cooperation almost completely, whereas sanctions perceived as fair leave altruism intact. These findings challenge proximate and ultimate theories of human cooperation that neglect the distinction between fair and unfair sanctions, and they are probably relevant in all domains in which voluntary compliance matters—in relations between spouses, in the education of children, in business relations and organizations as well as in markets.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The average back-transfer of the trustees plotted as a function of the investors' transfers.
Figure 2: Actual back-transfer as a percentage of tripled investment plotted as a function of the investors' desired back-transfers.

References

  1. 1

    Smith, A. The Wealth of Nations (The Modern Library, New York, 1776)

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Durkheim, E. De La Division Du Travail Social (Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1902)

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Arrow, K. Gifts and exchanges. Phil. Publ. Affairs 1, 343–362 (1972)

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Knack, S. & Keefer, P. Does social capital have an economic payoff? Q. J. Econ. 112, 1251–1288 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Bowles, S. Economic Institutions and Behavior (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, in the press)

  6. 6

    Milgrom, P. & Roberts, J. Economics, Organization & Management (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1992)

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Dawes, R. M. Social Dilemmas. Annu. Rev. Psych. 31, 169–193 (1980)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Fehr, E., Kirchsteiger, G. & Riedl, A. Does fairness prevent market clearing? Q. J. Econ. 108, 437–460 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Berg, J., Dickhaut, J. & McCabe, K. Trust, reciprocity and social history. Games Econ. Behav. 10, 122–142 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Andreoni, J. Cooperation in public goods experiments: kindness or confusion. Am. Econ. Rev. 85, 891–904 (1995)

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Ostrom, E. A behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action. Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 92, 1–22 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Trivers, R. The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Q. Rev. Biol. 46, 35–57 (1971)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Axelrod, R. & Hamilton, W. D. The evolution of cooperation. Science 211, 1390–1396 (1981)

    ADS  MathSciNet  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Nowak, M. A. & Sigmund, K. Evolution of indirect reciprocity by image scoring. Nature 393, 573–577 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Milinski, M., Semmann, D. & Krambeck, H. J. Reputation helps solve the ‘tragedy of the commons'. Nature 415, 424–426 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Leimar, O. & Hammerstein, P. Evolution of cooperation through indirect reciprocity. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 268, 745–753 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Zahavi, A. The cost of honesty (further remarks on the handicap principle). J. Theor. Biol. 67, 603–605 (1977)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Mas-Colell, A., Whinston, M. D. & Green, J. R. Microeconomic Theory (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1995)

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Laffont, J. J. & Martimort, D. The Theory of Incentives (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Titmuss, R. M. The Gift Relationship (Allen and Unwin, London, 1970)

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Frey, B. S. Not Just For the Money. An Economic Theory of Personal Motivation (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 1997)

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Bewley, T. F. Why Wages Don't Fall During A Recession (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Bohnet, I., Frey, B. S. & Huck, S. More order with less law: on contract enforcement, trust and crowding. Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 95, 131–144 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Rabin, M. Incorporating fairness into game theory and economics. Am. Econ. Rev. 83, 1281–1302 (1993)

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Gintis, H. Strong reciprocity and human sociality. J. Theor. Biol. 206, 169–179 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415, 137–140 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Fehr, E. & Falk, A. Psychological foundations of incentives. Eur. Econ. Rev. 46, 687–724 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This paper is part of the European Network for the Development of Experimental Economics (ENDEAR). E.F. gratefully acknowledges support by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institut for the Analysis of Economic Growth, by the Swiss National Science Foundation and by the MacArthur Foundation Network on Economic Environments and the Evolution of Individual Preferences and Social Norms. B.R. gratefully acknowledges support by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Forschung des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen for providing the subject payments.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ernst Fehr.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Fehr, E., Rockenbach, B. Detrimental effects of sanctions on human altruism. Nature 422, 137–140 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01474

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing