Indirect reciprocity provides only a narrow margin of efficiency for costly punishment


Indirect reciprocity1,2,3,4,5 is a key mechanism for the evolution of human cooperation. Our behaviour towards other people depends not only on what they have done to us but also on what they have done to others. Indirect reciprocity works through reputation5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17. The standard model of indirect reciprocity offers a binary choice: people can either cooperate or defect. Cooperation implies a cost for the donor and a benefit for the recipient. Defection has no cost and yields no benefit. Currently there is considerable interest in studying the effect of costly (or altruistic) punishment on human behaviour18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25. Punishment implies a cost for the punished person. Costly punishment means that the punisher also pays a cost. It has been suggested that costly punishment between individuals can promote cooperation. Here we study the role of costly punishment in an explicit model of indirect reciprocity. We analyse all social norms, which depend on the action of the donor and the reputation of the recipient. We allow errors in assigning reputation and study gossip as a mechanism for establishing coherence. We characterize all strategies that allow the evolutionary stability of cooperation. Some of those strategies use costly punishment; others do not. We find that punishment strategies typically reduce the average payoff of the population. Consequently, there is only a small parameter region where costly punishment leads to an efficient equilibrium. In most cases the population does better by not using costly punishment. The efficient strategy for indirect reciprocity is to withhold help for defectors rather than punishing them.

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Figure 1: Indirect reciprocity with costly punishment.
Figure 2: Social norms of cooperation.
Figure 3: The marginal efficiency of costly punishment.


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Support from the John Templeton Foundation, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the NSF/NIH joint program in mathematical biology (NIH grant R01GM078986) and J. Epstein is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Hisashi Ohtsuki.

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Ohtsuki, H., Iwasa, Y. & Nowak, M. Indirect reciprocity provides only a narrow margin of efficiency for costly punishment. Nature 457, 79–82 (2009).

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