Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The roots of modern justice: cognitive and neural foundations of social norms and their enforcement

Abstract

Among animals, Homo sapiens is unique in its capacity for widespread cooperation and prosocial behavior among large and genetically heterogeneous groups of individuals. This ultra-sociality figures largely in our success as a species. It is also an enduring evolutionary mystery. There is considerable support for the hypothesis that this facility is a function of our ability to establish, and enforce through sanctions, social norms. Third-party punishment of norm violations (“I punish you because you harmed him”) seems especially crucial for the evolutionary stability of cooperation and is the cornerstone of modern systems of criminal justice. In this commentary, we outline some potential cognitive and neural processes that may underlie the ability to learn norms, to follow norms and to enforce norms through third-party punishment. We propose that such processes depend on several domain-general cognitive functions that have been repurposed, through evolution's thrift, to perform these roles.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: A neurocognitive hypothesis for third-party punishment behavior.

References

  1. Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. Trends Cogn. Sci. 8, 185–190 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Kitcher, P. The Ethical Project 422 (Harvard Univ. Press, 2011).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. Bicchieri, C. The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Hamilton, W.D. J. Theor. Biol. 7, 1–16 (1964).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Boyd, R. & Richerson, P.J. J. Theor. Biol. 132, 337–356 (1988).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. Theor. Popul. Biol. 65, 17–28 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Jensen, K., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 104, 13046–13050 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Henrich, J. et al. Science 312, 1767–1770 (2006).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Nature 415, 137–140 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Churchland, P.S. Braintrust 273 (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Boyd, R., Richerson, P.J. & Henrich, J. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108, 10918–10925 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Burke, C.J., Tobler, P.N., Baddeley, M. & Schultz, W. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 107, 14431–14436 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. O'Doherty, J.P. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. 14, 769–776 (2004).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Krajbich, I., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., Denburg, N.L. & Camerer, C.F. J. Neurosci. 29, 2188–2192 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Haidt, J. in Handbook of Affective Sciences (eds. R.J. Davidson, K.R. Scherer & H.H. Goldsmith) 852–870 (Oxford University Press, 2003).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Seymour, B., Singer, T. & Dolan, R. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 8, 300–311 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Spitzer, M., Fischbacher, U., Herrnberger, B., Grön, G. & Fehr, E. Neuron 56, 185–196 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Balleine, B.W., Delgado, M.R. & Hikosaka, O. J. Neurosci. 27, 8161–8165 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Tanaka, S.C. et al. Nat. Neurosci. 7, 887–893 (2004).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Miller, E.K. & Cohen, J.D. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 24, 167–202 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Knoch, D., Schneider, F., Schunk, D., Hohmann, M. & Fehr, E. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 106, 20895–20899 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Sanfey, A.G., Rilling, J.K., Aronson, J.A., Nystrom, L.E. & Cohen, J.D. Science 300, 1755–1758 (2003).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Gospic, K. et al. PLoS Biol. 9, e1001054 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Mikhail, J. Trends Cogn. Sci. 11, 143–152 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Bendor, J. & Swistak, P. Am. J. Sociol. 106, 1493–1545 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Marlowe, F.W. et al. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 278, 2159–2164 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Boyd, R., Gintis, H. & Bowles, S. Science 328, 617–620 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. Evol. Hum. Behav. 25, 63–87 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Darley, J. Morality in the law: the psychological foundations of citizens' desires to punish transgressions. Annu. Rev. Law Soc. Sci. 5, 1–23 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. LaFave, W. Criminal Law (West Group, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, 2003).

    Google Scholar 

  31. Shen, F.X., Hoffman, M.B., Jones, O.D., Greene, J.D. & Marois, R. New York Univ. Law Rev. 86, 1307–1360 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  32. Waytz, A. & Mitchell, J.P. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 20, 197–200 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Young, L., Camprodon, J.A., Hauser, M., Pascual-Leone, A. & Saxe, R. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 107, 6753–6758 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Heekeren, H.R. et al. Neuroimage 24, 887–897 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Feigenson, N. & Park, J. Law Hum. Behav. 30, 143–161 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Bright, D.A. & Goodman-Delahunty, J. Law Hum. Behav. 30, 183–202 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Buckner, R.L., Andrews-Hanna, J.R. & Schacter, D.L. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 1124, 1–38 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Duncan, J. Trends Cogn. Sci. 14, 172–179 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Dehaene, S., Spelke, E., Pinel, P., Stanescu, R. & Tsivkin, S. Science 284, 970–974 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Knoch, D., Pascual-Leone, A., Meyer, K., Treyer, V. & Fehr, E. Science 314, 829–832 (2006).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Buckholtz, J.W. et al. Neuron 60, 930–940 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Oswald, M.E., Orth, U., Aeberhard, M. & Schneider, E. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 35, 718–731 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Cushman, F. & Greene, J.D. Soc. Neurosci. doi:10.1080/17470919.2011.614000 (23 September 2011).

  44. Robinson, P.H., Kurzban, R. & Jones, O.D. Vanderbilt Law Rev. 60, 1634–1649 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  45. Henrich, J. et al. Science 327, 1480–1484 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Koenigs, M., Kruepke, M. & Newman, J.P. Neuropsychologia 48, 2198–2204 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Crockett, M.J., Clark, L., Lieberman, M.D., Tabibnia, G. & Robbins, T.W. Emotion 10, 855–862 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Reidl, K., Jensen, K., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. Int. J. Primatol. Abstr. 314 (2010).

  49. Rand, D.G., Dreber, A., Ellingsen, T., Fudenberg, D. & Nowak, M.A. Science 325, 1272–1275 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Pinker, S. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking Penguin, New York, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank K. Jan for literature research and O. Jones for comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience for support (KK9127 and KK1031).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Joshua W Buckholtz or René Marois.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Buckholtz, J., Marois, R. The roots of modern justice: cognitive and neural foundations of social norms and their enforcement. Nat Neurosci 15, 655–661 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3087

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3087

Further reading

Search

Quick links

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