Asymmetries in punishment propensity may drive the civilizing process

  • Nature Human Behaviourvolume 2pages148155 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0278-z
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Norms about hygiene and violence have both shown a tendency to become increasingly strict, in the sense that the handling of bodily fluids and the use of violence have become increasingly restricted. The generality of this directional change across a large number of societies has not been captured by previous explanations. We propose an explanation of the directional change that is based on the aggregation of everyday interactions. This theory posits that directional norm change can come about if there is an asymmetry in punishment propensity between the people who prefer stricter norms and those who prefer looser norms. Asymmetry in punishment can arise from underlying asymmetry in the threat perceived, where a stricter-than-preferred behaviour is perceived as inherently less threatening than a looser one. We demonstrate the logic of the theory using a formal model and test some of its assumptions through survey experiments.

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This research was supported by Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation grant 2016.0167 and 2015.0005 and the Professor Roy Weir Career Development Fellowship. No funder had any role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Institute for Future Studies, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Pontus Strimling
  2. Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Pontus Strimling
    • , Mícheál de Barra
    •  & Kimmo Eriksson
  3. Institute of Applied Health Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK

    • Mícheál de Barra
  4. School of Education, Culture and Communication, Mälardalen University, Mälardalen, Sweden

    • Kimmo Eriksson


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M.d.B. and P.S. designed the study and collected the data. All authors analysed the data. P.S. and K.E. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pontus Strimling.

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