People prefer coordinated punishment in cooperative interactions

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Human groups can often maintain high levels of cooperation despite the threat of exploitation by individuals who reap the benefits of cooperation without contributing to its costs1,2,3,4. Prominent theoretical models suggest that cooperation is particularly likely to thrive if people join forces to curb free riding and punish their non-contributing peers in a coordinated fashion5. However, it is unclear whether and, if so, how people actually condition their punishment of peers on punishment behaviour by others. Here we provide direct evidence that many people prefer coordinated punishment. With two large-scale decision-making experiments (total n= 4,320), we create minimal and controlled conditions to examine preferences for conditional punishment and cleanly identify how the punishment decisions of individuals are impacted by the punishment behaviour by others. We find that the most frequent preference is to punish a peer only if another (third) individual does so as well. Coordinated punishment is particularly common among participants who shy away from initiating punishment. With an additional experiment we further show that preferences for conditional punishment are unrelated to well-studied preferences for conditional cooperation. Our results highlight the importance of conditional preferences in both positive and negative reciprocity, and they provide strong empirical support for theories that explain cooperation based on coordinated punishment.

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Fig. 1: Experimental sequence.
Fig. 2: Distribution of punishment types by decision in unconditional punishment stage.
Fig. 3: Anger levels per punishment type.
Fig. 4: The (lack of) correlation between individuals’ preferences for conditional cooperation and conditional punishment.

Data availability

All data underlying the results reported in our manuscript can be found on Github at

Code availability

The LIONESS code for the online experiment is available upon request from the corresponding authors. Analysis code for STATA can be found on Github at


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We thank B. Beranek, P. van den Berg, J. Schulz, T. Weber and O. Weisel for insightful comments and useful discussions. This work was supported by the European Research Council (grant number ERC-AdG 295707 COOPERATION), the Economic and Social Research Council (grant numbers ES/K002201/1 and ES/P008976/1), the University of Nottingham School of Economics and the Centre of Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin. L.M. was further supported by the Open Research Area grant ASTA (grant number 176) and the Amsterdam Brain and Cognition Project Grant 2018. The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

L.M., F.K., C.S. and S.G. designed the study, L.M. and F.K. collected and analysed the data. L.M., F.K., C.S. and S.G. wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Lucas Molleman or Felix Kölle.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–4, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary References.

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