How To Be Bad Together: Antisocial Punishment of Pro-social Cooperators

Completely unexpected—and hence potentially interesting—was my reaction to the scientific news in Simon Gächter and Benedikt Herrmann’s compelling paper entitled “Reciprocity, culture and human cooperation: previous insights and a new cross-cultural experiment” in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

The authors were dealing with a classical question in social science, that is, the “Tragedy of the Commons,” or the conflict between individual interest and collective interest in dealing with common resources. This is a well established conundrum in contemporary behavioral economics and evolutionary sociobiology that is usually solved by (now) classical experimental results about cooperation, trust and altruistic punishment.

There is a vast literature showing how direct and indirect reciprocity are important tools for dealing with human cooperation. Many experiments have shown that people use “altruistic punishment” to sustain cooperation, that is, they are willing to pay without receiving anything back just in order to sanction those who don’t cooperate, and hence promote pro-social behavior.

Yet, Gächter and Herrmann showed in their surprising paper that in some cultures, when people were tested in cooperative games (such as the “public good game”), the people who cooperated were punished, rather than the free-riders.

In some societies, people prefer to act anti-socially and they take actions to make sure that the others do the same! This means that cooperation in societies is not always for the good: you can find cartels of anti-social people who don’t care at all for the common good and prefer to cooperate for keeping a status quo that suits them even if the collective outcome is a mediocre result.

As an Italian with first-hand experience living in a country where, if you behave well, you are socially and legally sanctioned, this news was exciting, even inspiring … perhaps cooperation is not an inherent virtue of the human species. Perhaps, in many circumstances, we prefer to stay with those who share our selfishness and weaknesses and to avoid pro-social altruistic individuals. Perhaps it's not abnormal to live outside a circle of empathy.

So what’s the scientific “news that stays news”: Cooperation for the collective worse is as widespread as cooperation for a better society!