Our society offers various forms of punishment in order to encourage cooperation. You pay a fine for speeding, get your wages garnished for not paying your taxes, or serve a prison sentence for breaking the law.
But is punishment really an effective strategy to keep peace within a community or society?
A new study conducted by an international team of researchers found that punishment can actually hinder cooperation rather than promote it.
The researchers, led by led by Marko Jusup from Hokkaido University in Japan and Zhen Wang from the Northwestern Polytechnical University in China, performed a social dilemma experiment to see what impact punishment has on cooperation.
The team used a version of the “prisoner’s dilemma” game. which is often cited in game theory, where people are rewarded if they cooperate, but will most likely not cooperate in an attempt to gain more in the end.
225 students in China were split into three groups and were asked to play 50 rounds of the game.
For the first group, one student played against two opponents, and these players changed every round. The players had the option of “cooperate” or “defect,” and points were awarded based on how the choices worked together.
If the opponents cooperated, the student playing against them gained zero points. If all three players cooperated, the student gained four points. The points resulted in monetary compensation at the end of the rounds.
For the second group, the players never changed, so the students in that group became familiar with their opponents’ gameplay and the rules of the game.
The third group was given the option of “punish” as well as defect and cooperate. If a player chose punish, the punishee lost points, and the punisher also lost points but far less than the punishee.
The group that played with the same players cooperated 38 percent more than the group that had constantly changing players.
It was thought that adding punishment as an option would also increase cooperation, but it did not.
“While the implied message when punishing someone is ‘I want you to be cooperative,’ the immediate effect is more consistent with the message ‘I want to hurt you,’” the researchers wrote in their study.
Punishment hindered gameplay and had a demoralizing effect, but then the researchers wondered why punishment persists in society today.
“It could be that human brains are hardwired to derive pleasure from punishing competitors,” said Jusup.
“However, it is more likely that, in real life, a dominant side has the ability to punish without provoking retaliation,” added Wang.
The study sheds light on cooperation and punishment, and could help reform future criminal justice policies.