Sociologists have long known that communes and other cooperative groups usually collapse into bickering and disband if they do not have clear methods of punishing members who become selfish or exploitative.
Now an experiment by a team of German economists has found one reason punishment is so important: Groups that allow it can be more profitable than those that do not.
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”The bottom line of the paper is that when you have people with shared standards, and some who have the moral courage to sanction others, informally, then this kind of society manages very successfully,” said the study’s senior author, Bettina Rockenbach, who was joined in the research by Bernd Irlenbusch, now at the London School of Economics, and Ozgur Gurek.
Switching groups frequently prompted remarkable behavioral changes in the students. Many of those who had been free riders in the laissez-faire group eagerly began penalizing other selfish players upon switching. Dr. Rockenbach compares these people to heavy smokers who are insistent on their right to light up, until they quit. ”Then they become the most militant of the antismokers,” she said.
Being exploited appeared to cause deep frustration and anger in most students, she said.
For the full story, see:
BENEDICT CAREY. “Study Links Punishment To an Ability To Profit.” The New York Times (Friday, April 7, 2006): A22.