Home > News and media > News > News archive > 2006 > Why disapproval can be good for society


Why disapproval can be good for society

Page Contents >

People should be encouraged to express disapproval of the behaviour of others if this behaviour is not in the common interest, says a new study looking at the way people react to sanctions.

In an experiment with volunteers at the University of Erfurt in Erfurt, Germany, researchers found that people preferred to be in a group which was able to sanction others and create a co-operative culture, rather than stay in a group with 'free-loaders' and no sanctions to punish them.

The paper, The Competitive Advantage of Sanctioning Institutions, is published in the Friday 7 April issue of the journal Science by Bernd Irlenbusch| of LSE's Interdisciplinary Institute of Management, and co-authors Özgür Gürerk and Bettina Rockenbach of the University of Erfurt, Germany.

Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the nonprofit science society.

Dr Irlenbusch said: 'Human society is full of examples in which individuals cooperate, often at some cost, to benefit a larger group, like blood donations, recycling programmes, team work, management of a common property, collective hunting, valour of individuals in combat, and international treaties. A deeper understanding of the circumstances of human cooperation is of great interest given that some of the world's most pressing issues, such as global climate change, may require people to act in the best interest of the entire world population.'

The researchers repeatedly asked 84 students either to join a virtual group that does not punish freeloaders or a group that is nearly identical but allows members to punish freeloaders.

Players could choose to contribute money to a group project or deposit the money in a private account. All contributions to the group project were increased by about two thirds and divided equally among all players, regardless of their contributions.
After the players made their contributions and learned of the contributions of others, those in the punishing group had the option to punish non-cooperating group members. Punishing another person reduced the payoff of the punisher by one unit and the person being punished by three units.

At the end of the punishing period, all participants from both groups received detailed but anonymous payoff information about each of the other members of both groups. At this point in the game, people could choose to stay in their own group for the next round, or switch to the other group.

At the start of the first round of the game, two thirds of the study participants chose the punishment-free group.

In the sanction-free group the co-operators, who were not equipped with any means to enhance cooperation, were exploited by freeloaders. In consequence over time they migrated to the sanctioning group.

Cooperation broke down in the sanction-free group and even freeloaders switched to the sanctioning group. Interestingly, previous freeloaders, who entered the sanctioning group, fully cooperated because they feared the threat of punishment - and also immediately adopted the prevailing behavioural pattern to punish other freeloaders.

Within the sanctioning group, a culture of cooperation was established and even strengthened as streams of outsiders from a non-cooperative environment joined and quickly adopted their cooperative behaviour, the scientists found.

When the game ended almost the whole population joined the sanctioning group and cooperated fully. So, an initial minority of co-operators and punishers succeeded in establishing a cooperative culture even though the sanctioning group was constantly invaded by previously uncooperative subjects. In the end, exerting punishment was no longer necessary and the threat alone sufficed to keep up cooperation.

By forcing sanctioning and non-sanctioning institutions to compete head-to-head in an experimental setting, the authors also present empirical support for the idea that institutions with built-in sanctioning mechanisms can establish norms of cooperation and out-compete institutions lacking mechanisms for punishing freeloaders.

Irlenbusch added: 'In our view, the experiment does not suggest that our society needs more monitoring or additional punishment possibilities. However, people should be encouraged to express disapproval of the behaviour of others, if this behaviour is not in the common interest, instead of turning away with the excuse 'It's nothing to do with me.'



The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science, see www.sciencemag.org| . AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org|) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org|, the premier science news Web site, a service of AAAS.

Press cuttings

Vancouver Province, Canada
Social sanctions shore up solidarity (9 Apr 06)
Comments from Bernd Irlenbusch, LSE, on the use of work sanctions. 

People agree freeloaders must be punished: study (6 Apr 06)
People's ideas of a happy, cooperative society in which no one gets punished fall apart as soon as a few freeloaders show up, researchers reported on Thursday. Although most volunteers in a study first chose to join a group that did not use punishment, most eventually left for a group that fined transgressors, the team at the University of Erfurt in Germany and LSE found. Also mentioned in MSNBC.

People prefer belonging to groups in which members can punish freeloaders (6 Apr 06)
Bernd Irlenbusch from LSE, quoted.

Also mentioned in ABC Science Online, Australia, and New York Times.

7 April 2006