An article recently published in Science reports on research demonstrating that while many people initially prefer participating in groups without the ability to punish or be punished by others, over time subjects migrate into a group allowing punishment. Or, as the authors — Özgür Gürerk, Bernd Irlenbusch, and Bettina Rockenbach — explain it in their abstract:
We show experimentally that a sanctioning institution is the undisputed winner in a competition with a sanction-free institution. Despite initial aversion, the entire population migrates successively to the sanctioning institution and strongly cooperates, whereas the sanction-free society becomes fully depopulated. The findings demonstrate the competitive advantage of sanctioning institutions and exemplify the emergence and manifestation of social order driven by institutional selection.
Haven’t had a chance to read the article yet, but clearly a trip to the library is in order. A New York Times article reports a reaction from Elinor Ostrom:
“I am very pleased to see this experiment being done and published so prominently,” Dr. Ostrom said, “because we still have many puzzles to solve when it comes to the effect of punishment on behavior.”
Dr. Ostrom has done fieldwork with cooperatives around the world and said she often asked other researchers and students whether they knew of any long-lasting communal group that did not employ a system of punishment. “No one can give me an example,” she said.
The Times also quotes Columbia sociologist Duncan Watts saying, “the mystery, if there is one, is how these institutions evolve in the first place … before it is apparent to anyone that they can resolve the problem of cooperation.”
But as was noted a few paragraphs above in the Times story, subjects who felt taken advantage of experienced “deep frustration and anger.” I suspect that feelings of deep frustration and anger could lead to sanctioning behavior without anyone having first thought through the institutional ramifications.
Erte Xiao, a PhD student at George Mason University and Research Affiliate, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), has been doing related reseach for her dissertation. For example, a paper by Erte and Daniel Houser, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that experimental subjects are more likely to resort to costly punishment strategies when they are prevented from directly expressing negative emotions.
The next research step may be to expand the group choices available to the subjects in the Gürerk, et al., research to include a setting in which no-cost verbal sanctioning is also possible in addition to costly economic sanctioning. Maybe verbal sanctions would be treated as cheap talk and ignored, or maybe they would be non-destructive tools to enhance cooperation.
Hat tip to Stephen Dubner at the Freakonomics blog.