Understanding and addressing cultural variation in costly antisocial punishment

Joanna J. Bryson, James Mitchell, Simon T. Powers, Karolina Sylwester

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter or section

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Altruistic punishment — punishment of those contributing little to the pubic good — has been proposed as an explanation for the extraordinary extent of human culture relative to other species. culture. Altruistic punishment is seen as supporting the high levels of altruism necessary for the cooperation underlying this culture, including information exchange. However, humans will also sometimes punish those who contribute to the public good, even when those contributions directly benefit the punisher. This behaviour — antisocial punishment — is negatively correlated with GDP, and as such may be seen as a hinderance to overall wellbeing. In this chapter, we pursue a better understanding of antisocial punishment in particular and costly punishment in general. We explore existing data showing cultural variation in the propensity to punish, and ask how such sanctioning, whether of those who give much or little, affects the individuals who conduct it. We hypothesise that costly punishment is a mechanism for regulating investment between different levels of society, for example whether an individual’s current focus should be on their nation, village, family or self. We suggest that people are less likely to antisocially punish those they consider to be “in group”, and that the propensity to apply this identity to strangers may vary with socio-economic-political context and resulting individual experience. In particular, an increased propensity to express antisocial punishment should correlate with a lower probability of benefiting from public goods, as may be the case where there is low rule of law. We show both analysis of behavioural economics experiments and evolutionary social simulations to support our hypotheses, and suggest implications for policy makers and other organisations that may wish to intervene to improve general economic wellbeing.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationApplied Evolutionary Anthropology
Subtitle of host publicationDarwinian Approaches to Contemporary World Issues
EditorsM. A. Gibson, D. W. Lawson
Place of PublicationLondon, U. K.
ISBN (Electronic)9781493902804
ISBN (Print)9781493902798
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Publication series

NameAdvances in the Evolutionary Analysis of Human Behaviour


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