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Why Do We Punish Others?

Reasons for punishment are more complex than originally assumed.

Key points

  • Punishment involves carrying out a costly action to harm another person.
  • One reason for punishment is the wish to change people’s behavior and make them more cooperative.
  • However, research shows that punishment doesn’t always increase cooperation; it often leads to disproportionate retaliation.
  • The reasons why people punish others are likely to be more complex than initially thought, and may also be driven by a motivation of fairness.
Monstera / Pexels
Monstera / Pexels

The other day, I tried to discipline my two-year-old daughter for snatching a toy from a friend. I confiscated the toy and explained the value of sharing.

As a result, she threw a mad tantrum involving a disproportionate amount of screaming, crying and foot-stomping. Her outburst might have been funny if I hadn’t been surrounded by other parents, who were all too clearly judging my inability to control a toddler.

That's when I realised how easy it would have been to avoid this awkward outcome. Instead of punishing my daughter and telling her off, I could have distracted her with an even better toy, while returning the snatched item to its rightful owner. My daughter likely would have rejoiced in her new toy, her friend would have enjoyed the returned item and I’d have avoided public embarrassment. A win-win-win situation.

So why did I choose the difficult option of punishment?

What is Punishment?

Punishment can be defined as “paying a cost to harm others.” This means that the punisher invests some time, effort or resources in order to inflict harm on another person. In the scenario above, I took on the role of punisher and paid the cost of public embarrassment. My daughter, on the other hand, experienced "harm" by being denied the toy she wanted.

Influential research by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter suggests that punishment is an important tool in human society, which evolved to promote and sustain cooperation amongst human decision-makers and communities. Their laboratory experiment involved a so-called public goods game, where participants could choose to contribute money to a joint group project.

All financial investments increased the value of the project and resulted in a group payout that was shared equally among its members, independent of whether or not they had made a personal contribution. Given that it was costly to make such a financial contribution, all participants had a strong incentive to “free ride” by relying on others to make investments and simply reaping the benefits of the joint outcome.

Indeed, many participants selfishly used free-riding strategies, likely hoping that others would be more generous. However, people’s behaviour changed dramatically when the researchers modified the original decision context. Fehr and Gächter cleverly designed a new version of the game, where people could pay a small financial cost to punish other decision-makers who had behaved selfishly in previous rounds.

The results were astounding. People were happy to make a personal sacrifice and pay some money to harm those they considered cheaters. Overall, cooperation levels increased significantly, meaning that contributions to the group project soared. This was even the case for people who didn’t receive a punishment, suggesting that the mere anticipation of potential punishment helped to promote more generous behaviour.

How Effective Is Punishment?

The research summarised above suggests that punishment is an efficient tool for changing selfish behaviour and sustaining a more cooperative environment. But is this really always the case? My personal experience suggests that punishment can easily backfire. Disciplining a toddler can send them into a rage and trigger disproportionate acts of defiance.

Unfortunately, incidents of retaliation aren’t limited to children. An example from global politics includes Putin’s reaction to the economic sanctions put in place to punish Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead of prompting Putin to cooperate, the sanctions had the opposite effect. They prompted vengeful acts including the curbing of gas exports and closing Russia’s airspace to international travel.

Experimental research confirms the anecdotal evidence from real-life examples. A laboratory study, using a similar task as Fehr and Gächter’s public goods game, showed that many people previously punished for selfish choices made enthusiastic use of “counter-punishment” strategies to get back at their original punishers.

What’s the Point of Punishment?

So what’s the point of punishment if it doesn’t (always) lead to the desired behaviour change in selfish cheaters? Research by psychologist Nichola Raihani suggests that motives for punishment are a lot more complex than initially assumed.

In another lab experiment involving a financial decision-making task, Raihani tested which circumstances resulted in the highest levels of punishment. As expected, people were more likely to punish those who cheated compared to those who didn’t cheat in the task.

Rather surprisingly, however, punishment levels also depended on the overall financial outcomes of those involved in the experiment. More specifically, people were most likely to punish cheaters if their behaviours resulted in unequal payoffs and gave them an unfair advantage over non-cheaters.

These findings demonstrate that punishment can sometimes be driven by people’s inherent dislike of inequality. It seems like we tend to harm those who are enjoying larger, undeserved benefits compared to others, with the overall aim to restore a sense of fairness.

What is your personal experience of punishment? Do you (like myself) feel frustrated by the frequent lack of success when trying to discipline your children, pets, or perhaps your significant other? It might be worth remembering that punishment won’t always result in positive behaviour change. But perhaps this doesn’t matter if it helps to promote overall levels of fairness.

More from Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.
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