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The Urge to Punish Cheats: Not Just Human, but Selfless
By NATALIE ANGIER
Over the last couple of weeks, as the Enron fiasco has played itself out
like a louche fusion of Shakespeare and the old "Dewey, Cheatum & Howe"
routine, Americans have been transfixed by the story, united in a nearly
seamless sense of outrage.
Regardless of whether any laws were broken in the spectacular collapse
of one of the nation's largest companies, citizens of all political
pipings have voiced disgust at accounts of top Enron executives selling
off their stock in time to enrich themselves handsomely, while ordinary
Enron employees were later forced to sit by in impotent desperation as
their retirement savings evaporated.
In the ferocity of the public outcry, and the demand from even those
with no personal stake in the Enron collapse that "justice" be done,
some scientists see a vivid example of humanity's evolved and
deep-seated hatred of the Cheat. The Cheat is the transgressor of fair
play, the violator of accepted norms, the sneak who smiles with Chiclet
teeth while ladling from the community till.
Human beings are elaborately, ineluctably social creatures, scientists
say, and are more willing than any other species to work for the common
good — to cooperate with nonkin and to help out strangers, sometimes at
great cost to oneself, as the death of hundreds of rescue workers at the
World Trade Center only too sadly showed.
Such a readiness to trust others, to behave civilly in a crowd, to share
and empathize, to play the occasional Samaritan — all the behaviors that
we laud and endorse and vow to cultivate more fully in ourselves — could
not have evolved without a corresponding readiness to catch, and to
punish, the Cheat.
Only recently have researchers realized that a willingness, even
eagerness, to punish transgressors of the social compact is at least as
important to the maintenance of social harmony as are regular displays
of common human decency. And while the punitive urge may seem like a
lowly and unsavory impulse, scientists point out that the effort to
penalize cheaters is very often a selfless act.
In an article titled "Altruistic Punishment in Humans," which appears in
the Jan. 10 issue of the journal Nature, Dr. Ernst Fehr of the
University of Zurich and Dr. Simon Gachter of the University of St.
Gallen in Switzerland offer evidence that people will seek to punish a
cheat even when the punishment is costly to them and offers no material
benefit — the very definition of altruism. The researchers propose that
the threat of such punishment may have been crucial to the evolution of
human civilization and all its concomitant achievements.
"It's a very important force for establishing large-scale cooperation,"
Dr. Fehr said in a telephone interview. "Every citizen is a little
policeman in a sense. There are so many social norms that we follow
almost unconsciously, and they are enforced by the moral outrage we
expect if we were to violate them."
Dr. David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State
University of New York at Binghamton, said, "People are used to thinking
of social control and moralistic aggression as forms of selfishness, and
that you must be punishing someone for your own benefit. But if you look
at the sort of punishment that promotes altruistic behavior, you see
that it is itself a form of altruism."
In their new work, Dr. Fehr and Dr. Gachter put 240 students through a
series of "public goods" experiments with real monetary stakes, always a
good incentive for cash- strapped young scholars.
Each participant was given an initial lump sum of 20 "monetary units"
and allowed to play a series of games with rotating groups of three
other participants. By the rules of the game, the members of each group
independently decided how much of their sum to contribute to a community
project, which in turn determined how much would be divvied up to
participants in the end. The more generous each contributor, the better
the group did as a whole, but there was always the risk of a
participant's trying to freeload off the contributions of others.
From one round to the next, students were kept apprised of the
investment decisions by others in their group. In some cases, there was
nothing they could do about their teammates' behavior. In other cases,
though, participants were allowed to "punish" freeloaders and skinflints
after the round was through: one monetary unit from them would cost the
shirker three monetary units. Hence, cooperators had to pay out of their
own pocket to express their disgust at another's selfish behavior.
The outcome of the study was striking on two fronts. One was the
popularity of punishment when it was permitted: 84 percent punished
defectors at least once, 34.3 percent took punitive action five times or
more and almost 10 percent punished the stingy 10 times or more. And all
this, remember, involved the doling out of mad money from people who
really needed it.
The second significant result was that when the game was carried out
under no-punishment conditions, cooperation among group members quickly
broke down, and participants contributed progressively less to the
public kitty as the rounds went on. But when the opportunity to punish
and be punished was applied, individual contributions to the collective
fund jumped sharply, and cooperation among group members grew stronger
rather than weaker from round to round.
The researchers also asked participants to describe their feelings
toward free-riders on a seven-point scale, from "no big deal" to "very
angry," and about 84 percent ranked themselves a five or higher. A sense
of emotional outrage is very easily evoked, said Dr. Fehr, and sometimes
it feels almost good to indulge and stoke it.
Perhaps part of the reason it feels good to rail against the sinner is
that not to do so seems irresponsible, if not cowardly. "Once you think
of punishment as a form of altruism, then the kind of person who doesn't
punish emerges as a kind of freeloader too," said Dr. Wilson, author
with Dr. Elliott Sober of "Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of
The emotional palette behind the effectiveness of social control is a
rich one, composed not only of a sharp sense of moral indignation and a
fear of being punished, but embarrassment and shame when one violates
Dr. Wilson said that when he and his children, nonbowlers all, recently
went bowling, they were mortified when others gently scolded them for
failing to observe common bowling etiquette, like taking turns with
bowlers in neighboring lanes. "My ears were burning with shame, and we
fled as soon as we could," he said.
And sometimes the severity of the emotion far outstrips that of the
transgression. Dr. Fehr cited a case during the oil crisis of the 1970's
that led to long waits at gas stations, when one motorist shot another
to death for attempting to butt into line. Some of the most odious of
human behaviors, including torture, public stonings and lynchings, may
all be examples of the meting out of altruistic punishment run amok.
The drive to punish selfish transgressors seems to be a basic human
predilection. Paradoxically, it stems from something normally associated
with rosy-eyed utopianism: according to most anthropological evidence,
traditional hunter-gatherer societies have always been highly
In such cultures, there are no kings or commanders, and the bounty of a
good hunt or forage is generally shared with the entire community. If
one person doesn't like or trust another, the person may walk away, or
articulate that distrust with the tip of a spear.
"Hunter-gatherer societies are scrupulously egalitarian, but not
harmoniously so," said Dr. Herbert Gintis of the University of
Massachusetts, a co-author on a commentary that appears with the current
Nature research report. "They're violently egalitarian."
Despite its antiquity, the strength and expression of the urge to
scourge is clearly shaped by culture. Anthropological studies by Dr.
Fehr, Dr. Gintis and others have shown considerable cross-cultural
variation in the ardor with which people seek to punish shifty
noncooperators. As a rule, said Dr. Fehr, the more closely a society's
economy is based on market rather than kinship ties, the more prevalent
the use of altruistic punishment to bring others into line.
In other words, the more likely a person is to be negotiating with
nonrelatives, and hence the higher the chances that selfish freeloaders
will seek to infiltrate the system, the more important it becomes that
everybody play by the rules. Or else.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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