Love or Fear: Can Punishment Promote Cooperation?


Abstract: Cooperation is a paradox: Why should one perform a costly behavior only to increase the fitness of another? Human societies, in which individuals cooperate with genetically unrelated individuals on a considerably larger scale than most mammals do, are especially puzzling in this regard. Recently, the threat of punishment has been given substantial attention as one of the mechanisms that could help sustain human cooperation in such situations. Nevertheless, using punishment to explain cooperation only leads to further questions: Why spend precious resources to penalize free-riders, especially if others can avoid this investment and cheaters can punish you back? Here, it is argued that current evidence supports punishment as an efficient means for the maintenance of cooperation, and that the gravity of proposed limitations of punishment for maintaining cooperation may have been overestimated in previous studies due to the features of experimental design. Most notably, the importance of factors as characteristic of human societies as reputation and language has been greatly neglected. Ironically, it was largely the combination of the two that enabled humans to shape costly punishment into numerous low-cost and less detrimental strategies that clearly can promote human cooperation.