Patient and impatient punishers of free-riders

Antonio M. Espín, Pablo Brañas-Garza, Benedikt Herrmann, Juan F. Gamella

Abstract

Costly punishment of cheaters who contribute little or nothing to a cooperating group has been extensively studied, as an effective means to enforce cooperation. The prevailing view is that individuals use punishment to retaliate against transgressions of moral standards such as fairness or equity. However, there is much debate regarding the psychological underpinnings of costly punishment. Some authors suggest that costly punishment must be a product of humans' capacity for reasoning, self-control and long-term planning, whereas others argue that it is the result of an impulsive, present-oriented emotional drive. Here, we explore the inter-temporal preferences of punishers in a multilateral cooperation game and show that both interpretations might be right, as we can identify two different types of punishment: punishment of free-riders by cooperators, which is predicted by patience (future orientation); and free-riders' punishment of other free-riders, which is predicted by impatience (present orientation). Therefore, the picture is more complex as punishment by free-riders probably comes not from a reaction against a moral transgression, but instead from a competitive, spiteful drive. Thus, punishment grounded on morals may be related to lasting or delayed psychological incentives, whereas punishment triggered by competitive desires may be linked to short-run aspirations. These results indicate that the individual's time horizon is relevant for the type of social behaviour she opts for. Integrating such differences in inter-temporal preferences and the social behaviour of agents might help to achieve a better understanding of how human cooperation and punishment behaviour has evolved.

  • Received August 30, 2012.
  • Accepted September 26, 2012.
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