Do Descriptive Social Norms Drive Peer Punishment? Conditional Punishment Strategies and Their Impact on Cooperation

71 Pages Posted: 4 May 2020 Last revised: 21 Oct 2020

See all articles by Xueheng Li

Xueheng Li

Economics Experimental Lab, Nanjing Audit University

Lucas Molleman

University of Amsterdam - Department of Psychology

Dennie van Dolder

VU Amsterdam - School of Business and Economics; Tinbergen Institute; Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics (CeDEx) - University of Nottingham

Date Written: October 20, 2020

Abstract

Peer punishment is widely considered a key mechanism supporting cooperation in human groups. Although much research shows that human behavior is shaped by the prevailing social norms, little is known about how punishment decisions are impacted by the social context. We present a set of large-scale incentivized experiments in which participants (N=999) could punish their partner conditional on either the level of cooperation or the level of punishment displayed by others who previously interacted in the same setting. While many participants punish independently of levels of cooperation or punishment, a substantial portion punishes free riding more severely when cooperation is more common (‘norm enforcement’), or when free riding is more severely punished by others (‘conformist punishment’). With a dynamic model we demonstrate that conditional punishment strategies can substantially promote cooperation. In particular, conformist punishment helps cooperation to gain a foothold in a population, and norm enforcement helps to maintain cooperation at high levels. Our results provide solid empirical evidence of conditional punishment strategies and illustrate their possible implications for the dynamics of human cooperation.

Keywords: cooperation; peer punishment; decision-making experiment; sanctioning; online experiment; conditional strategies

JEL Classification: C72, C73, D03

Suggested Citation

Li, Xueheng and Molleman, Lucas and van Dolder, Dennie, Do Descriptive Social Norms Drive Peer Punishment? Conditional Punishment Strategies and Their Impact on Cooperation (October 20, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3571220 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3571220

Xueheng Li

Economics Experimental Lab, Nanjing Audit University ( email )

86 Yushan W Rd
Pukou, Jiangsu 210017
China

Lucas Molleman

University of Amsterdam - Department of Psychology ( email )

Roetersstraat 15
Amsterdam, 1018 WB
Netherlands

Dennie Van Dolder (Contact Author)

VU Amsterdam - School of Business and Economics ( email )

De Boelelaan 1105
Amsterdam, 1081HV
Netherlands

Tinbergen Institute ( email )

Burg. Oudlaan 50
Rotterdam, 3062 PA
Netherlands

Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics (CeDEx) - University of Nottingham ( email )

University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD
United Kingdom

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