Conditional Punishment: Descriptive Social Norms Drive Negative Reciprocity

72 Pages Posted: 4 May 2020 Last revised: 21 May 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; Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics (CeDEx) - University of Nottingham

Date Written: May 14, 2020

Abstract

Peer punishment is widely considered a key mechanism supporting cooperation in human groups. Although much research shows that human behaviour is shaped by the prevailing social norms, little is known about how punishment decisions are impacted by the social context. Here we show that people’s willingness to punish free riders strongly depends on descriptive social norms of cooperation and punishment. Participants in a large-scale experiment (N=999) could punish their partner conditional on the level of cooperation or the level of punishment displayed by others who previously interacted in the same setting. We find that many people punish free riding more severely when cooperation is more common ('norm enforcement'), and when free riding is more severely punished by others ('conformist punishment'). With a dynamic model we demonstrate that these 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, Conditional Punishment: Descriptive Social Norms Drive Negative Reciprocity (May 14, 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

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

University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD
United Kingdom

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