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

Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol. 42, No. 5, pp. 469-479, September 2021

71 Pages Posted: 4 May 2020 Last revised: 4 Mar 2022

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

University of Essex - Department of Economics

Date Written: September 1, 2021

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 (September 1, 2021). Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol. 42, No. 5, pp. 469-479, September 2021, 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)

University of Essex - Department of Economics ( email )

Wivenhoe Park
Colchester CO4 3SQ
United Kingdom

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