Journal of Bioeconomics

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 269–279 | Cite as

Adaptationist punishment in humans

  • Robert KurzbanEmail author
  • Peter DeScioli


Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, George Williams, and Stephen J. Gould, among others, have pointed out that observing that a certain behavior causes a certain effect does not itself license the inference that the effect was the result of intent or design to bring about that effect. Compliance with duty might not reflect the action of conscience, gains in trade might not be due to the benevolence of traders, and fox paws might not be designed to make tracks in snow. Similarly, when person A inflicts costs on person B and, in so doing, generates benefits to C, D, and E (or the group to which A through E belong, in aggregate), the inference that A’s imposition of costs on B is by virtue of intent or design to bring about these welfare gains is not logically licensed. In short, labeling punishment “altruistic” because it has the effect of benefitting some individuals is inconsistent with key ideas in philosophy, economics, and biology. Understanding the ultimate cause and proximate design of the mechanisms that cause people to punish is likely to be important for understanding how punishment can help solve collective action problems.


Punishment Cooperation Collective action emotions Evolution Adaptationism 


  1. Anderson, C. M., & Putterman, L. (2006). Do non-strategic sanctions obey the law of demand? The demand for punishment in the voluntary contribution mechanism. Games and Economic Behavior, 54(1), 1–24.Google Scholar
  2. Andreoni, J. (1995). Cooperation in public goods experiments: Kindness or confusion? American Economic Review, 85, 891–904.Google Scholar
  3. Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social-psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  4. Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N., Lishner, D. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). Empathy and altruism. In C. R. Snyder & S. L. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 485–498). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bernhard, H., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2006). Parochial altruism in humans. Nature, 442(24), 912–915.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bolton, G. E., & Zwick, R. (1995). Anonymity versus punishment in ultimatum bargaining. Games and Economic Behavior, 10, 95–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bramble, D. M., & Lieberman, D. E. (2004). Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature, 432, 345–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Burnham, T., & Johnson, D. D. P. (2005). The evolutionary and biological logic of human cooperation. Analyse & Kritik (Special issue on Ernst Fehr), 27(1), 113–135.Google Scholar
  9. Carpenter, J., & Matthews, P. (2012). Norm enforcement: Anger, indignation, or reciprocity. Journal of the European Economic Association, 10(3), 555–572.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cinyabuguma, M., Page, T., & Putterman, L. (2006). Can second-order punishment deter perverse punishment? Experimental Economics, 9, 265–279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cubitt, R. P., Drouvelis, M., & Gächter, S. (2011). Framing and free riding: emotional responses and punishment in social dilemma games. Experimental Economics, 14(2), 254–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. de Quervain, D., Fischbacher, U., Treyer, V., Schellhammer, M., Schnyder, U., Buck, A., et al. (2004). The neural basis of altruistic punishment. Science, 305, 1254–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dreber, A., Rand, D. G., Fudenberg, D., & Nowak, M. A. (2008). Winners don’t punish. Nature, 452, 348–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Falk, A., Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2005). Driving forces behind informal sanctions. Econometrica, 7, 2017–2030.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2004). Third-party punishment and social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25, 63–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fehr, E., Fischbacher, U., & Gächter, S. (2002). Strong reciprocity, human cooperation and the enforcement of social norms. Human Nature, 13, 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fehr, E., & Gächter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415, 137–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gächter, S., & Herrmann, B. (2009). Reciprocity, culture and human cooperation: Previous insights and a new cross-cultural experiment. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1518), 791–806.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gächter, S., Renner, E., & Sefton, M. (2008). The long-run benefits of punishment. Science, 322(5907), 1510–1510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hagen, E. H., & Hammerstein, P. (2006). Game theory and human evolution: A critique of some recent interpretations of experimental games. Theoretical Population Biology, 69, 339–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Halloran, M. A., & Walker, J. M. (2004). Rewards and sanctions and the provision of public goods in one-shot settings. Experimental Economics, 7, 235–247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behaviour, I & II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 1–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Henrich, J., McElreath, R., Barr, A., Ensminger, J., Barrett, C., Bolyanataz, A., et al. (2006). Costly punishment across human societies. Science, 312, 1767–1770.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hermann, B., Thöni, C., & Gächter, S. (2008). Antisocial punishment across societies. Science, 319, 1362–1367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kurzban, R., & Houser, D. (2001). Individual differences and cooperation in a circular public goods game. European Journal of Personality, 15, S37–S52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kurzban, R., DeScioli, P., & O’Brien, E. (2007). Audience effects on moralistic punishment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28, 75–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kurzban, R., McCabe, K., Smith, V. L., & Wilson, B. J. (2001). Incremental commitment and reciprocity in a real time public goods game. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1662–1673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lieberman, D., & Linke, L. (2007). The effect of social category on third party punishment. Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 289–305.Google Scholar
  29. Marlowe, F. W., Berbesque, J. C., Barr, A., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., Cardenas, J. C., Ensminger, J., Gurven, M., Gwako, E., Henrich, J., Henrich, N., Lesorogol, C., McElreath, R., & Tracer, D. (2008). More ‘altruistic’ punishment in larger societies. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology, 275, 587–590.Google Scholar
  30. McCullough, M. (2008). Beyond revenge: The evolution of the forgiveness instinct. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  31. McCullough, M. E., Kurzban, R., & Tabak, B. A. (2013a). Cognitive systems for revenge and forgiveness. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 36, 1–15.Google Scholar
  32. McCullough, M. E., Kurzban, R., & Tabak, B. A. (2013b). Revenge, forgiveness, and evolution. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Understanding and reducing aggression, violence, and their consequences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  33. Nikiforakis, N., & Normann, H. T. (2008). A comparative statics analysis of punishment in public-good experiments. Experimental Economics, 11, 358–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. O’Gorman, R., Henrich, J., & Van Vugt, M. (2008). Constraining free-riding in public goods games: Designated solitary punishers can sustain human cooperation. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 276, 323–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ostrom, E., Walker, J., & Gardner, R. (1992). Covenants with and without a sword: Self-governance is possible. American Political Science Review, 86, 404–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Piazza, J., & Bering, J. M. (2008). The effects of perceived anonymity on altruistic punishment. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 487–501.Google Scholar
  37. Peacock, M. S. (2007). The conceptual construction of altruism: Ernst Fehr’s experimental approach to human conduct. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 37, 3–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  39. Price, M. E., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2002). Punitive sentiment as an anti-free rider psychological device. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23, 203–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Smith, A. (1776). Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan and T. Cadel.Google Scholar
  41. Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). Psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 19–136). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. West, S. A., Griffin, A. S., & Gardner, A. (2007). Social semantics: altruism, cooperation, mutualism, strong reciprocity and group selection. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 20, 415–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. West, S. A., Mouden, C. E., & Gardner, A. (2011). Sixteen common misconceptions about the evolution of cooperation in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 231–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Williams, G. C. (1966). Adaptation and natural selection: A critique of some current evolutionary thought. Princeton: Princeton Press.Google Scholar
  45. Toshio, Y. (1986). The provision of a sanctioning system as a public good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 110–116.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1. University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.The University of Alaska AnchorageAnchorageUSA
  3. 3.Stony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA

Personalised recommendations