Human Nature

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 410–446 | Cite as

God’s punishment and public goods

A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures
  • Dominic D. P. Johnson


Cooperation towards public goods relies on credible threats of punishment to deter cheats. However, punishing is costly, so it remains unclear who incurred the costs of enforcement in our evolutionary past. Theoretical work suggests that human cooperation may be promoted if people believe in supernatural punishment for moral transgressions. This theory is supported by new work in cognitive psychology and by anecdotal ethnographic evidence, but formal quantitative tests remain to be done. Using data from 186 societies around the globe, I test whether the likelihood of supernatural punishment—indexed by the importance of moralizing “high gods”—is associated with cooperation.

Key words

Cooperation Evolution of cooperation Gods High gods Intentionality system Religion Sanctions Standard Cross-Cultural Sample Supernatural punishment World cultures 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Alexander, R. D. 1987 The Biology of Moral Systems. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine.Google Scholar
  2. Bering, J. M. 2002 The Existential Theory of Mind. Review of General Psychology 6:3–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2004 The Evolutionary History of an Illusion: Religious Causal Beliefs in Children and Adults. In Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development, B. Ellis and D. Bjorklund, eds. Pp. 411–437. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  4. in press The Folk Psychology of Souls.Google Scholar
  5. Bering, J. M., and D. F. Bjorklund 2004 The Natural Emergence of Reasoning about the Afterlife as a Developmental Regularity. Developmental Psychology 40:217–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bering, J. M., and D. D. P. Johnson 2005 “Oh Lord, You Hear My Thoughts from Afar”: Recursiveness in the Cognitive Evolution of Supernatural Agency. Journal of Cognition and Culture 5:118–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bering, J. M., and T. Shackelford 2004 The Causal Role of Consciousness: A Conceptual Addendum to Human Evolutionary Psychology. Review of General Psychology 8:227–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bering, Jesse M., Katrina McLeod, and Todd K. Shackelford 2005 Reasoning about Dead Agents Reveals Possible Adaptive Trends. Human Nature 16:360–381.Google Scholar
  9. Boyd, R., H. Gintis, S. Bowles, and P. J. Richerson 2003 The Evolution of Altruistic Punishment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100:3531–3535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Burnham, T. 2001 Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food, Taming Our Primal Instincts. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  11. Burnham, T., and D. D. P. Johnson 2005 The Biological and Evolutionary Logic of Human Cooperation. Analyse & Kritik 27, in press.Google Scholar
  12. Clutton-Brock, T. H., and G. A. Parker 1995 Punishment in Animal Societies. Nature 373:209–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Coward, H. 2003 Sin and Salvation in the World Religions: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld.Google Scholar
  14. Cronk, L. 1994 Evolutionary Theories of Morality and the Manipulative Use of Signals. Zygon 4:117–135.Google Scholar
  15. Davidson, R. J., K. M. Putnam, and C. L. Larson 2000 Dysfunction in the Neural Circuitry of Emotion Regulation: A Possible Prelude to Violence. Science 289:591–594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dawkins, R. 1986 The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. de Quervain, D. J.-F., U. Fischbacher, V. Treyer, M. Schellhammer, U. Schnyder, A. Buck, and E. Fehr 2004 The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment. Science 305:1254–1258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. de Waal, F. B. 1996 Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Divale, W. 2000 Pre-Coded Variables for the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, Vols. 1 and 2. New York: York College, CUNY.Google Scholar
  20. Ember, C. R., and M. Ember 1992 Codebook for “Warfare, Aggression, and Resource Problems: Cross-Cultural Codes.” Behavior Science Research 26:169–186.Google Scholar
  21. 1998 Cross-Cultural Research. In Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, H. R. Bernard, ed. Pp. 647–687. Walnut Creek, California: AltaMira.Google Scholar
  22. Fehr, E., and U. Fischbacher 2003 The Nature of Human Altruism. Nature 425:785–791.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fehr, E., and S. Gächter 2000 Cooperation and Punishment in Public Goods Experiments. American Economic Review 90:980–994.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 2002 Altruistic Punishment in Humans. Nature 415:137–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 2003 Reply to Johnson et al. Nature 421:912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Frank, R. H. 1988 Passions within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  27. Frayser, S. G. 1985 Varieties of Sexual Experience. Pittsburgh: HRAF Press.Google Scholar
  28. Goldstein, M. A. 2002 The Biological Roots of Heat-of-Passion Crimes and Honor Killings. Politics and the Life Sciences 21:28–37.Google Scholar
  29. Heckathorn, D. D. 1989 Collective Action and the Second-Order Free Rider Problem. Rational Society 1:78–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hamilton, W. D. 1964 The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior, I and II. Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Henrich, J., and R. Boyd 2001 Why People Punish Defectors: Weak Conformist Transmission Can Stabilize Costly Enforcement of Norms in Cooperative Dilemmas. Journal of Theoretical Biology 208:79–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Henrich, J., R. Boyd, S. Bowles, C. Camerer, E. Fehr, and H. Gintis, eds. 2004 Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Hultkrantz, A. 1967 The Religions of the American Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  34. Irons, W. 2001 Religion as a Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment. In Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment, R. Nesse, ed. Pp. 292–309. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  35. Johnson, D. D. P., and J. M. Bering in prep. Hand of God, Mind of Man: Punishment and Cognition in the Evolution of Cooperation.Google Scholar
  36. Johnson, D. D. P., and O. Kruger 2004 The Good of Wrath: Supernatural Punishment and the Evolution of Cooperation. Political Theology 5(2):159–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Johnson, D., P. Stopka, and S. Knights 2003 The Puzzle of Human Cooperation. Nature 421:911–912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kagel, J. H., and A. E. Roth, eds. 1995 The Handbook of Experimental Economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Krebs, J. R., and N. B. Davies 1993 An Introduction to Behavioral Ecology. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific.Google Scholar
  40. Lagace, R. O. 1979 The HRAF Probability Sample. Behavior Science Research 14:211–229.Google Scholar
  41. Lang, H. 1998 CONAN: An Electronic Code-Text Data-Base for Cross-Cultural Studies. World Cultures 9:13–56.Google Scholar
  42. Malinowski, B. 1935 The Foundations of Faith and Morals: An Anthropological Analysis of Primitive Beliefs and Conduct with Special Reference to the Fundamental Problem of Religion and Ethics. London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  43. McClure, S. M., D. I. Laibson, G. Loewenstein, and J. D. Cohen 2004 Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards. Science 306:503–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Murdock, G. P. 1962–1971 (Various articles in various issues.) Ethnology.Google Scholar
  45. 1967 Ethnographic Atlas. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  46. 1980 Theories of Illness: A World Survey. Pittsburgh: HRAF, University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  47. 1981 Atlas of World Cultures. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  48. Murdock, G. P., and D. O. Morrow 1970 Subsistence Economy and Supportive Practices: Cross-Cultural Codes 1. Ethnology 9:302–330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Murdock, G. P., and C. Provost 1973 Measurement of Cultural Complexity. Ethnology 12:379–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Murdock, G. P., and D. R. White 1969 Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. Ethnology 8:329–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Murdock, G. P., and S. F. Wilson 1972 Settlement Patterns and Community Organization: Cross-Cultural Codes 3. Ethnology 11:254–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nettle, D. 2004 Adaptive Illusions: Optimism, Control and Human Rationality. In Emotion, Evolution and Rationality, D. Evans and P. Cruse, eds. Pp. 191–206. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Olson, M. 1965 The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Ostrom, E. 1990 Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Ostrom, E., J. Walker, and R. Gardner 1992 Covenants with and without a Sword: Self Governance Is Possible. American Political Science Review 86:404–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Peregrine, P. N. 1995a The Birth of the Gods and Replications: Background to the Data and Codes. World Cultures 9:57–64.Google Scholar
  57. 1995b The Birth of the Gods Revisited: A Partial Replication of Guy Swanson’s (1960) Cross-Cultural Study of Religion. Cross-Cultural Research 30:84–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Povinelli, D. J., and J. M. Bering 2002 The Mentality of Apes Revisited. Current Directions in Psychological Science 11:115–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Rice, W. R. 1989 Analyzing Tables of Statistical Tests. Evolution 43:223–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Robinson, P. H., and J. M. Darley 2004 Does Criminal Law Deter? A Behavioural Science Investigation. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 24:173–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Roes, F. L., and M. Raymond 2003 Belief in Moralizing Gods. Evolution and Human Behaviour 24:126–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Ross, M. 1983 Political Decision Making and Conflict: Additional Cross-Cultural Codes and Scales. Ethnology 22:169–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Sanday, P. 1981 Female Power and Male Dominance. Unpublished ms. (Data encoded in SCCS; cited in Divale 2001)Google Scholar
  64. Sanfey, A. G., J. K. Rilling, J. A. Aronson, L. E. Nystrom, and J. D. Cohen 2003 The Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making in the Ultimatum Game. Science 300:1755–1758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schneider, D. M. 1957 Political Organization, Supernatural Sanctions and the Punishment for Incest on Yap. American Anthropologist 59:791–800.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Sigmund, K., C. Hauert, and M. Nowak 2001 Reward and Punishment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 98:10757–10761.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Sokal, R., and F. J. Rohlf 1995 Biometry: The Principles and Practice of Statistics in Biological Research. New York: Freeman.Google Scholar
  68. Sosis, R. 2000 Religion and Intragroup Cooperation: Preliminary Results of a Comparative Analysis of Utopian Communities. Cross-Cultural Research 34:71–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. 2003 Why Aren’t We All Hutterites? Costly Signaling Theory and Religious Behavior. Human Nature 14:91–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Sosis, R., and C. Alcorta 2003 Signaling, Solidarity, and the Sacred: The Evolution of Religious Behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 12:264–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Sosis, R., and E. R. Bressler 2003 Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion. Cross-Cultural Research 37:211–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Sosis, R., and B. J. Ruffle 2003 Religious Ritual and Cooperation: Testing for a Relationship on Israeli Religious and Secular Kibbutzim. Current Anthropology 44:713–722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Swanson, G. E. 1960 The Birth of the Gods. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.Google Scholar
  74. Thomas, W. I., and D. S. Thomas 1928 The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  75. Tinbergen, N. 1968 On War and Peace in Animals and Man: An Ethologist’s Approach to the Biology of Aggression. Science 160:1411–1418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Tomasello, M., J. Call, and B. Hare 2003 Chimpanzees Understand Psychological States—The Question Is Which Ones and To What Extent. Trends in Cognitive Science 7:153–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Trivers, R. L. 1971 The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Tuden, A., and C. Marshall 1972 Political Organization: Cross-Cultural Codes 4. Ethnology 11:436–464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Tylor, E. B. 1948 Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom. New York: Harper and Bros. (Originally published in 1871)Google Scholar
  80. Underhill, R. 1975 Economic and Political Antecedents of Monotheism: A Cross-Cultural Study. American Journal of Sociology 80:841–861.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Weber, M. 1978 The Sociology of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  82. Wheeler, V. 1974 Drums and Guns: A Cross-Cultural Study of the Nature of War. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon, Eugene.Google Scholar
  83. Whyte, M. K. 1978 The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  84. Wilson, D. S. 2002 Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  85. Wilson, E. O. 2000 Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, rev. ed. Harvard: Belknap Press. (Originally published in 1975)Google Scholar
  86. Wrangham, R. W. 1999 The Evolution of Coalitionary Killing. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 42:1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Yamagishi, T. 1986 The Provision of a Sanctioning System as a Public Good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 51:110–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Zahavi, A. 1995 Altruism as Handicap: The Limitations of Kin Selection and Reciprocity. Journal of Avian Biology 26:1–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Society of FellowsPrinceton University, Joseph Henry HousePrinceton

Personalised recommendations