Human Nature

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 410–446

God’s punishment and public goods

A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures

DOI: 10.1007/s12110-005-1017-0

Cite this article as:
Johnson, D.D.P. Hum Nat (2005) 16: 410. doi:10.1007/s12110-005-1017-0


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 

Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

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

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