Understanding and Addressing Cultural Variation in Costly Antisocial Punishment

  • Joanna J. BrysonEmail author
  • James Mitchell
  • Simon T. Powers
  • Karolina Sylwester
Part of the Advances in the Evolutionary Analysis of Human Behaviour book series (AEAHB, volume 1)


Altruistic punishment (AP)—punishment of those contributing little to the public good—has been proposed as an explanation for the extraordinary extent of human culture relative to other species. AP is seen as supporting the high levels of altruism necessary for the cooperation underlying this culture, including information exchange. However, humans will also sometimes punish those who contribute greatly to the public good, even when those contributions directly benefit the punisher. This behaviour—antisocial punishment (ASP)—is negatively correlated with gross domestic product, and may be a hindrance to overall wellbeing. In this chapter, we pursue a better understanding of ASP in particular and costly punishment in general. We explore existing data showing cultural variation in the propensity to punish, and ask how such sanctioning, whether of those who give much or little, affects the individuals who conduct it. We hypothesise that costly punishment is a mechanism for regulating investment between different levels of society, for example, whether an individual’s current focus should be on their nation, village, family or self. We suggest that people are less likely to antisocially punish those they consider to be ‘ingroup’ and that the propensity to apply this identity to strangers may vary with socio-economic–political context and resulting individual experience. In particular, an increased propensity to express ASP should correlate with a lower probability of benefiting from public goods, as may be the case where there is a low rule of law. We show analysis of both behavioural economics experiments and evolutionary social simulations to support our hypotheses and suggest implications for policymakers and other organisations that may wish to intervene to improve general economic wellbeing.


Antisocial punishment (ASP) Altruistic punishment (AP) Costly punishment Public goods Public goods games (PGG) Behavioural economics Altruism Cooperation Ingroup/outgroup assessment 



We would like to thank Benedikt Herrmann for his advice and help with theory building, the literature, and his assistance in understanding his own data set. We would also like to thank to Simon Gächter for meetings and occasional e-mail assistance, and Daniel Taylor for many conversations and useful analysis. We thank Will Lowe for his help with data, statistics, software and analysis, and to Gideon Gluckman for support in writing. From October 2010 to September 2011, much of this effort was supported by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Air Force Material Command, USAF, under grant number FA8655-10-1-3050. We would also like to thank the Department of Computer Science and the University of Bath for further financial support.


  1. Abbink, K., & Sadrieh, A. (2009). The pleasure of being nasty. Economics Letters, 105(3), 306–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barclay, P. (2006). Reputational benefits for altruistic punishment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(FIXME), 325–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bardsley, N., & Sausgruber, R. (2005). Conformity and reciprocity in public good provision. Journal of Economic Psychology, 26(5), 664–681.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the forest: The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bryson, J. J. (2009). Representations underlying social learning and cultural evolution. Interaction Studies, 10(1), 77–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bryson, J. J., Ando, Y., & Lehmann, H. (2012). Agent-based models as scientific methodology: A case study analyzing the DomWorld theory of primate social structure and female dominance. In: Seth, A. K., Prescott, T. J., & Bryson, J. J. (Eds.), Modelling natural action selection (pp. 427–453). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Carpenter, J. P. (2004). When in Rome: Conformity and the provision of public goods. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 33(4), 395–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Clutton-Brock, T. H., & Parker, G. A. (1995). Punishment in animal societies. Nature, 373(6511), 209–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Czibor, A., & Bereczkei, T. (2012). Machiavellian people’s success results from monitoring their partners. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(3), 202–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dawkins, R. (1982). The extended phenotype: The gene as the unit of selection. New York: W.H. Freeman.Google Scholar
  11. Fehr, E., & Gächter, S. (2000). Cooperation and punishment in public goods experiments. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 980–994.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fehr, E., & Gächter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415(6868), 137–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R., & Fehr, E. (2003). Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24(3), 153–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hamilton, W. D. (1964). The genetical evolution of social behaviour. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 7, 1–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Gintis, H., & McElreath, R. (2001). Cooperation, reciprocity and punishment in fifteen small-scale societies. American Economic Review, 91(2), 73–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), 29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Herrmann, B., Thöni, C., & Gächter, S. (2008a). Antisocial punishment across societies. Science, 319(5868), 1362–1367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Herrmann, B., Thöni, C., & Gächter, S. (2008b). Supporting online material for antisocial punishment across societies. Science, 319(5868). (
  19. Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. London: Andrew Crooke.Google Scholar
  20. Jensen, K. (2010). Punishment and spite, the dark side of cooperation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1553), 2635–2650.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kaufmann, D., Kraay, A., & Mastruzzi, M. (2004). Governance matters III: Governance indicators for 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2002. The World Bank Economic Review, 18(2), 253–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kokko, H.(2007). Modelling for field biologists and other interesting people. Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  23. Laland, K. N., Sterelny, K., Odling-Smee, J., Hoppitt, W., & Uller, T. (2011). Cause and effect in biology revisited: Is Mayr’s proximate-ultimate dichotomy still useful? Science, 334(6062), 1512–1516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lamba, S., & Mace, R. (2012). The evolution of fairness: explaining variation in bargaining behaviour. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.2028.Google Scholar
  25. Ledyard, J. O. (1995). Public goods: A survey of experimental research. In: Kagel, J. H. & Roth, A. E (Eds.), Handbook of experimental economics, (pp. 111–194). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  26. MacLean, R. C., Fuentes-Hernandez, A., Greig, D., Hurst, L. D., & Gudelj, I. (2010). A mixture of “cheats” and “co-operators” can enable maximal group benefit. PLOS Biology, 8(9), e1000486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Martin Clarke, D. E. (Ed.) (1923). Hávamá1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Mauss, M. (1967). The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. New York: W.W. Norton (Translator: Ian Cunnison).Google Scholar
  29. Mayr, E. (1961). Cause and effect in biology: Kinds of causes, predictability, and teleology are viewed by a practicing biologist. Science, 134(3489), 1501–1506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Powers, S. T., Penn, A. S., & Watson, R. A. (2011). The concurrent evolution of cooperation and the population structures that support it. Evolution, 65(6), 1527–1543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Powers, S. T., Taylor, D. J., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). Punishment can promote defection in group-structured populations. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 311, 107–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Preuschoft, S., & van Schaik, C. P. (2000). Dominance and communication: Conflict management in various social settings. In: Aureli, F. & de Waal, F. B. M. (Eds.) Natural conflict resolution (pp. 77–105). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  33. Rand, D. G., Armao IV, J. J., Nakamaru, M., & Ohtsuki, H. (2010). Anti-social punishment can prevent the co-evolution of punishment and cooperation. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 265(4), 624–632.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Rand, D. G., & Nowak, M. A. (2011). The evolution of antisocial punishment in optional public goods games. Nature Communications, 2, 434.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rohwer, Y. (2007). Hierarchy maintenance, coalition formation, and the origins of altruistic punishment. Philosophy of Science, 74(5), 802–812.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sylwester, K., Herrmann, B., & Bryson, J. J. (2013). Homo homini lupus? Explaining antisocial punishment. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics 6(3), 167–188.Google Scholar
  37. Sylwester, K., Mitchell, J., & Bryson, J. J. (2013). Punishment as aggression: Uses and consequences of costly punishment across populations. (unpublished).Google Scholar
  38. Sylwester, K., & Roberts, G. (2010). Cooperators benefit through reputation-based partner choice in economic games. Biology Letters, 6(5), 659–662.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Taylor, D. J., & Bryson, J. J. (2013). Does reciprocation explain cooperation in large groups? (unpublished).Google Scholar
  40. Thierry, B. (2005). Integrating proximate and ultimate causation: Just one more go! Current Science, 89(7), 1180–1183.Google Scholar
  41. Čače, I., & Bryson, J. J. (2007). Agent based modelling of communication costs: Why information can be free. In: Lyon, C., Nehaniv, C. L. & Cangelosi, A., (Eds.), Emergence and evolution of linguistic communication (pp. 305–322). London: Springer.Google Scholar
  42. Walker, A., & Stringer, C. (2010). The first four million years of human evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1556), 3265–3266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. West, S. A., El Mouden, C., & Gardner, A. (2011). Sixteen common misconceptions about the evolution of cooperation in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(4), 231–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. West, S. A., Griffin, A. S., & Gardner, A. (2007). Evolutionary explanations for cooperation. Current Biology, 17, R661–R672.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: Case studies concerning divergent modes of religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182–224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joanna J. Bryson
    • 1
    Email author
  • James Mitchell
    • 1
  • Simon T. Powers
    • 2
  • Karolina Sylwester
    • 1
  1. 1.Intelligent Systems GroupUniversity of BathBathUK
  2. 2.Department of Ecology & EvolutionUniversity of LausanneLausanneSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations