“The Selfish Nature of Human Cooperation” Re: Punishment Games

I was recently given the opportunity by the kind folks at Areo Magazine to publish a few opinions of mine on the nature of human cooperation titled, “The Selfish Nature of Human Cooperation,” which you can find in a link at the bottom of this post.

The article, which is about a 9 minute read, argues that most of the time when anthropologists et al align cooperation with some sort of moral good, we fail to take into account the mechanisms by which cooperation is maintained and what the purpose of cooperation is. Since I decided to soft-dox myself by publishing it under my real name, I don’t want to get into too many polemics on who this piece though.

Target audience aside, the article had some good feedback, but I wanted to address a point made by Siberian Fox (@SilverVVulpes on Twitter).

siberian fox

Siberian Fox references a relatively controversial paper by Francesco Guala from the University of Milan which picks apart some of the experiments I included in my article and argues that maybe punishment isn’t that essential for maintaining cooperation because it hasn’t been shown. I have read the paper before and purposely decided to ignore it in the Areo piece because the article itself is a target article, so many of his points have already been addressed internally.

Guala says in the abstract, “In spite of some oft-repeated claims, there is no evidence that cooperation in the small egalitarian societies studied by anthropologists is enforced by means of costly punishment.” This is not necessarily correct, because as he states later, the evidence is there, it’s simply not linked to any real-world problems. Specifically, he believes the lab-type experiments set up in the field may not necessarily reflect real-world mechanisms used by hunter-gatherers. If any of the critiques he provides were to deal a critical blow to costly-punishment, this would be the one.

Yet the Henrich et al. article I reference in the Areo piece disputes this pretty well. Groups which internally punish the most tend to also cooperate the most. I’m not the first to emphasize this, as Henrich himself, alongside several other economists and anthropologists, use the literature to note that many of the decisions made by cultural groups in lab-type situations are otherwise reflected in their real-world behaviors. Henrich also argues that while costly punishment may be absent in some groups, other types of punishment are still utilized.

Perhaps we are making a huge assumption in that cultural norms enforcement in one place are reflective of cultural norms enforcement elsewhere. I think this would a great dissertation topic for anyone who is interested, as this is not necessarily clear. But what is clear is that there is some relationship and whether or not these are causally linked may be unimportant.

Now, a great point Guala and Wissner, who responds to the article, brings up is that, “the anonymity precept of experimental economics creates a highly unusual environment for the members of small societies.” I agree with this. A study by Traulsen et al. (2012) showed that when given the option, people will generally defect punishment to a third-party punisher rather than carry it out themselves. In this example, I am reminded of the recent decision of my own neighborhood’s homeowner’s association to hire a firm to enforce their regulations rather than knock on their neighbor’s doors. I am also reminded of a chapter in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where the tribal council meets under the guise of the ancestors donning masks to enforce justice. But again, this is irrelevant to the point that those societies who punish the harshest are those who cooperate the most- additionally, the cross-cultural perspective offered by Peterson (1993) which is cited in the Areo piece emphasizes the deeply personal nature of demand and enforcement in hunter-gatherer interaction.

The dynamics of what these games are showing are pretty deep and the work here is certainly not done, but I think it’s the case that punishment and demand are essential to human cooperation and that true randomized altruism in the absence of kin-selection likely does not exist. To this I would refer you to an experiment setup by Winking & Mizer (2013) which shows significant dropoffs in altruistic giving with the inclusion of experimental anonymity. I’m not going to argue too deep on the Guala article because it is long and multifaceted, but everyone should read it for themselves. Specifically I would focus on Henrich’s response and Guala’s responses to his critics at the end of the article.

The Selfish Nature of Human Cooperation

Like my blog and want to support my writing? Please consider supporting me on Patreon.


Guala, F., 2012. Reciprocity: Weak or strong? What punishment experiments do (and do not) demonstrate. Behavioral and brain sciences, 35(1), pp.1-15.

Henrich, J., McElreath, R., Barr, A., Ensminger, J., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., Cardenas, J.C., Gurven, M., Gwako, E., Henrich, N. and Lesorogol, C., 2006. Costly punishment across human societies. Science, 312(5781), pp.1767-1770.

Peterson, N., 1993. Demand sharing: reciprocity and the pressure for generosity among foragers. American anthropologist, 95(4), pp.860-874.

Traulsen, A., Röhl, T. and Milinski, M., 2012. An economic experiment reveals that humans prefer pool punishment to maintain the commons. Proc. R. Soc. B, p.rspb20120937.

Winking, J. and Mizer, N., 2013. Natural-field dictator game shows no altruistic giving. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(4), pp.288-293.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: