Researchers use economic games to investigate how people cooperate in real-life. Now a team led by Benedikt Herrmann, at the University of Nottingham, have identified striking differences in the way university students from different countries play one such game known as The Public Goods Game. Compared with students from developed Western nations, students from less democratic countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman and Belarus tended to punish not only free-loaders, but also cooperative players, with the result that cooperation in their groups plummeted.
In 16 countries, researchers gave 20 tokens each to thousands of students who were arranged into groups of four anonymous players. On each round, the students, who interacted via computer screens, had to choose how much to invest in the group kitty, such that every member would be paid 0.4 tokens for every token invested in the kitty, regardless of whether they themselves had contributed.
The nature of the game means that if everyone contributes the maximum amount, all members can gain by receiving a return of 32 tokens each. However, there is also the temptation to be selfish, to 'free-load'. For example, if one member contributes nothing to the kitty, while everyone else contributes the maximum, that selfish member will receive 44 tokens.
Crucially, after each round, players can see the choices of the other players, and in one version of the game they were able punish others if they wanted to, by sacrificing a token of their own so that another player loses several of theirs.
When players had the option to punish, the groups tended to display more cooperation, which is consistent with past research showing that the ability to punish can help foster cooperative behaviour. However, in some countries, 'selfish' players also punished cooperative players, perhaps as a means of revenge for punishments they had suffered, or maybe as a way of punishing do-gooders for showing them up. The researchers called this 'anti-social punishment', and the groups where this occurred tended to cooperate less.
Anti-social punishment occurred more in those countries, including Belarus and Saudi Arabia, shown by surveys to have less faith in the rule of law and less belief in civic cooperation. In a commentary on the findings, published in the same journal, Herbert Gintis of the Sante Fe Institute, said the results challenge the way people have tended to view capitalist democracies. "The success of democratic market societies may depend critically upon moral virtues as well as material interests, so the depiction of civil society as the sphere of 'naked self-interest' is radically incorrect," he wrote.
Herrmann, B., Thoni, C., Gachter, S. (2008). Antisocial Punishment Across Societies. Science, 319(5868), 1362-1367. DOI: 10.1126/science.1153808