Reciprocity: Weak or Strong? What Punishment Experiments Do (and Do Not) Demonstrate

Francesco Guala
2010 Social Science Research Network  
Economists and biologists have proposed a distinction between two mechanisms -"strong" and "weak" reciprocity -that may explain the evolution of human sociality. Weak reciprocity theorists emphasize the benefits of long-term cooperation and the use of low-cost strategies to deter free-riders. Strong reciprocity theorists, in contrast, claim that cooperation in social dilemma games can be sustained by costly punishment mechanisms, even in one-shot and finitely repeated games. To support this
more » ... m, they have generated a large body of evidence concerning the willingness of experimental subjects to punish uncooperative freeriders at a cost to themselves. In this article, I distinguish between a "narrow" and a "wide" reading of the experimental evidence. Under the narrow reading, punishment experiments are just useful devices to measure psychological propensities in controlled laboratory conditions. Under the wide reading, they replicate a mechanism that supports cooperation also in "real-world" situations outside the laboratory. I argue that the wide interpretation must be tested using a combination of laboratory data and evidence about cooperation "in the wild." In spite of some often-repeated claims, there is no evidence that cooperation in the small egalitarian societies studied by anthropologists is enforced by means of costly punishment. Moreover, studies by economic and social historians show that social dilemmas in the wild are typically solved by institutions that coordinate punishment, reduce its cost, and extend the horizon of cooperation. The lack of field evidence for costly punishment suggests important constraints about what forms of cooperation can or cannot be sustained by means of decentralised policing. Abstract: We review evidence of the psychological and social costs associated with punishing. We propose that these psychological and social costs should be considered (in addition to material costs) when searching for evidence of costly punishment "in the wild." Abstract: The target article misunderstands the research program it criticizes. The work of Boyd, Richerson, Fehr, Gintis, Bowles and their collaborators has long included the theoretical and empirical study of models both with and without diffuse costly punishment. In Commentary/Guala: Reciprocity Abstract: The rarity of altruistic punishment in small-scale societies should not be interpreted as evidence that altruistic punishment is not an important determinant of cooperation in general. While it is essential to collect field data on altruistic punishment, this kind of data has limitations. Laboratory experiments can help shed light on the role of altruistic punishment "in the wild." Lab support for strong reciprocity is weak: Punishing for reputation rather than cooperation Abstract: To add ethnographic perspective to Guala's arguments, I suggest reasons why experimental and ethnographic evidence do not concur and highlight some difficulties in measuring whether positive and negative reciprocity are indeed costly. I suggest that institutions to reduce the costs of maintaining cooperation are not limited to complex societies. Author's Response Strong reciprocity is real, but there is no evidence that uncoordinated costly punishment sustains cooperation in the wild
doi:10.2139/ssrn.1640616 fatcat:s3ls5x3rtfchtc7acgp2wn7sxq