How Cooperation Is Maintained in Human Societies: Punishment, Study Suggests
Humans are incredibly cooperative, but why do people cooperate and how is cooperation maintained? A new research study by UCLA anthropology professor Robert Boyd and his colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico suggests cooperation in large groups is maintained by punishment.
To understand the study, let’s start with a small group of friends. In small groups, individuals often have personal connections with other group members and cooperation typically is maintained by a “you help me, I’ll help you” reciprocity system. Group members cooperate because they do not want to hurt their friends by not participating in group efforts, and also because they may want help in the future.
But in a larger group, like a tribe, those mechanisms for maintaining cooperation are lost. All group members experience the benefits of the large group, even those members who stop cooperating and become “free-riders.” Free-riders are people who benefit from the group in food sharing and protection from enemies, for example, without contributing to food collection or war. In these cases, the personal connection to the group’s members is often gone.