In a new international study of 16 countries, published in the prestigious journal Science, economists studied the extent to which some people will sacrifice personal gain to benefit the wider public, while ‘freeloaders’ try to take advantage of their generosity.
Marked national differences arose when freeloaders were punished for putting their own interests ahead of the common good. And whether they accepted their punishment or retaliated in kind depended on what kind of society they lived in, the researchers found.
In countries like the USA, Switzerland and the UK, freeloaders accepted their punishment and became much more co-operative. But in countries based on more authoritarian and parochial social institutions such as Oman, Saudi Arabia, Greece and Russia, the freeloaders took revenge — retaliating against those who had punished them.
Co-operation for the common good plummeted as a result.
In societies where the modern ethic of co-operation with unrelated strangers is less familiar and the rule of law is perceived to be weak, revenge is more common and co-operation suffers, the study found.
Economists are keen to understand the decision-making processes behind co-operation, as working together for the common good is crucial for progress in any society — not least for effectively addressing big issues such as recycling and tackling climate change.
Professor Simon Gaechter and Dr Benedikt Herrmann at The University of Nottingham and Dr Christian Thoni at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, studied the behaviour of people in 16 cities around the world, from Boston and Bonn to Riyadh, Minsk, Nottingham, Seoul and others. Volunteers played a ‘public goods’ game in which they were given tokens and told they could either keep them all for themselves, or put it into a common ‘pot’ that would yield extra interest that would be shared out equally among all players.
If all volunteers pooled their money then all would come out with more at the end of the game. But if individuals chose to keep the money for themselves — and not contribute anything — they could keep all of it and also benefit from the generosity of others, by sharing in the pooled interest.
Levels of co-operation were remarkably similar across all 16 nations. However, behaviour changed dramatically when everyone’s contributions were revealed — and players were given the ability to ‘punish’ other players. Players could punish each other by taking tokens away from each other, although this option cost the punisher a token as well. As previous studies have shown, players were willing to part with a token of their own in order to punish low investors or freeloaders.
But the Science study also uncovered a new phenomenon. In subsequent rounds of the game, the freeloaders took revenge and hit back at their higher-paying counterparts in what is described as ‘anti-social punishment’. Or at least, they did in some cities — most notably in more traditional societies based on authoritarian and parochial social institutions such as Muscat in Oman, Athens, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Samara in Russia, Minsk in Belarus, Istanbul, Seoul and Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine. Players in these cities showed the highest levels of ‘anti-social punishment’.
The ultimate effect of this is to decrease co-operation between individuals, bringing down contributions and earnings to very low levels.
In other cities — most notably Boston in the US, Melbourne, Nottingham, St Gallen and Zurich in Switzerland, Chengdu in China, Bonn and Copenhagen — this occurred much less often and only freeloaders tended to get punished. These eight cities saw the least ‘antisocial punishment’ meted out, and earnings in the game increased over time.
Simon Gaechter, Professor of the Psychology of Economic Decision-Making at The University of Nottingham, said: “To our knowledge this is the largest cross-cultural difference in experimental games that has been carried out in the developed world.
“Our results correlate with other survey data in particular measures of social norms of civic co-operation and rule of law in these same societies. The findings suggest that in societies where public co-operation is ingrained and people trust their law enforcement institutions, revenge is generally shunned. But in societies where the modern ethic of co-operation with unrelated strangers is less familiar and the rule of law is weak, revenge is more common.
“There are numerous examples in everyday life of situations where co-operation is the best option but there are incentives to take a free ride, such as recycling, neighbourhood watch, voting maintaining the local environment, tackling climate change, and so on. We need to understand why people behave in this way because co-operation is very strongly inhibited in the presence of anti-social punishment.”
Norms of civic co-operation cover general attitudes to the law, for example whether or not citizens think it is acceptable to dodge taxes or flout laws. In societies where this behaviour is widespread and the rule of law is perceived to be ineffective — ie. if criminal acts frequently go unpunished — anti-social punishment is more common.
In a commentary in the same edition of Science, Professor Herbert Gintis of the Santa Fe Institute said: “Anti-social punishment was rare in the most democratic societies and very common otherwise.
“Using the World Democracy Audit evaluation of countries’ performance in political rights, civil liberties, press freedom and corruption, the top six performers among the countries studied were also in the lowest seven for anti-social punishment. These were the USA, UK, Germany, Denmark, Australia and Switzerland.”
He adds: “Their results suggest that 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.”
Emma Thorne | alfa
New measure for the wellbeing of populations could replace Human Development Index
07.11.2018 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Because not only arguments count
30.10.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Mathematik in den Naturwissenschaften (MPIMIS)
DESY and MPSD scientists create high-order harmonics from solids with controlled polarization states, taking advantage of both crystal symmetry and attosecond electronic dynamics. The newly demonstrated technique might find intriguing applications in petahertz electronics and for spectroscopic studies of novel quantum materials.
The nonlinear process of high-order harmonic generation (HHG) in gases is one of the cornerstones of attosecond science (an attosecond is a billionth of a...
Nano- and microtechnology are promising candidates not only for medical applications such as drug delivery but also for the creation of little robots or flexible integrated sensors. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) have created magnetic microparticles, with a newly developed method, that could pave the way for building micro-motors or guiding drugs in the human body to a target, like a tumor. The preparation of such structures as well as their remote-control can be regulated using magnetic fields and therefore can find application in an array of domains.
The magnetic properties of a material control how this material responds to the presence of a magnetic field. Iron oxide is the main component of rust but also...
Due to the special arrangement of its molecules, a new coating made of corn starch is able to repair small scratches by itself through heat: The cross-linking via ring-shaped molecules makes the material mobile, so that it compensates for the scratches and these disappear again.
Superficial micro-scratches on the car body or on other high-gloss surfaces are harmless, but annoying. Especially in the luxury segment such surfaces are...
The Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectroscopic Instrument (PEPSI) at the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona released its first image of the surface magnetic field of another star. In a paper in the European journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the PEPSI team presents a Zeeman- Doppler-Image of the surface of the magnetically active star II Pegasi.
A special technique allows astronomers to resolve the surfaces of faraway stars. Those are otherwise only seen as point sources, even in the largest telescopes...
Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, have proposed a way to create a completely new source of radiation. Ultra-intense light pulses consist of the motion of a single wave and can be described as a tsunami of light. The strong wave can be used to study interactions between matter and light in a unique way. Their research is now published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.
"This source of radiation lets us look at reality through a new angle - it is like twisting a mirror and discovering something completely different," says...
11.03.2019 | Event News
01.03.2019 | Event News
28.02.2019 | Event News
22.03.2019 | Life Sciences
22.03.2019 | Life Sciences
22.03.2019 | Information Technology