man with hands in handcuffs man with hands in handcuffs Why would natural selection lead to cooperation? Scientists wondered if the answer has something to do with punishment. (Photo: Fotokita / Shutterstock)

Does punishing people actually work?

A group of scientists tried to figure out why people cooperate with each other, and the results were pretty surprising.

Ever wondered whether jail and timeouts actually make people cooperate? Have we got a study for you! An international team of scientists from China, Israel, Japan, Luxembourg, Croatia, Italy and Slovenia created an experiment to figure it out, and the results were pretty unexpected.

To understand what they found, you have to know why these scientists were studying punishment in the first place. They were trying to figure out why people cooperate when it's often so easy to just take advantage of others. Granted, taking advantage totally happens all the time, but it's surprising it doesn't happen more. Why don't friends steal from each other? Why do parents bother to feed their children? If the answer to these questions is obvious to you, congratulations, you are ahead of scientists. They're still trying to figure it out.

In this experiment, researchers had 225 Chinese students play a game. In the game, if the students cooperated, they'd all get a decent number of points. But if one defected and everyone else cooperated, the defector would get a lot of points, and the cooperators would lose out. This game mimics a lot of real life situations where you struggle with an overwhelming decision: work together and do OK, or run off with the rewards, ruining everybody else's day.

This is actually a pretty ordinary economic experiment. But the researchers added a couple changes to see if they could mimic the real world better, in which people sometimes don't mess with each other every opportunity they get. Change one: some students played many rounds together, so they'd learn who they could trust. Change two: people could punish each other, sacrificing a point or two to destroy another player's score.

In the end, the researchers found that playing multiple rounds made people cooperate more, which definitely mimics human society. You don't steal from your friends, in part, because it'll mess up your future relationships with them.

But the whole punishment thing led to a surprise: punishing didn't actually make people cooperate more. In fact, it made them cooperate less. The researchers think that punishment may have irritated punished players, making them less willing to work with the group.

"While the implied message when punishing someone is 'I want you to be cooperative,' the immediate effect is more consistent with the message 'I want to hurt you,'" wrote the researchers.

So the scientists still don't know why people cooperate, though it looks like it has more to do with groups sticking together than it does with punishment. Actually, whole realms of science are devoted this question. Behavioral scientists like Israeli economist Dan Ariely say humans don't behave rationally. Multilevel selection theorists like American biologist David Sloan Wilson think altruistic groups outcompete selfish ones. And then there's always, you know, basic human empathy.

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