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Social cooperation can be stimulated if people offer to assist strangers and occasionally punish those who refuse to help others.

Social cooperation can be stimulated if people offer to assist strangers and occasionally punish those who refuse to help others. This conclusion is the result of a study by Arthur Schram and Aljaž Ule of the University of Amsterdam, Arno Riedl of Maastricht University and Timothy Cason of Purdue University (USA). The results of their research were published this week in Science.

People often spend money and make an effort to help strangers whom they know to be helpful to others. For example, many people donate to charity, even if they know they will not be receiving any help from the charity in question. Previous studies have shown that this type of ‘indirect reward' helps stimulate cooperation within a social structure. The researchers used laboratory experiments to demonstrate that the option of punishing those who treat strangers poorly plays an important role in stimulating social cooperation.

Punish or reward?

The experiment saw participants play multiple rounds of a game in which they could choose to either give someone money - at a cost - or do nothing. They could also - at a cost - punish others by taking money from them. The participants' decisions were based on information regarding the other players' prior decisions under the same circumstances.

As the study showed, the greatest profits went to participants who regularly gave money to others who had been generous in the past. However, those who never gave to others were occasionally punished. Without an option for punishment, the greatest profits will go to those who never give anything to others.

Publication details

Aljaž Ule, Arthur Schram, Arno Riedl en Timothy N. Cason: ‘Indirect Punishment and Generosity Toward Strangers'. Science, 18 december 2009.