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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008 Oct;95(4):826-42. doi: 10.1037/a0011381.

Cooperation in social dilemmas: free riding may be thwarted by second-order reward rather than by punishment.

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Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.


Cooperation among nonrelatives can be puzzling because cooperation often involves incurring costs to confer benefits on unrelated others. Punishment of noncooperators can sustain otherwise fragile cooperation, but the provision of punishment suffers from a "second-order" free-riding problem because nonpunishers can free ride on the benefits from costly punishment provided by others. One suggested solution to this problem is second-order punishment of nonpunishers; more generally, the threat or promise of higher order sanctions might maintain the lower order sanctions that enforce cooperation in collective action problems. Here the authors report on 3 experiments testing people's willingness to provide second-order sanctions by having participants play a cooperative game with opportunities to punish and reward each other. The authors found that people supported those who rewarded cooperators either by rewarding them or by punishing nonrewarders, but people did not support those who punished noncooperators--they did not reward punishers or punish nonpunishers. Furthermore, people did not approve of punishers more than they did nonpunishers, even when nonpunishers were clearly unwilling to use sanctions to support cooperation. The results suggest that people will much more readily support positive sanctions than they will support negative sanctions.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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