Today’s Must-Must-Read: Steve Randy Waldman: The Baltimore Riots as Altruistic Punishment

Must-Read: Steve Randy Waldman: There Is a Name for This: “Politically motivated riots are a form of altruistic punishment…

…Look it up. Altruistic punishment is a ‘puzzle’ to the sort of economist who thinks of homo economicus maximizing her utility, and a no-brainer to the [evolutionary] game theorist who understands humans could never have survived if we actually were the kind of creature who succumbed to every prisoners’ dilemma. Altruistic punishment is behavior that imposes costs on third parties with no benefit to the punisher, often even at great cost to the punisher. To the idiot economist, it is a lose/lose situation, such a puzzle. For the record, I’m a fan of the phenomenon. Does that mean I’m a fan of these riots, that I condone the burning of my own hometown? Fuck you and your tendentious entrapment games and Manichean choices, your my-team ‘ridiculing’ of people you can claim support destruction. Altruistic punishment is essential to human affairs but it is hard. It is mixed, it is complicated, it is shades of gray…

Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter: Altruistic punishment in humans: “Human cooperation is an evolutionary puzzle…

…Unlike other creatures, people frequently cooperate with genetically unrelated strangers, often in large groups, with people they will never meet again, and when reputation gains are small or absent. These patterns of cooperation cannot be explained by the nepotistic motives associated with the evolutionary theory of kin selection and the selfish motives associated with signalling theory or the theory of reciprocal altruism. Here we show experimentally that the altruistic punishment of defectors is a key motive for the explanation of cooperation. Altruistic punishment means that individuals punish, although the punishment is costly for them and yields no material gain. We show that cooperation flourishes if altruistic punishment is possible, and breaks down if it is ruled out. The evidence indicates that negative emotions towards defectors are the proximate mechanism behind altruistic punishment. These results suggest that future study of the evolution of human cooperation should include a strong focus on explaining altruistic punishment.

Nature 415, 137-140 (10 January 2002) | doi:10.1038/415137a; Received 5 October 2001; Accepted 5 November 2001

University of Zürich, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, Blümlisalpstrasse 10, CH-8006 Zürich, Switzerland. University of St Gallen, FEW-HSG, Varnbüelstrasse 14, CH-9000 St Gallen, Switzerland. Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to E.F. (e-mail:

May 1, 2015

Connect with us!

Explore the Equitable Growth network of experts around the country and get answers to today's most pressing questions!

Get in Touch