The competitive advantage of sanctioning institutions

Science. 2006 Apr 7;312(5770):108-11. doi: 10.1126/science.1123633.


Understanding the fundamental patterns and determinants of human cooperation and the maintenance of social order in human societies is a challenge across disciplines. The existing empirical evidence for the higher levels of cooperation when altruistic punishment is present versus when it is absent systematically ignores the institutional competition inherent in human societies. Whether punishment would be deliberately adopted and would similarly enhance cooperation when directly competing with nonpunishment institutions is highly controversial in light of recent findings on the detrimental effects of punishment. We show experimentally that a sanctioning institution is the undisputed winner in a competition with a sanction-free institution. Despite initial aversion, the entire population migrates successively to the sanctioning institution and strongly cooperates, whereas the sanction-free society becomes fully depopulated. The findings demonstrate the competitive advantage of sanctioning institutions and exemplify the emergence and manifestation of social order driven by institutional selection.

MeSH terms

  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Cultural Evolution*
  • Games, Experimental*
  • Group Processes
  • Humans
  • Punishment*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Sciences