Social learning promotes institutions for governing the commons

Nature. 2010 Aug 12;466(7308):861-3. doi: 10.1038/nature09203. Epub 2010 Jul 14.


Theoretical and empirical research highlights the role of punishment in promoting collaborative efforts. However, both the emergence and the stability of costly punishment are problematic issues. It is not clear how punishers can invade a society of defectors by social learning or natural selection, or how second-order free-riders (who contribute to the joint effort but not to the sanctions) can be prevented from drifting into a coercion-based regime and subverting cooperation. Here we compare the prevailing model of peer-punishment with pool-punishment, which consists in committing resources, before the collaborative effort, to prepare sanctions against free-riders. Pool-punishment facilitates the sanctioning of second-order free-riders, because these are exposed even if everyone contributes to the common good. In the absence of such second-order punishment, peer-punishers do better than pool-punishers; but with second-order punishment, the situation is reversed. Efficiency is traded for stability. Neither other-regarding tendencies or preferences for reciprocity and equity, nor group selection or prescriptions from higher authorities, are necessary for the emergence and stability of rudimentary forms of sanctioning institutions regulating common pool resources and enforcing collaborative efforts.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Competitive Behavior
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Game Theory*
  • Learning*
  • Population Density
  • Punishment / psychology*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Social Behavior*
  • Time Factors