Who initiates punishment, who joins punishment? Disentangling types of third-party punishers by neural traits

Hum Brain Mapp. 2021 Dec 1;42(17):5703-5717. doi: 10.1002/hbm.25648. Epub 2021 Sep 15.


The act of punishing unfair behavior by unaffected observers (i.e., third-party punishment) is a crucial factor in the functioning of human societies. In everyday life, we see different types of individuals who punish. While some individuals initiate costly punishment against an unfair person independently of what other observers do (independent punishers), others condition their punishment engagement on the presence of another person who punishes (conditional punishers). Still others do not want to partake in any sort of punishment (nonpunishers). Although these distinct behavioral types have a divergent impact on human society, the sources of heterogeneity are poorly understood. We present novel laboratory evidence on the existence of these three types. We use anatomical brain characteristics in combination with stated motives to characterize these types. Findings revealed that independent punishers have larger gray matter volume in the right temporo-parietal junction compared to conditional punishers and nonpunishers, an area involved in social cognition. Conditional punishers are characterized by larger gray matter volume in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain area known to be involved in behavioral control and strategic reasoning, compared to independent punishers and nonpunishers. Finally, both independent punishers and nonpunishers are characterized by larger gray matter volume in an area involved in the processing of social and monetary rewards, that is, the bilateral caudate. By using a neural trait approach, we were able to differentiate these three types clearly based on their neural signatures, allowing us to shed light on the underlying psychological mechanisms.

Keywords: brain anatomy; conditional punisher; neural trait; punishment types; third-party punishment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biological Variation, Individual*
  • Caudate Nucleus / anatomy & histology*
  • Caudate Nucleus / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / anatomy & histology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Female
  • Gray Matter / anatomy & histology*
  • Gray Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Punishment*
  • Reward*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Cognition*
  • Young Adult