Altruistic Punishment

Altruistic Punishment Definition

Altruistic PunishmentAn act is altruistic if it is costly for the acting individual and beneficial for someone else. Thus, punishment is altruistic if it is costly for the punisher and if the punished person’s behavior changes such that others benefit. This definition does not require an altruistic motivation.

Altruistic Punishment Example

Think of queuing as an instructive example. Telling a queue jumper to stand in line is probably (psychologically) costly for the person confronting the queue jumper. If the queue jumper gets back into line, all people who were put at a disadvantage by the queue jumper benefit.

Altruistic Punishment Evidence

Scientific evidence for altruistic punishment comes from laboratory “public goods” experiments. In a typical public goods experiment, participants are randomly allocated to groups of four players. Each player is endowed with money units and has to decide how many to keep for him- or herself and how many to invest into a “the public good.” The experimenter doubles the sum invested into the public good and distributes the doubled sum equally among the four group members. Thus, every group member receives a quarter of the doubled sum, irrespective of his or her contribution. This experiment describes a cooperation problem: If everyone invests into the public good, the group is better off collectively; yet free riding makes everyone better off individually.

The experiments are conducted anonymously, and participants get paid according to their decisions. The public goods game is conducted several times but with new group members in each repetition. To contribute under such circumstances is altruistic: Contributing is costly, and all other group members benefit. The typical result is that people initially invest into the public good, but altruistic cooperation eventually collapses.

Now consider the following treatment: After participants make their contribution, they learn how much others contributed. Participants then have the possibility to punish the other group members. Punishment is costly: The punishing individual has to pay one money unit, and the punished individual loses three money units. A money-maximizing individual will never punish, because punishment is costly and there are no further interactions with the punished individual. Yet, numerous experiments have shown that many people nevertheless punish and free riding becomes rare. Thus, punishment is altruistic because people incur costs to punish irrespective of no future interactions with the punished individual and because the future partners of the punished free rider benefit from the free rider’s cooperation.

Altruistic Punishment Theoretical Relevance

Evolutionary and economic theories can explain cooperation by selfish individuals if the benefits of cooperating exceed the costs. Kinship, repeated interactions with the same individuals and reputation formation are channels through which benefits might exceed costs. From the viewpoint of these theories, altruistic punishment is a puzzle, because none of these channels was possible in the experiments and because the costs of punishing outweigh the benefits for the punishing individual.


  1. Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2003). The nature of human altruism. Nature, 425, 785-791.
  2. Fehr, E., & Gachter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415, 137-140.