NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Virtue of Revenge

January 29, 2002

A willingness to cooperate with others -- even when it's not in our immediate self-interest -- appears to be part of our genetic endowment. Its evolutionary survival value is obvious. Less well known is the human willingness to punish people who don't cooperate and cheat, even when retribution is costly to the punishers.

A recent issue of "Nature" describes a series of experiments in which college students were given money and allowed to keep their winnings. The students had the opportunity to contribute to a "public good" with an equal monetary pay off to everyone -- regardless of their actual contribution. The temptation was to be a free-rider, contributing nothing to the public good, but reaping all its benefits. However, in subsequent rounds, students had an opportunity to "punish" those who cheated in previous rounds.

  • By paying, say, a dollar, a student could impose a three-dollar cost on another student.
  • Some 84 percent of the students elected to punish a free-rider at least once and more than one-third retaliated five times or more -- even through retaliation was costly to the cash-strapped students.
  • On a seven point scale from "no big deal" to "very angry" 84 percent ranked their reaction to free-riders as five or higher.

When students had no opportunity to retaliate, cooperation broke down in successive rounds; but when retaliation was possible, cooperation grew stronger from round to round.

Source: Natalie Angier, "The Urge to Punish Cheats: It Isn't Merely Vengeance," New York Times, January 22, 2002; based on Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter, "Altruistic Punishment in Humans," Nature, January 10, 2002.


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