Common game theory has held that punishment makes two equals cooperate – that, in effect, people can pressured to do better by fear. However, a recent study by Harvard University researchers of some 104 Boston-area college students came to a different conclusion.
In the experiment, participants were paired up on a special version of a computer game called “prisoner’s dilemma.’ Normally, the game gives two players two options: either cooperate with their partner, or “defect’ (basically by choosing to take money from the other player). The outcomes vary depending on the choice each player makes. If both cooperate, each ends up winning a dime. If both defect, each gets nothing. However, if one cooperates and the other defects, the cooperative player loses 20 cents and the defector wins 30 cents.
The Harvard study, results of which were published in the journal Nature, added a third component to the game – an option to “punish’ someone who didn’t cooperate. It cost the punisher a dime to inflict a loss of 40 cents on their partner. And, according to the study, it was the players who chose to inflict punishment (the “evil’ option) who lost out consistently in the more than 8,000 contests monitored. A result that was widely trumpeted as indicating that “nice guys’ finish first.
In truth, while punishers fared poorly, it wasn’t necessarily the nice guys – the cooperators – who always finished first. Another strategy that fared well was an approach of defecting in response to a prior round defection by your partner.
In fact, this result led David Rand, a Harvard biology graduate student researcher who worked on the project to suggest that in the workplace what this means is that if a member of a project team isn’t pulling their weight, the best solution may not be to berate them, or even to coddle them into doing their part – but to simply find someone else who will contribute to the project.
It may also be worth noting that the study only looked at games between equals. Apparently punishment does seem to have a place in games when one player is dominant – and needs to enforce submission.