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The Role of Group Boundaries in Human Altruism and Anti-Social Behavior

By Stephan Meier, David Huffman, Matthias Sutter and Lorenz Goette


Exchange between humans can be facilitated by altruistic cooperation, and the willingness to punish those who act selfishly. But in some societies punishment is directed at cooperators as well as defectors, in a way that harms efficiency and is more akin to outright hostility and aggression (1). This raises the fundamental question of how such different patterns could have emerged. One possible explanation involves social group boundaries, and the economic environment between groups. When there is competition, a group’s survival chances may be improved if individuals cooperate within their group, but attack other groups (2). In neutral environments, by contrast, it may be optimal to cooperate and use punishment to enforce a norm of cooperation on behalf of one’s group (3; 4; 5). We conduct experiments among platoons in the Swiss Army to examine these conflicting views about punishment. We find stronger cooperation with one’s own group, norm enforcement, and no sign of hostil-1 ity between groups in neutral environments. When competition is added, we find even stronger cooperation within groups, and a strong pattern of hostile punishment towards other groups. These results help explain how, both, socia

Year: 2014
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