Do Descriptive Social Norms Drive Peer Punishment? Conditional Punishment Strategies and Their Impact on Cooperation


Peer punishment is widely considered a key mechanism supporting cooperation in human groups. Although much research shows that human behavior is shaped by the prevailing social norms, little is known about how punishment decisions are impacted by the social context. We present a set of large-scale incentivized experiments in which participants (N=999) could punish their partner conditional on either the level of cooperation or the level of punishment displayed by others who previously interacted in the same setting. While many participants punish independently of levels of cooperation or punishment, a substantial portion punishes free riding more severely when cooperation is more common (‘norm enforcement’), or when free riding is more severely punished by others (‘conformist punishment’). With a dynamic model we demonstrate that conditional punishment strategies can substantially promote cooperation. In particular, conformist punishment helps cooperation to gain a foothold in a population, and norm enforcement helps to maintain cooperation at high levels. Our results provide solid empirical evidence of conditional punishment strategies and illustrate their possible implications for the dynamics of human cooperation.