Why We Need Nosy Parkers
Busybodies, it turns out, may help us coexist
We all know the type: the goody-two-shoes, chasing a litterbug for a block to "return" an errant chip bag; the teacher's pet, smugly ratting out note-passers in class; the self-appointed etiquette cop, quick with a rebuke for line jumpers, crying children, and public cellphone talkers everywhere. Uptight? Quite possibly. Annoying? Almost certainly. But the urge to call attention to others' infractions is more common than we might like to admit. And, researchers are finding, the moralists among us might just be an essential ingredient in the glue that holds human societies together.
Social scientists call the behavior "altruistic punishment": the willingness to step in and enforce societal norms even if doing so carries little chance of reward and significant personal cost. Psychological theories and economic models suggest that people should make decisions about how to behave in groups based on their own best interests rather than the good of the group. In other words, taking an inconsiderate clod to task for butting into line in front of you makes perfect sense, but how to explain the person who bawls out a stranger for butting into line behind them? And yet the altruistic punishment impulse comes up time and again in daily life and psychology experiments.
Take this classic trust game: You give a group of people some money--$20, say--and a set of rules. Players can contribute any amount to a common pool with the promise of a modest return, or they can "free ride," pocketing their initial stake plus a share in the group profits. If all of the players cooperate fully, everyone comes out ahead. But if one player acts selfishly, he'll do even better. You don't have to be a psychologist to guess how soon the whole system breaks down. Allow honest players to punish cheaters with a fine, however, and most will jump at the chance--even if doing so costs a significant portion of their profits. "The tendency to punish free riders is very confusing," says James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California-Davis, "because if there are only a few punishers, the cost is very high."
The impulse to punish cheating and other selfish behavior appears to be deep-seated. When a group of Swiss researchers used brain scans during similar "common goods" games, they found that the decision to punish cheaters stimulated the dorsal striatum, a brain region associated with processing rewards. "We saw one of the key reward areas of the brain was activated when players had the option to punish others for unfair behavior," says Ernst Fehr, an economist at the University of Zurich. In other words, people choose to punish inconsiderate behavior not for personal gain but because it feels good.
Discipline and punish. Still, says Fowler, the system only works if there are plenty of punishers to enforce, which begs the question: How does the behavior arise in the first place? In a computer simulation published recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Fowler shows that the key is to allow people to opt out of the exercise completely--forgoing both contributions and benefits. If even one or two punishers tip the balance toward mutually beneficial behavior, more people will decide to join the group, sharing costs and benefits--perhaps even becoming punishers themselves to protect their investment.
Which may help to explain one of the most mystifying aspects of human behavior: cooperation. Social animals like honeybees cooperate extensively, but they're all genetic relatives--making personal sacrifice a good strategy to ensure that common genes are passed on. Humans, on the other hand, regularly cooperate with complete strangers, even when there's no reasonable expectation of a personal reward, genetic or otherwise. Increasingly, researchers say, it's looking as if our tendency to sanction breaches of social norms is the key to human cooperation.
That's not to say that fear of punishment is the only thing standing between civilization and chaos. Most people in most situations will do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. "But there is also always some abuse of cooperation," says Fehr. "I am convinced that altruistic punishment is a key element in social order and cooperation. You could call it the cement of society."
This story appears in the June 13, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.