What is the role of punishments and rewards in cooperation? This paper will try to provide an answer to the aforementioned question. Some examples of punishments in animal groups will be conveyed as well as some examples on how evolution has provided human beings with the neural structures that underpin the Theory of Mind (Tom): the ability to attribute mental states to oneself. The core of this paper will explain how cooperation differs from animals to human beings and how rewards and punishments have shaped human interactions.
Since a noteworthy number of animal lives in group rewards and punishments is needed to preserve cooperation which (trait observable even outside human communities), animals can display a second-party punishment (Jansen 2010): a behaviour inclined to the dominant individuals who can compel others into forced cooperation. This particular punishment is a peculiarity of animals such as chimpanzees, wrens, and meerkats (Jansen 2010, Clutton-Brock and Parker 1995); dominant members punish behaviour that encroach on their interests and wellbeing. Dominant relationships, mating bonds, constraints to the demands of the offspring, and persuading reluctant helpers to cooperate are interactions regulated by punishments in order to keep dominant members’ hierarchy. Rewards are allocated by dominant members in order to keep their dominant role by benefiting the closer peers. Punishments and rewards in animal communities increase the wellbeing of dominant members directly, as well as their kin’s, and the wellbeing of their group and species indirectly. All efforts to maintain the hierarchy work properly only in the presence of dominant members, which exert control and prevent other members from breaking the rules. The possibility that some species, such as bonobos, could exhibit an higher form of cooperation characterized by altruistic punishments and rewards (De Waal 2013) cannot be excluded. However, there is little solid evidence that must be expanded.
Human beings show a higher form of cooperation, and hence of punishments and rewards, due to their evolutionally shaped brain. Tom is the brain system that allows the implicit attribution of intentions and other mental states; it includes areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex, temporal poles and posterior superior temporal sulcus. The temporal lobes are related to language and the capability of learning and understanding rules and moral codes; through language, a violation committed by a member can be communicated to the rest of the group. Moral disgust (Tybur 2012), characterized by the activation of areas such as Insula, has a fundamental role in group cohesion and in group defence toward outgroup individuals. Reward systems, the last system that will be mentioned here, is the crux in understanding human sensibility (sensitivity????) to the effectiveness of rewards and punishments.
The aforementioned traits are strictly connected to the existence of third-party punishments (Jansen 2010) punishments allocated by a member not directly involved in the transgression, something that has so far been demonstrated to be a uniquely human peculiarity. Human beings cooperate to achieve higher-order results that directly allow the group to obtain benefits from a higher-order, thus helping the individual thrive thanks to the success of the group. Through language, human beings create rules that are supposed to establish group survival and identity. Social control, driven by language and its related products, brings cooperation to a higher and finer form of cooperation probably not present elsewhere in nature. Control even has a key role in animal society, but language makes rules able to be internalized, putting them above the individual; third-party punishments are hence performed on behalf of rules and not because of an individual interest. A defector, an individual who has infringed some rules, is dissociated by the other members, since the defector’s actions can be considered a threat to group identity and survival gossip (Feinberg, Willer and Schultz 2014): this can be recognized as an evolutionary widespread trait useful to distance the defector and lower his fitness. Gossip and Rules’ spokesmen, those individuals who make sure the rules are respected, ensure control and cooperation through allocating punishments and rewards. In some societies, since human beings have never been able to prevent the totality of the infringements, the presence of a god or supernatural entities have provided a more rigid from of cooperation. God, or supernatural entities, allocate punishments and rewards even when the group’s members do not detect a violation or a remarkable act. Religion-based societies are associated with a higher level of group cooperation, compared to non-religion-based societies (Johnson 2006). Since members of a religion-based society live in fear of a supernatural entity that allocates rewards and punishments, there is no need for a constant third-party presence; with a supernatural entity, it is possible that rules are more deeply internalized. On the contrary, non-religion-based societies have to face a more demanding effort to prevent possible infringements by improving the control of third parties. Internalized rules are a crucial factor in promoting cooperation, even in non-religion based and secularized societies. A sense of guilt and remorse, connected to the infringement of an internalized rule, could act as an interior punishment when human beings fail to help someone in need or when they regret something they have done. On the contrary, providing help to those in need is generally associated with well-being and hence to a reward that promotes further cooperation. Generally, human beings are more sensitive to punishments since they tend to be loss-adverse(Tversky and Kahneman 1991) : punishments that damage the present status-quo leading to a loss of reputation which is amplified by gossip. These consequences combined together are a threat to the defector’s fitness since his success depends on his position inside the group. On the other hand, rewards are an incentive to encourage cooperation as they represent a benefit that increases the co-operator’s fitness. Non-cooperative behaviour can be promoted by the belief that the risk of coming across a punishment is underrated when a higher selfish behaviour-dependent -reward is attainable.
Rewards and Punishments are necessary for cooperation in order to maintain group cohesion and to supply a solid background to daily interaction among human beings. In turns, group cohesion and safe interactions raise a solid defence against outer threats allowing the group to survive and thrive by boosting indirectly the individual fitness.