Punishing freeloaders, cheats can benefit society: Study

September 24th, 2008 - 3:54 pm ICT by IANS  

Toronto, Sep 24 (IANS) A strong leader who punishes cheats and freeloaders can increase the cooperation and riches enjoyed by the rest of the group, according to research. In a study conducted by Universities of British Columbia, Kent and Sheffield Hallam, researchers explored how having a leader in charge - with the power to punish - works better than spreading responsibility through the entire group.

“One person can make a difference. Having a solitary leader can efficiently galvanise group cooperation,” said Joe Henrich, associate professor at British Columbia, who teaches psychology and economics. His co-authors are Rick O’Gorman of Sheffield and Mark Van Vugt of Kent University.

The study ran a series of experiments with 135 undergraduates at the University of Kent (Canterbury). The students, of whom 35 per cent were male, were divided into groups of 20-24, reports Eurekalert.

In the form of computer-based investment games, students each received $20 and were given the opportunity to anonymously contribute some or all of their money toward a communal group project.

Once collected, that lump sum was doubled by the researchers and divided equally among the students regardless of their contribution. Within each group, one person would act as the leader with the power to see what the other students gave and punish those deemed shirking their responsibility to contribute.

“This addresses the classic human cooperation dilemma,” said Henrich. “In society, you have those who cheat on their taxes, but still receive universal health care, or those who don’t recycle, but will get the benefits of a cleaner environment.”

To explore the motivation and behaviour of leaders, the researchers also designed an experiment in which the leader had to pay a fee before imposing punishment.

“Our findings show that even if a person has to sacrifice something to lead the group, they will do that to benefit the greater good,” said Henrich.

Their findings appeared in Tuesday’s online issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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