Do People Punish Altruistically? A Film by Casy NeistatPublished 2 April, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, the video section of the New York Times presented a film (below) by Casey Neistat called “Bike Thief.” In it, Neistat stages the theft of a bicycle in broad daylight on the streets of New York City in order to see if anyone – onlookers or police – would intervene, filming the result.
The brief answer is: not so much. In the first scene, he uses a hacksaw to break a chain and free a bike, taking six minutes, then riding away. He repeats the stunt in front of the 9th police precinct, stealing a bicycle in under two minutes. In the third scene, a Black friend of his steals a bike. Same result. In the final scene, he uses a power tool to steal a bike chained to the entrance of a subway. After 9 minutes — the text overlay on the video says that “countless” people walked by — the police intervene.
I previously wrote about a similarly staged theft, in that case filmed for the television show, What Would You Do?
These videos speak to an ongoing debate about the extent to which people are inclined to intervene when other people have violated a social norm or broken some sort of rule. This type of behavior is occasionally referred to as “altruistic punishment,” and I’ve assembled a set of my favorite quotations drawn largely from papers that use experiments to look at this issue:
These experiments show that…a sizeable fraction continues to punish in the complete absence of return benefits. These experiments unequivocally demonstrate the existence of altruistic punishment (O’Gorman et al. 2005)
Compelling evidence for the existence and importance of such altruistic punishment comes from controlled laboratory experiments, particularly the study of public goods, common pool resource, ultimatum, and other games, from ethnographic studies of simple societies, from historical accounts of collective action, as well as from everyday observation (Bowles & Gintis, 2004)
….costly punishment is present across a highly diverse range of human populations… (Henrich et al., 2006)
In general, people retaliate against injustice even if they are not directly victimized. Sanctioning of norm-violations is vital for prosocial behavior to be sustained. (Nelissen & Zeelenberg, 2009)
In laboratory experiments, people punish noncooperators at a cost to themselves even in one-shot interactions and ethnographic data suggest that such altruistic punishment helps to sustain cooperation in human societies (Boyd et al., 2003)
[I]n the public goods game with punishment strikingly high cooperation rates can be enforced through punishment…. It turns out that the punishment by third parties is surprisingly strong. Camerer & Fehr, 2003
Ultimatum and dictator games with children of different ages show that older children are more generous and more willing to punish altruistically (Fehr & Fischbächer, 2003)
Thus, in contrast to the conventional assumptions made in game theoretic analyses of sanctioning behaviour, there is little evidence of self-interested sanctions whereas there is much evidence for non-selﬁshly motivated sanctions. (Fehr & Fischbächer, 2003)
Why the apparent discrepancy between these broad, even sweeping, claims and observations in videos such as “Bike Thief?”
One possibility might be that there is something different in the populations in the laboratory as opposed to the populations in the real world. However, many of the experiments on which the above claims rest are conducted with Western industrialized samples.
Another possibility could be that people prefer other people to punish altruistically. Because these scenes were filmed in areas with a certain degree of pedestrian traffic, perhaps passersby all prefer to free ride on other people’s altruistic punishment behavior. That is, people don’t have a “taste” or a “preference” for punishment in the same way that they have tastes or preference for, say, ice cream; perhaps people only like to punish if no one else is doing so (even if they like ice cream even if everyone else is also having some.) Along similar lines, in the real world, people might expect police to enforce the rules; in the lab, there are no such expectations.
Yet another possibility is that the experiments in which moralistic punishment is observed have important demand characteristics. Perhaps subjects infer that the experimenter wants them to punish, and do so in order to conform with experimenter desires as opposed to what the subject themselves desires. This predicts that as anonymity goes up, moralistic punishment should go down, which is consistent with some work we have done in my lab.
One more possibility is that estimates of altruistic punishment have been over-estimated in the lab. In Fehr and Gächter’s (2002) paper, for instance, people punished low contributors in a public goods game. This could have been due to a desire for revenge, given that low contributors didn’t just violate a norm, they also withheld benefits from the person who punished. If people have a desire for revenge, then estimates of “altruistic punishment” will be overestimated in experiments in which punishment is imposed on those who harmed – or withheld benefits from – subjects
I probably should add that, on the one hand, I don’t doubt that under some circumstances, people will intervene in other parties’ disputes, even at some cost to themselves. Indeed, there are some uplifting moments in What Would You Do that show that this happens even in the field. Still, while it seems to me that the lab and field evidence for revenge is strong, the evidence for third party intervention is more ambiguous (as I’ve written about).
So, as someone who rides his bicycle to work everyday, I’m going to continue to rely on my Kryptonite lock, and not so much on the kindness of strangers.
Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2004). “The evolution of strong reciprocity: cooperation in heterogeneous populations.” Theoretical Population Biology, 65, 17-28. I removed the in-text references from the quote.
Boyd, R., Gintis, H., Bowles, S., & Richerson, P.J. (2003). “The evolution of altruistic punishment.” PNAS, 100, 3531-3535.
Camerer, C.F., & Fehr, E. (2003). “Measuring social norms and preferences using experimental games: A guide for social scientists.” Available here.
Fehr, E., & Fischbächer, U. (2003). “The nature of human altruism.” Nature, 425, 785-791.
Fehr, E., & Fischbächer, U. (2004). “Social norms and human cooperation.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 185-190.
Fehr, E., & Gächter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415, 137– 140.
Heinrich, J. et al. (2006). “Costly punishment across human societies.” Science, 312, 1767-1770.
Nelissen, R. M. A., & Zeelenberg, M. (2009). “Moral emotions as determinants of third-party punishment: Anger, guilt, and the functions of altruistic sanctions.” Judgment and Decision Making, 4, 543–553.
O’Gorman, R., Wilson, D. S., & Miller, R. R. (2005). Altruistic punishing and helping differ in sensitivity to relatedness, friendship, and future interactions. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 375–387.