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Third-party Punishment–A Game Theory to Explain Complex Human Behavior

Please imagine the following scenario: You “luckily” witness a crime while walking on the street, would you stand out and help the victim? Or, when you are shopping in a convenience store, you see someone steal merchandise from the store, would you just stand by and let it go, allowing the owner to suffer the loss?

These scenarios are all possible to happen around you and me, and they are good research materials for studying “third-party punishment “in sociology. To be simplified, the complex relationship between different people, the third-party punishment, can be seen from the schematic below – when A is incurring a loss to B, another guy, C, who is irrelevant to Both A and B, has to come out and punish A.

 Third-party punishment

*Image source:Patrick Roos, et al. (2013)Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Generally speaking, third-party punishment is an altruistic behavior that is considered to be the essence of maintaining social order because the third party is just an individual, instead, it can be a lot of people from a certain social group. Different from the verdicts from judges representing the authorities, whether to conduct third-party punishment may be a matter of one-minute thinking. Hence, the strength of third-party punishment in different social environment might vary dramatically from one another. What is the social cause deciding such difference? How does third-party punishment evolve? Michele Gelfand, Psychology Professor from Maryland University, directed a study on these issues and proposed that the stronger a community’s social ties and the longer most people stay within the community, the more likely that third-parties will step forward to punish their neighbors. This finding has been published on Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Michele’s hypothesis was that in a social group, if people interact frequently and have strong social ties, and if the culture has a low mobility where people can’t easily leave the social group, then there is a high likelihood of third-parties stepping forward to exert the punishment. To test the hypothesis, Michele’s team constructed an evolutionary game theory, a powerful predictive mathematical tool. In sociology research, there is a famous ultimatum game model: A gains $100 and can distribute any portion to B, if B agrees the allocation plan, then the allocation takes effect; otherwise, both A and B gain nothing. Michele modified this model and in the new version, the decision making right of the allocation plan belongs to a third-party C, meaning C can decide whether to execute A’s plan or not. If C feels that A’s plan is unfair, he can punish A and make A come back empty-handed. To introduce social factors, the study object of this model is not totally random people, but those who are connected. In addition, the experiment repeats among the people.

Michele verified her idea through statistics of the model. She found that third-party punishment is much more likely to evolve in contexts of high social and structural constraint because it benefits the whole community in the long term, including the individual who metes out punishment. The results suggest when responsible third-party punishment evolves, it does so because the punishers’ actions are ultimately not altruistic. This behavior acts more like a signal to others in the neighborhood that everyone has to obey social orders and participate in maintaining social orders. If you keep salience upon unfairness on others, then this unfairness might grow and ultimately impairs your own benefits. Therefore, if such third-party punishment can evolve in a social mechanism, our social orders can be effectively sustained.

However, in major cities, especially the metropolis, all over the world, third-party punishment has limited effect. Michele proposed two main social factors: strong social ties and low mobility, are both on the opposite of large cities’ characteristics. Huge population weakens social ties between people, while high population mobility results in low responsibility for cities. All these are inevitable issues decided by the social structure.

However, as the fast development of the Internet, we may have a strong platform for third-party punishment – low cost of upholding justice online, sufficient anonymity, and booming news channel are all beneficial to third-party punishment. Every day, enormous netizens step forward to maintain justice and urge bad guys pay for their evil deeds. Living in such an Internet era, we have a “justice sword” in everyone’s hands as third-parties for myriad incidents. Stepping forward bravely or standing by silently? Your choice just lies on the bottom of your heart.


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