Pubblicato: settembre 29, 2012 in behaviour
Tag:, ,

A few days ago, better a few nights ago I had a question crossing my mind:why are we humans so prone to punishment rather than reinforcement? Why is our first instinct to stop unwelcome behavior rather than reinforcing the ones we like? We are not ready to deliver a nice biscuit to our dog who is well-behaving as we are ready to get angry if she bites our shoes. Let’s face it: as species we are not among the top 10 of the nicest ones: just take a look at the news.

Given these characteristics of ours, I’ve taken a quick look to see how  behave our friends the animals .
Primates have surely some kind of punishment although the kind of aggression which I found cited as punishment (eg between dominant males for females or food) could be more examples of negative reinforcement (R-) rather than real punishment. The only example of a “real” punishment seems that shown by dominant baboons: if lower ranking members do not report with the appropriate callings the discovery of food sources they are attacked as soon as they move back to the group! A second example of real punishment is the one that has been tested on a herd of horses. Experimenters have taken away from the group lower rank member and feed them in sight to the rest of the group. As they return to the herd they are attacked by higher order horses. Sometimes it’s easy to exchange punishment with negative reinforcement: the stags with a harem attacks and chases the young deers who try to mate with their females. This type of aggression, suffered by parasites -definition for those who seek to divert resources from others- teaches to not to try it with the same dominant stag in the same place. The attitude of  “no try” has been negatively reinforced (I’ll beat you until you quit).

Punitive or aggressive behavior or otherwise designed to subjugate others could be born, counter-intuitively, as an aid to establish cooperation inside the group. In a particular species of wasps, the queen “beat” the lazy wasps. If you freeze -in an experiment- the queen, the activity of workers slows down brutally. Other similar example comes from wrens: in colonies of wrens the helpers kept separated from rest of the colony during the breeding season are attacked on their return to the colony, while are simply ignored if kept separate during other periods. The picture that seems to emerge is that social groups must-necessarily- recourse to coercive behaviors to remain united. It must be said that only some of these behaviors can be clearly labeled as “punishment”.

We humans, as expected, we play a different part (are we or not more evolved?).
By chance at the end of August were published through the Web the preliminaryt results from a recent research that has shown that chimps do not have a particolar class of behavior known as “altruistic punishment”. Altruistic punishment also known as “third party punishment” happens when we punish the responsible of behavior suffered by another person. The fact that our closest cousins don’t have this behavior tell us how much different is mankind’s behavior from the rest of wild. We humans have plenty of this type of behavior -quite well developed- if we see what we could create thanks to it. In fact, it was believed until recently that the great civilizations were born using the neurobiological basis they had for centuries ruled the soclal life of hunters adapting them to the particular resourcefulness Holocene. In practice, as soon as there was the possibility the man has expanded with the brain structures that he had handy.
Seemingly,  climate changes  alone are not enough for the birth of great civilizations. As long as social groups are small, as wide as clans with less than 25-50 members, everyone can adjust independently and directly  their relationships, helped, maybe, by a dominant member. Who have strayed away from the group simply is isolated, plunging his chances of survival: working together is an absolutely necessary. As soon an communities begin to grow and pass the critical threshold of 100 members this type of control is not enough. Who have strayed could be able to hide into the society (maybe finding hapl in another family) escaping the condemnation of those who had been offended. So, large communities must give themselves new laws and rules and, to make those even stronger, they tie together this new course to moral considerations through the invention of Religion. The fact that all (or at least most of) the members should bow to the new rules can not be justified by the simple collaboration. To grow, these societies have to resort to altruistic punishment.This kind of behavior works in this way: someone, (a judge in our societies) decides how a criminal act, addressing to others, should be punished. All members of society accept and apply it. Into smaller groups this mechanism apparentely doesn’t exixt. Studies regarding the last primitive gropus, have shown that they do not have altruistic punishment in their repertoires. Hence the hypothesis that the neurobiological mechanisms of the ancient hunters have evolved into new forms allowing the creation of complex Neolithic societies. Matter of fact that a large genetic mutation has occurred in the Middle Esat and  its result is that we can eat and drink the milk of other species.

Functional studies of the brain have given evidence that these new circuits appear installed in the neocortex: Here you decide whether or not a certain action should be punished; amygdala and other parts of the emotional brain decide the amount of punishment.
These findings from scientific research show that we humans have  specific mechanisms for the punishment; and, it’s said to say, these mechanisms have been responsible for the success, so far, of our species.
Where is the point?

The point is, in my opinion, that we abuse of “third party punishment”, much too often playing the role of judge. When we punish not going to punish the behavior, but the subject. In other words we are going to take revenge for the “peed” carpet . I think our neocortex which show us the future, allowing us to plan and schedule, lead us to take a role that does not always belong to us. We like to judge and criticize we like to see “HOW”  things have been done (to this reagrd you can readt the post “WHY not HOW” in this blog). Let us rather  identify ourself as teachers and not as judges, helping those around us to grow up in a positive way. 
The neurobiological mechanism of altruistic punishment, as we have seen, apply to the social context, where broad masses of people are at play. We do can begin to change our own perspective starting from the small family tribe where collaboration and empathy alone are sufficient to ensure the “survival”. Let’s exclude punitive behavior from our daily lives.
Just a simple Clicker for our dog could take us very far in a wonderful discovery journey.

As strange as it may sound, mathematical models applied to the evolution of social groups show that altruism alone can only support small groups of individuals (as happens in the wild). The use of coercive behaviors allows groups to:
• stabilize, allowing the development of a shared cultural heritage (necessary basis for a further leap forward related to the development of laws and religions);
• to increase in size. Groups whose members are “free” from altruistic punishment can not exceed 100 members (in some tribal societies, when you reach more or less these numbersm  there is a budding with a birth of a new group). If there is altruistic punishment, the group  can reach 600 units  we are talking about modern society which lives in  pre-agricultural style). While we modern humans, with the increased availability of resources, we have societies made by billions of individuals.


  1. BUCKHOLTZ  (2008) – The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment
  2. CLUTTON (1994) – punishment in animal societies
  3. HENRICH (2005) – Markets, religion community size.
  5. RIEDI (2012) – No Third Party Punishment in Chimpanzees


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