this BBC article talking about why motorists hate cyclists for what they perceive to be cheating in the typical rules of the road, e.g. passing on the right, not waiting their turn, etc. Some motorists hate cyclists so much they would like to run them down. Why? Altruistic punishment:
Humans seem to have evolved one way of enforcing order onto potentially chaotic social arrangements. This is known as "altruistic punishment", a term used by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter in a landmark paper published in 2002. An altruistic punishment is a punishment that costs you as an individual, but doesn't bring any direct benefit. As an example, imagine I'm at a football match and I see someone climb in without buying a ticket. I could sit and enjoy the game (at no cost to myself), or I could try to find security to have the guy thrown out (at the cost of missing some of the game). That would be altruistic punishment.
Altruistic punishment, Fehr and Gachter reasoned, might just be the spark that makes groups of unrelated strangers co-operate.
The researchers set up a game in which players were incentivized to cheat in repeated rounds of the game, until...
A simple addition to the rules reversed this collapse of co-operation, and that was the introduction of altruistic punishment. Fehr and Gachter allowed players to fine other players credits, at a cost to themselves. This is true altruistic punishment because the groups change after each round, and the players are anonymous. There may have been no direct benefit to fining other players, but players fined often and they fined hard – and, as you'd expect, they chose to fine other players who hadn't chipped in on that round. The effect on cooperation was electric. With altruistic punishment, the average amount each player contributed rose and rose, instead of declining. The fine system allowed cooperation between groups of strangers who wouldn't meet again, overcoming the challenge of the free rider problem.
So this was interesting to read, because for the most part I don't participate in altruistic punishment. And by that I mean to say I don't think I do or ever have, but I'm reluctant to say something so certain without its having been on my radar for the entirety of my existence.
To give an example, on a recent trip my phone was stolen. I have tracking software installed on it and was able to track my phone going away into a sketchy part of the city where I was visiting until it stayed there. I sent some messages offering a "found" reward and sort of threatening police action, but really it was a longshot. The next morning I went to the store to buy a new phone. I asked the guy if I could transfer my extended warranty on the phone to the new phone and he said no, but he could label it as "stolen".
"What happens when it gets labeled as stolen? Do you somehow prevent them from using the phone?"
"No, but if they bring it and ask to have it repaired, we tell them it's stolen."
"Do you confiscate it?"
"No, usually they just walk out of the store with it immediately."
"Well, what's the point?"
"They wouldn't be able to use our services or benefit from the warrantee."
"Oh, well, then no. I want them to benefit from the warranty. I paid for that, someone should benefit from it. And good on them for managing to steal my phone."
Maybe the store owner thought that I was being particularly forgiving, and in a way I guess I was, but really it was just realizing that I had gotten beat at a game whose rules I of course had understood and accepted when I bought the expensive phone and traipsed around with it all over.
I suppose even if I had listed it as "stolen" it wouldn't have even been that altruistic because there didn't seem to be any additional cost to me in terms of time lost or whatever. But this makes me think it's even less likely that I would actually altruistically punish people. This doesn't mean that I don't hold grudges or keep score sometimes and try to punish people for benefits that accrue directly to me somehow (reputational or establishing a particular power dynamic). And I guess I might from time to time take on someone else's "cause" just for the sake of having an excuse to rabble-rouse -- but I don't really believe in the righteousness of the cause.
Why don't I altruistically punish? Could have something to do with the origins of the impulse:
They dished out fines because they were mad as hell. Fehr and Gachter, like the good behavioural experimenters they are, made sure to measure exactly how mad that was, by asking players to rate their anger on a scale of one to seven in reaction to various scenarios. When players were confronted with a free-rider, almost everyone put themselves at the upper end of the anger scale. Fehr and Gachter describe these emotions as a “proximate mechanism”. This means that evolution has built into the human mind a hatred of free-riders and cheaters, which activates anger when we confront people acting like this – and it is this anger which prompts altruistic punishment. In this way, the emotion is evolution's way of getting us to overcome our short-term self-interest and encourage collective social life.
Of course because it is emotionally driven and not necessarily rational, it leads to such anti-social behaviors as advocating for violence against cyclists.