Corruption And Punishment Leading To Chaos Or Righteousness

Corruption and punishment leading to chaos or righteousness is a societal dilemma. All social societies, whether animal or specifically human, rely on cooperation for a stable society. Societies are made up of individuals and there is a greater or lesser degree of decision-making each individual has to make to ensure that the society works as a successful unit. Failure to make the correct decision usually leads to punishment.

A problem is that the punisher will find their action costly. It requires effort outside their daily activities, but it also risks provoking retaliation, which may be very costly indeed.

Studies of animal societies provide a wealth of information, but the human pool of individuals provides a supply of candidates for the lab. However, the computer can play through various scenarios much more rapidly.  

The prisoner’s Dilemma Game (1,2) is the game where a pair of participants can cooperate with each, keep quiet and both get a short sentence. One can defect and betray the other. The defector goes free and the betrayed gets a long sentence. If both defect they get an intermediate sentence.

Punishment can be introduced for ratting out your partner who defected, but the punisher puts an extra sentence on the defector at the cost of a small extra sentence for him/herself (3,4). Instead of the prison time of the sociologists, the players can be rewarded with differential amounts of cash – a version favored by the economists.

Duéñez-Guzmán and Sadedin in PLoS ONE have just published a new variation of the game with the hopeful title “Evolving Righteousness in a Corrupt World” (5). Note that defector can punish his partner who also defected. The relative costs and rewards can be varied.

Their results show that the usual cooperating population will drift to widespread defection. The defecting population can introduce punishment and then it drifts towards a stable population with corruption endemic. Now if the punishment is made more egalitarian, by making the costs to the defecting punisher similar to those experienced by the defecting non-punisher, and by upping those costs to make the punishment harsher, corruption dies out and the society becomes a stable righteous one.

It is interesting to note that a harsher cost for corruption compared to simple defection doesn’t maximize righteousness in the computer society. What matters most in fighting corruption?

To quote the authors, “the path to righteousness starts with fairness, not with vengeance.”


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