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Human Behavior Study Shows Rewards Work Better than Punishment


The saying goes, "nice guys finish last." But some behavioral researchers say that might not be true.

David Rand, a researcher at Harvard University says rewarding people for good behavior, rather than punishing them for bad behavior results in more public cooperation.

Rand studies the evolution of cooperation, a sub-genre of biology which examines the development of human behavior. Recently, he argued that the evolutionary advantage doesn't always go to the strongest in a group. Instead, he said, cooperative people get the edge.

"Human societies are at some level, based on people willing to help each other at cost to themselves, and people willing to contribute to group efforts," Rand said.

He added that examples of this can be seen throughout biology down to the smallest organisms where, "individual cells (are) not just growing as fast as they can, but doing their part." Cancer, he said, represents a breakdown of cooperation in which cells grow as fast as they can, uncontrolled by group cooperation.

Putting cooperation to the test

To examine this phenomenon in human interaction, Rand recruited groups of college students to play a computer-based game for an hour. The rules instructed players to cooperate towards reaching a common goal. Students received financial bonuses for the number of points they individually earned, thus rewarding those who selfishly amassed the most points. But players were also allowed to punish people who were selfish. A player who was generous and cooperative also gained points, sometimes even more than the selfish players.

Overall, Rand found that cooperation paid off. "If you look at the groups that rewarded cooperation the most, they earned about twice as much over the course of this hour as the groups which rewarded the least," he said. He also found that, "the more the group punished, the worse its overall payoff was." Overall, Rand said that, "the group that punished the most, earned 25 percent less than the group that punished the least."

Cooperation generates good will

Rand concluded that the reciprocal nature of cooperation creates an environment for better outcomes and that the benefits can lead to future good will.

"It's saying, if you help me today, and help the group today, then I'll be willing to help you tomorrow," he said.

Rand added that "the implication of this study is that in settings where you interact again and again with the same people and you sort of have reputations, and you know what other people have done in the past…it really pays to be helpful and nice to the people that are doing their part, and not helpful to the people that aren't doing their part."

Rand said that the lessons about cooperation apply to situations both at societal levels and intimate ones.

Rand's study was published in the journal Science.

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