Harvard University postdoc David Rand recently published an article examining whether cooperation is encouraged more when people are able to punish bad actors, or reward good behavior. Ed Yong describes the experiment:

[Rand] asked teams of volunteers to play “public goods games”, where they could cheat or cooperate with each other for real money. After many rounds of play, the players were more likely to work together if they could reward each other for good behaviour or punish each other for offences. But of these two strategies, the carrot was better for the group than the stick, earning them far greater rewards.

Public goods games, albeit in a more complex form, are part and parcel of modern life. We play them when we decide to take personal responsibility for reducing carbon emissions, or rely on others to do so. We play them when we choose to do our share of the household chores, or when we rely on our housemates or partners to sort it out….

As Scientific American explains,

In a series of monetary interactions, individuals decided how much money to contribute to a common pot, and they could then decide whether to reward good contributors or punish bad—both of which would entail spending money.

Previous public goods studies had focused on one-time interactions and found that people were more likely to swindle or punish others. But in situations where interactions were repeated, people found greater success in reward-based structures—in which those that contributed were rewarded and those who didn’t were ignored—than those in which costly punishment was doled out to those who didn’t contribute.

Ed Yong comments,

Rand’s results suggest that when people repeatedly cross each other’s paths, carrots are far better than sticks at fostering behaviour for the greater good. Not only do they lead to greater payoffs for everyone concerned but they minimise the threat of antisocial punishment, where freeloaders vengefully castigate the altruists.

[To the tune of The Police, “Hungry For You (j’aurais toujours faim de toi),” from the album Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings (Disc 3) (I give it 2 stars).]