Do humans really punish altruistically? a closer look

Eric J. Pedersen, Robert Kurzban, Michael E. McCullough

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Scopus citations


Some researchers have proposed that natural selection has given rise in humans to one or more adaptations for altruistically punishing on behalf of other individuals who have been treated unfairly, even when the punisher has no chance of benefiting via reciprocity or benefits to kin. However, empirical support for the altruistic punishment hypothesis depends on results from experiments that are vulnerable to potentially important experimental artefacts. Here, we searched for evidence of altruistic punishment in an experiment that precluded these artefacts. In so doing, we found that victims of unfairness punished transgressors, whereas witnesses of unfairness did not. Furthermore, witnesses' emotional reactions to unfairness were characterized by envy of the unfair individual's selfish gains rather than by moralistic anger towards the unfair behaviour. In a second experiment run independently in two separate samples, we found that previous evidence for altruistic punishment plausibly resulted from affective forecasting error-that is, limitations on humans' abilities to accurately simulate how they would feel in hypothetical situations. Together, these findings suggest that the case for altruistic punishment in humans-a view that has gained increasing attention in the biological and social sciences-has been overstated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20122723
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1758
StatePublished - May 7 2013


  • Affective forecasting
  • Altruistic punishment
  • Cooperation
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Third-party punishment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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