Research Article

The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment

Science  27 Aug 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5688, pp. 1254-1258
DOI: 10.1126/science.1100735

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Abstract

Many people voluntarily incur costs to punish violations of social norms. Evolutionary models and empirical evidence indicate that such altruistic punishment has been a decisive force in the evolution of human cooperation. We used H2 15O positron emission tomography to examine the neural basis for altruistic punishment of defectors in an economic exchange. Subjects could punish defection either symbolically or effectively. Symbolic punishment did not reduce the defector's economic payoff, whereas effective punishment did reduce the payoff. We scanned the subjects' brains while they learned about the defector's abuse of trust and determined the punishment. Effective punishment, as compared with symbolic punishment, activated the dorsal striatum, which has been implicated in the processing of rewards that accrue as a result of goal-directed actions. Moreover, subjects with stronger activations in the dorsal striatum were willing to incur greater costs in order to punish. Our findings support the hypothesis that people derive satisfaction from punishing norm violations and that the activation in the dorsal striatum reflects the anticipated satisfaction from punishing defectors.

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