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UCSB Evolutionary Psychologists Study the Purpose of Punishment and Reputation

For two decades, evolutionary scientists have been locked in a debate over the evolved functions of three distinctive human behaviors: the great readiness we show for cooperating with new people, the strong interest we have in tracking others’ reputations regarding how well they treat others, and the occasional interest we have in punishing people for selfishly mistreating others. In an article published September 27 in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers at UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology report new findings that may help settle the debate and provide answers to the behavioral puzzle.

As they go about their daily lives, people usually don’t know the names of the people they encounter and — in cities, at least — typically expect never to see them again, noted Max M. Krasnow, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at UCSB and the paper’s lead author. Despite the fact that these encounters are brief, anonymous, and unlikely to be repeated, however, people often behave as if they are interested in the ongoing well-being and behavior of the strangers they meet.

“Imagine that, while grocery shopping, you see someone help a wheelchair-bound person he or she doesn’t know get her bags across the parking lot to her car. For many people, witnessing the action would elicit feelings of kindness toward the helper,” Krasnow explained. “Equally, if people see someone driven off the road by a reckless driver, they might become angry enough to pursue and even confront the driver. Evolutionary scientists are interested in why humans have impulses to help the kind stranger or to punish the callous one. At first glance, these sometimes costly impulses seem like they would subtract from the welfare of the individual who exhibited them, and so should be evolutionarily disfavored.”

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Read the PLoS ONE paper

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