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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Moral labels increase cooperation and costly punishment in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game with punishment option

Mieth, L., Buchner, A. & Bell, R.
Sci Rep 11, 10221 (2021). 


To determine the role of moral norms in cooperation and punishment, we examined the effects of a moral-framing manipulation in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game with a costly punishment option. In each round of the game, participants decided whether to cooperate or to defect. The Prisoner’s Dilemma game was identical for all participants with the exception that the behavioral options were paired with moral labels (“I cooperate” and “I cheat”) in the moral-framing condition and with neutral labels (“A” and “B”) in the neutral-framing condition. After each round of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, participants had the opportunity to invest some of their money to punish their partners. In two experiments, moral framing increased moral and hypocritical punishment: participants were more likely to punish partners for defection when moral labels were used than when neutral labels were used. When the participants’ cooperation was enforced by their partners’ moral punishment, moral framing did not only increase moral and hypocritical punishment but also cooperation. The results suggest that moral framing activates a cooperative norm that specifically increases moral and hypocritical punishment. Furthermore, the experience of moral punishment by the partners may increase the importance of social norms for cooperation, which may explain why moral framing effects on cooperation were found only when participants were subject to moral punishment.

General discussion

In human social life, a large variety of behaviors are regulated by social norms that set standards on how individuals should behave. One of these norms is the norm of cooperation. In many situations, people are expected to set aside their egoistic interests to achieve the collective best outcome. Within economic research, cooperation is often studied in social dilemma games. In these games, the complexities of human social interactions are reduced to their incentive structures. However, human behavior is not only determined by monetary incentives. There are many other important determinants of behavior among which social norms are especially powerful. The participants’ decisions in social dilemma situations are thus affected by their interpretation of whether a certain behavior is socially appropriate or inappropriate. Moral labels can help to reduce the ambiguity of the social dilemma game by creating associations to real-life cooperation norms. Thereby, the moral framing may support a moral interpretation of the social dilemma situation, resulting in the moral rejection of egoistic behaviors. Often, social norms are enforced by punishment. It has been argued “that the maintenance of social norms typically requires a punishment threat, as there are almost always some individuals whose self-interest tempts them to violate the norm” [p. 185].