Cooperation without punishment

Balaraju Battu, Talal Rahwan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A fundamental question in social and biological sciences is whether self-governance is possible when individual and collective interests are in conflict. Free riding poses a major challenge to self-governance, and a prominent solution to this challenge has been altruistic punishment. However, this solution is ineffective when counter-punishments are possible and when social interactions are noisy. We set out to address these shortcomings, motivated by the fact that most people behave like conditional cooperators—individuals willing to cooperate if a critical number of others do so. In our evolutionary model, the population contains heterogeneous conditional cooperators whose decisions depend on past cooperation levels. The population plays a repeated public goods game in a moderately noisy environment where individuals can occasionally commit mistakes in their cooperative decisions and in their imitation of the role models’ strategies. We show that, under moderate levels of noise, injecting a few altruists into the population triggers positive reciprocity among conditional cooperators, thereby providing a novel mechanism to establish stable cooperation. More broadly, our findings indicate that self-governance is possible while avoiding the detrimental effects of punishment, and suggest that society should focus on creating a critical amount of trust to harness the conditional nature of its members.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1213
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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