Do humansreallypunish altruistically? A closer look Journal Article uri icon



  • Some researchers have proposed that natural selection has given rise in humans to one or more adaptations foraltruisticallypunishing 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.

publication date

  • May 7, 2013

has restriction

  • bronze

Date in CU Experts

  • August 22, 2017 10:25 AM

Full Author List

  • Pedersen EJ; Kurzban R; McCullough ME

author count

  • 3

Other Profiles

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0962-8452

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1471-2954

Additional Document Info

start page

  • 20122723

end page

  • 20122723


  • 280


  • 1758