Cooperation, punishment, and group change in multilevel public goods experiments

We study experimentally how punishment affects cooperation and norms in multilevel public goods games.

Project info

Project consists of following studies
Peer punishment is regarded as an important element in sustaining human cooperation for public good provision. Many behavioral experiments have shown that public good provision is higher if cooperation norms can be enforced by peer punishment. However, these experiments predominantly focus on single-group public goods, in which people have to choose between their private interests and the interests of their group. In many societal problems, people are involved in multilevel public goods problems, where multiple local groups are nested within a larger global group. We study experimentally how punishment affects cooperation and norms in multilevel public goods games. In our games, two local groups are nested within a larger global group. Participants have to choose between not contributing, contributing locally, and contributing globally. Local contributions would lead to a polarized outcome where two separate local public goods are provided, whereas global contributions would lead to a unified global good that benefits all. Moreover, we study whether cooperation and punishment patterns depend on the type of public good participants are initially exposed to: single-group or multilevel. Participants either begin in a single-group public goods game and then shift to a multilevel public goods game or vice versa. We find that punishment is less effective in multilevel public goods games than in single-group public goods games. In particular, punishment only promotes cooperation in multilevel public goods games if people have prior experience with solving single-group public goods games. Our results refine the boundary conditions for the effectiveness of punishment and suggest that ‘starting small’ by first solving single-group public goods problems is necessary for successful multilevel public good provision.
Project start
End date
Behavioral theory
  • Goals
  • Identities
  • Networks
Kasper Otten
- other
Vincent Buskens
- other
Naomi Ellemers
- other
Wojtek Przepiorka
- other
  • Cooperation
  • Newcomer
  • Norm
  • Public good game
  • Public good provision
  • Social dilemma
  • (Experimental) economics
  • Economics
  • Psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Sociology
Work package
  • Inclusion
  • Theory
Sustainability threat
  • External Shocks
  • Spillovers
  • Accommodating newcomers
  • Dealing with diversity
  • Identity flexibility and sustainable cooperation
Theoretical background
The standard public goods game involves a single group, and people thus have to choose between not contributing to benefit themselves and contributing to benefit their group. However, in many real-life instances of public good provision, there are multiple groups nested within a larger collective group. Such public goods have been labeled multilevel public goods. For example, multilevel public good problems may arise in multiethnic societies consisting of the native-majority group and immigrant groups. In multilevel public good problems, individuals have to decide between not contributing, contributing to subgroup public goods, and contributing to collective public goods that also benefit other subgroups. Collective public good provision is the best outcome for everybody combined, but ingroup biases or self-interest can lead to subgroup public good provision or no public good provision at all. Because there are multiple public goods that one can contribute to in the multilevel public goods problem, there is the risk that people disagree about which public good to provide. What is more, ingroup biases can lead to subgroup public good provision at the expense of collective public good provision. Norm enforcement via peer punishment is known to promote public good provision in single-group scenarios (Chaudhuri, 2011), but the heightened risks of disagreement and ingroup bias in multilevel public good problems may limit effective norm enforcement for (collective) public good provision
Research design
We conduct a lab experiment on the multilevel public goods game with 220 participants to examine the effect of punishment on subgroup and collective public good provision.
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