"It's for your own good": can a sanction really be altruistic?

"Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which can be used differently". This is how the English economist Lionel Robbins of the London School of Economics characterized the purpose of economics in a famous 1932 text. Even if certain experiments are relatively old, such as the questioning of risk, so-called "behavioral economics" remains a relatively recent field of study. This may seem paradoxical in the light of this canonical definition. Nevertheless, it has found its consecration with, in particular, the Nobel Prize in Economics awarded to Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith in 2002.

Marc Willinger, University of Montpellier and David Masclet, University of Rennes 1

If individuals punish each other to enable cooperation, their motivation seems in no way altruistic, at least not in the sense of a parent punishing his child "for his own good".

The following year, Nature published a much-quoted article by Swiss economists Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher. Their idea? Cooperation in our society is essentially based on an "altruistic sanction" mechanism. Where individuals - what economists call "free riders" - can benefit from the efforts of their fellow citizens without having to pitch in, the threat to those who cooperate seems sufficient to dissuade such behavior. But if sanctioning represents a cost and yields no return for the individual who decides to do it, how can the mechanism work? Who will initiate the sanction?

The laboratory experiment conducted by these two economists, and described in this second episode by Marc Willinger (University of Montpellier) and David Masclet (University of Rennes 1), shows that where there is sanction, there is cooperation. This sanction seems to be based on the anger of the cooperator who realizes that not everyone is behaving virtuously. If the decision to sanction is thus aimed at calming a negative emotional state, is the expression "altruistic sanction" still relevant? In any case, it seems a far cry from the parent who punishes his child with the classic argument: "It's for his own good"...The Conversation

Marc Willinger, Professor of Economics, Behavioral and Experimental Economics, University of Montpellier and David Masclet, Professor of Experimental and Behavioral Economics , University of Rennes 1

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