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Free-Riding on Altruistic Punishment? An Experimental Comparison of Third-Party Punishment in a Stand-Alone and in an In-Group Environment


  • Lewisch Peter G.

    (University of Vienna; University of Milano – Bicocca; University of Eastern Piedmont)

  • Ottone Stefania

    (University of Vienna; University of Milano – Bicocca; University of Eastern Piedmont)

  • Ponzano Ferruccio

    (University of Vienna; University of Milano – Bicocca; University of Eastern Piedmont)


While second-party punishment is suitable in small groups, third-party punishment is much more common in large societies, where it is generally recognized as a social norm enforcement device that may guarantee social stability. However, in large societies, the presence of a potential additional third-party punisher who observes the norm violation and decides to intervene becomes more probable. The question arises as to whether third-party punishment would be robust with respect to an enlargement of the pool of potential altruistic punishers, namely the introduction of a second potential punisher. The relevance of this question is evident because, should the case be that the presence of several potential third-party punishers activates free-riding attitudes, third-party punishment may decline or even collapse altogether. In our paper we compare, by means of an economic experiment, punishment by a single third party (the Stand-Alone case) with punishment by third parties (In-Group environment). Shifting punishment choices into this “enlarged environment” allows us to study, in a systematic way, the complex relationship between the punisher’s expectations about her/his peer’s punishment decisions and her/his own punishment choices. Our data suggest that individual punishers are heterogeneous as to their individual punishment characteristics and the presence of a second punisher affects their choices to a certain extent. Consequently, the implementation of voluntary punishment depends on the distribution of types within the population. This result allows both to put into discussion the extreme emphasis devoted to voluntary third-party punishment as the “golden cornerstone” of spontaneous social order and to explain why large developed societies need institutional legal systems as the root of stability.

Suggested Citation

  • Lewisch Peter G. & Ottone Stefania & Ponzano Ferruccio, 2011. "Free-Riding on Altruistic Punishment? An Experimental Comparison of Third-Party Punishment in a Stand-Alone and in an In-Group Environment," Review of Law & Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 7(1), pages 161-190, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:bpj:rlecon:v:7:y:2011:i:1:n:8

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Butler, Je rey V. & Conzo, Pierluigi & Leroch, Martin A., 2013. "Social Identity and Punishment," Department of Economics and Statistics Cognetti de Martiis. Working Papers 201329, University of Turin.
    2. Gianna Lotito & Matteo Migheli & Guido Ortona, 2013. "Is cooperation instinctive? Evidence from the response times in a public goods game," Journal of Bioeconomics, Springer, vol. 15(2), pages 123-133, July.
    3. Kamei, Kenju, 2017. "Altruistic Norm Enforcement and Decision-Making Format in a Dilemma: Experimental Evidence," MPRA Paper 76641, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    4. Marchese Carla & Ramello Giovanni B., 2011. "In the Beginning Was the Word. Now is the Copyright," Review of Law & Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 7(1), pages 271-289, October.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • C92 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Group Behavior
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law


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