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Honor among thieves: Cooperation as a strategic response to functional unpleasantness


  • Heller, William B.
  • Sieberg, Katri K.


The assumption of self-interested behavior makes it difficult to explain cooperation among strangers. Economics experiments and game-theoretic analyses suggest that cooperation can arise from a willingness to punish noncooperative behavior, even at personal cost. Such behavior is often based on the notion that people who punish noncooperators value cooperation in itself. We show, by contrast, that people who like to cheat but also punish other cheaters - people who are Unpleasant, but who also have a strategic desire to avoid being punished themselves - can form the basis for widespread, even complete cooperation in society. Ultimately, such Unpleasant but strategic types can create conditions where all cooperate even though everyone would prefer to cheat.

Suggested Citation

  • Heller, William B. & Sieberg, Katri K., 2010. "Honor among thieves: Cooperation as a strategic response to functional unpleasantness," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 26(3), pages 351-362, September.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:poleco:v:26:y:2010:i:3:p:351-362

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Ernst Fehr & Klaus M. Schmidt, 1999. "A Theory of Fairness, Competition, and Cooperation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(3), pages 817-868.
    2. Gary S. Becker, 1974. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," NBER Chapters,in: Essays in the Economics of Crime and Punishment, pages 1-54 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Ernst Fehr & Joseph Henrich, 2003. "Is Strong Reciprocity a Maladaptation? On the Evolutionary Foundations of Human Altruism," CESifo Working Paper Series 859, CESifo Group Munich.
    4. Henrich, Joseph, 2004. "Cultural group selection, coevolutionary processes and large-scale cooperation," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 53(1), pages 3-35, January.
    5. repec:cup:apsrev:v:86:y:1992:i:02:p:404-417_08 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Joseph Henrich, 2000. "Does Culture Matter in Economic Behavior? Ultimatum Game Bargaining among the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(4), pages 973-979, September.
    7. Stergios Skaperdas, 2001. "The political economy of organized crime: providing protection when the state does not," Economics of Governance, Springer, vol. 2(3), pages 173-202, November.
    8. Simon Gachter & Ernst Fehr, 2000. "Cooperation and Punishment in Public Goods Experiments," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(4), pages 980-994, September.
    9. Ernst Fehr & Bettina Rockenbach, 2003. "Detrimental effects of sanctions on human altruism," Microeconomics 0305007, EconWPA.
    10. Berentsen, Aleksander & Bruegger, Esther & Loertscher, Simon, 2008. "On cheating, doping and whistleblowing," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 24(2), pages 415-436, June.
    11. Grossman, Herschel I. & Kim, Minseong, 2000. "Predators, moral decay, and moral revivals," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 16(2), pages 173-187, June.
    12. William Heller & K. Sieberg, 2008. "Functional unpleasantness: the evolutionary logic of righteous resentment," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 135(3), pages 399-413, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Shortland, Anja & Vothknecht, Marc, 2011. "Combating “maritime terrorism” off the coast of Somalia," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 27(S1), pages 133-151.
    2. Bjornskov, Christian & Bogetic, Zeljko & Hillman, Arye & Popovic, Milenko, 2014. "Trust and Identity in a Small, Post-Socialist, Post-Crisis Society," EconStor Preprints 95968, ZBW - German National Library of Economics.
    3. Heinrich Ursprung, 2012. "The evolution of sharing rules in rent seeking contests: Incentives crowd out cooperation," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 153(1), pages 149-161, October.
    4. Niklas Potrafke, 2012. "Islam and democracy," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 151(1), pages 185-192, April.
    5. Goel, Rajeev K. & Nelson, Michael A. & Naretta, Michael A., 2012. "The internet as an indicator of corruption awareness," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 28(1), pages 64-75.


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