What’s punishment like in small-scale societies?

by Léo Fitouchi (Image credit Frans Huby, Creative Commons 3.0)

Humans want wrongdoers to suffer. From the justice courts of modern societies to the biblical “eye for an eye,” people everywhere have rules for punishing transgressions including theft, murder, assault, or property damage. Why do human societies punish wrongdoers? You might think the answer is simple: to teach offenders a lesson so that they don’t offend again and the group can function well.

This intuition—that punishment serves to enforce collective norms—reflects in many strands of social science. Émile Durkheim, the French founder of sociology, argued that punishment serves to reaffirm the sacred values of the group, thereby reinforcing group solidarity. More recently, evolutionary social scientists assume that humans feel the need to punish norm-violators even when their behavior doesn’t harm the punisher directly—a behavior called third-party punishment. We humans would be normative animals, deeply committed to getting deviants back in line, for the good of the group and at a cost to oneself.

In this view, third-party punishment is not only a universal feature of human psychology; it also explains why humans are so cooperative compared to other species. By imposing costs on antisocial actors, third-party punishment would have selected for higher levels of cooperation during human evolution.

Despite these wide-ranging claims, however, few recent studies have examined how punishment operates in the social contexts where our punitive psychology is assumed to have evolved—namely, small-scale, politically decentralized societies (for notable exceptions, see here, here, and here). Most studies of punishment rely on participants from large-scale societies or, if they include participants from small-scale societies, on artificial experiments such as economic games.

In a recent paper, Manvir Singh and I examine the concrete enactment of punishment in three small-scale societies: Kiowa bison hunters (North America), Mentawai horticulturalists (Indonesia), and Nuer pastoralists (South Sudan). We code ethnographic reports of 91 offenses among the Kiowa, analyze first-hand interviews about 276 offenses among the Mentawai, and review punitive procedures documented among the Nuer.

With find that punitive procedures are often inconsistent with a norm-enforcement function. Most notably, people don’t bother punishing violations that don’t harm them directly. The quasi-totality of the punishments we observe, whether they involve fines, killing the offender, or destroying their property, are administered by the victim themselves or their family in retaliation for the harm suffered. Contrary to the idea that third-party punishment is universal and has shaped the evolution of human cooperation, people often seem indifferent to transgressions that do not affect them directly, even for serious transgressions such as murder.

If people do not punish to enforce collective norms or group cooperation, then what is punishment for? A useful analogy here is the distinction, made in some large-scale societies, between criminal law and civil law. Criminal law deals with violations of the society’s norms, which are punished by third-party officials on behalf of society as a whole. Civil law, by contrast, deals with dyadic disputes between private parties, requiring the offender to compensate the victim for the tort inflicted. Punitive justice in small-scale societies, we argue, serves only the civil function of resolving private disputes between offender and victim and restoring their cooperative relationship that was broken by the offense.

Offenses such as theft, murder, or adultery typically trigger retaliation on the part of the victim—a behavior evolved to deter future exploitation. Yet unrestrained retaliation can trigger counter-punishment on the part on of offender, which risks escalating into destructive feuds that end up harming not only disputants themselves, but also their kin or allies, who often get embroiled in the conflict. People have thus had a mutual interest in designing and retaining punitive procedures that seemed well-suited to reconciling disputants and limiting conflict between offender and victim after offenses.

Our results show that the justice systems of the Kiowa, the Mentawai, and the Nuer exhibit many features consistent with this restorative function. First, punishment was entangled with compensation: the offender had to pay costs, yes, but often while providing the victim with material benefits such as pigs, cattle, horses, or other valuables. This allows the victim to experience forgiveness and appeases their urge for revenge, preventing harsh retaliations that could spark destructive feuds. Second, the prescribed level of punishment and compensation was proportionate to the tort inflicted on the victim. This, again, is well suited to satisfy the victim’s urge for revenge while avoiding disproportionate retaliation that could spark counter-revenge. Third, while third parties rarely punished, they often intervened to mediate, pacify disputants, and help them achieve peaceful resolution.

Our results echo longstanding observations of legal anthropologists. For decades, researchers working in small-scale, politically decentralized societies have insisted on the rarity of third-party punishment, the private nature of law, and the compensatory logic of justice. Yet these features of punishment have been largely ignored by evolutionary social scientists and psychologists, leading to misleading assumptions about the evolution of punishment and cooperation. Rather than third-party punishers enforcing cooperation, as often occurs in large-scale, anonymous societies, social order in most human societies may have been far more decentralized, emerging from individuals and families negotiating over how to best treat each other.

Read the original paper: Fitouchi, L., & Singh, M. (2023). Punitive justice serves to restore reciprocal cooperation in three small-scale societies. Evolution & Human Behavior, 44(5), 502-514.