The literature on social dilemmas and punishment focuses on the behaviour of the punisher. However, to fully explain the effect of punishment on cooperation, it is important to understand the psychological mechanisms influencing the behaviour of those who expect to be punished. This paper examines whether the expectation of punishment, rather than the implementation of punishment is sufficient to prevent individuals from free riding. Individual differences in the punishment sensitivity have been linked to both threat responses (flight, fight, fear system, or the FFFS) and to the response to the uncertainty of punishment (BIS-anxiety).The paper, therefore, examines if individual differences in BIS-anxiety and FFFS can explain some of the variability in free riding in the face of implemented and non-implemented punishment.
Participants took part in a series of one-shot Public Goods Games (PGGs) facing two punishment conditions (implemented and non-implemented) and two standard non-punishment PGGs. The punishment was implemented as a centralized authority punishment (i.e., if one participant contributed less than their group members, they were automatically fined). Individual contribution levels and presence/absence of zero contributions indexed free riding. Individual differences in behavioural inhibition were assessed.
Individuals contributed more under the threat of punishment (both implemented and non-implemented). However, individuals contributed less when the punishment was not implemented compared to when it was. Those scoring high in BIS-anxiety contributed more when the punishment expectations were not implemented. This effect was not observed for FFFS.
Supporting previous research, punishment had a powerful effect in increasing contribution levels in the PGGs. However, when expected punishment was not implemented, individual differences in punishment sensitivity, specifically in BIS-anxiety, were related to fewer contributions (increased free riding) as compared to the situation when punishment was not implemented. This has implications for our understanding of why some people cannot resist the temptation to free ride, even when facing possible punishment for their actions. Our findings suggest that the diminished functioning of mechanisms, associated with trait behavioural inhibition, can partly explain such behaviours.