Social behavior: Bad times for free riders

Table of contents:

Social behavior: Bad times for free riders
Social behavior: Bad times for free riders

Bad Times for Free Riders

Where do you prefer to live? In a world free of coercion and punishment? Or in a society that severely sanctions unwelcome members? For most, the choice is clear. And is then quickly regretted.


The general outcry is always great when one of the "bad politicians" manages a bit into their own pockets: company car, airline miles or a position on the supervisory board of an energy company - the list could be extended endlessly. "Those up there" only think of themselves!

But be honest: You've probably parked wrong at some point. And maybe annoyed about the ticket. You will also be only too happy to take advantage of a loophole in tax legislation. Even if it's semi-legal or just a little bit illegal. After all, it doesn't affect anyone. only the state. And with it everyone – including yourself.

That is the crux of large social systems in which the individual remains anonymous and can more or less elude social control: Everyone knows that it is better for everyone if everyone thinks about the common good. But if your own advantage beckons, then solidarity is quickly over.

What to do? Can unpleasant parasites be brought to reason with drastic pen alties? An ugly thought. Özgür Gürerk and Bettina Rockenbach wanted to know. Together with Bernd Irlenbusch from the London School of Economics, the economic researchers from the University of Erfurt came up with a little game.

The point of the game was - as so often - to earn as much money as possible. For this purpose, each player received starting capital of 20 "monetary units" - let's call them euros - of which any part could either be invested in a joint group project or set aside in a private account. The joint account earned ample interest and the profit was distributed equally to all players, regardless of their willingness to cooperate. Of course, the privately saved money could also be pocketed. A tempting offer for every free rider.

But anti-social elements were threatened with sanctions: After each round, the players found out who, in an uncooperative manner, had paid no or only a very small contribution to the community fund. Each player was allowed to punish such a culprit with a fine of three euros - but not free of charge. The prosecutor had to pay a fee of one euro for this himself.

At the start of the game, 84 Erfurt students had the choice of playing in a group that is allowed to use these sanctions, or preferring a version of the game that dispenses with sanctions altogether. For most people, the decision was easy: the word "punishment" doesn't sound very attractive; only a third of the participants wanted to get involved. The vast majority preferred a free world without ugly sanctions.

For those players who didn't take the common good too seriously, the choice initially paid off - they drew in hefty profits. However, with each round of play, the return dwindled as fewer and fewer players were willing to invest in the big pot.

On the other hand, there were players in the second group who actually used the permitted sanctions against free riders - although they had to pay for them themselves - and thus made life difficult for the freeloaders. Round by round the anti-social behavior decreased, the profit for everyone increased accordingly.

Here profits have been sacrificed to conform to the cooperative norm

(Bettina Rockenbach) The players from the non-punitive society watched this success with envy and took the consequence: they switched to the community with a penal culture. The sanctioning system thus grew at the expense of the sanction-free group, which became more and more depopulated with each additional game round. Since the players willing to cooperate initially defected, the impunity society soon collapsed. After twenty spins, only a few die-hard egoists remained, and their win dropped to zero.

Interestingly, the defectors quickly adapted to the customs of their new society: instead of working from their own pockets as usual, they increasingly invested in the common good - and diligently punished anyone who did not follow the rules of the community.

"I was surprised that so many of the former free riders punished others after joining the group with the possibility of punishment," says Irlenbusch. And Rockenbach adds: "Since punishment is expensive, this dramatic change in behavior cannot be explained by the fact that people are simply geared towards the highest possible profits. Here profits were sacrificed to conform to the cooperative norm."

The researchers don't want to call for the strong state that punishes its population with draconian punishments. But she is convinced that a society that can sanction social misconduct has an advantage. A certain social control is enough for this - after all, nobody wants to be seen as a parasite - as well as the civil courage of people who are willing to denounce grievances, even at the expense of their own disadvantages.

Popular topic