Human cooperation is enigmatic, as organisms are expected, by evolutionary and economic theory, to act principally in their own interests. However, cooperation requires individuals to sacrifice resources for each other’s benefit. We conducted a series of novel experiments in a foraging society where social institutions make the study of social image and punishment particularly salient. Participants played simple cooperation games where they could punish non-cooperators, promote a positive social image or do so in combination with one another.
We show that although all these mechanisms raise cooperation above baseline levels, only when social image alone is at stake do average economic gains rise significantly above baseline. Punishment, either alone or combined with social image building, yields lower gains. Individuals’ desire to establish a positive social image thus emerges as a more decisive factor than punishment in promoting human cooperation.