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Why Do We Punish the Most Generous in a Group?

Why Do We Punish the Most Generous in a Group? People tend to punish particularly generous group members by rejecting them socially — even when their generosity benefits everyone — because the most generous people are nonconformists, according to a new study.

Researchers at Baylor University note this highlights the importance of conforming to the standards of a group, pointing out that freeloaders — those who were stingiest — also were ostracized by the group.

Published in the journal Social Science Research, the study also showed that besides socially rejecting especially generous or stingy givers, other group members “paid” to punish them through a points system.

“This is puzzling behavior,” said Kyle Irwin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University.

“Why would you punish the people who are doing the most — especially when it benefits the group? It doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface, but it shows the power of norms. It may be that group members think it’s more important to conform than for the group to do well.”

For the study, Irwin and his co-researcher, Christine Horne, Ph.D., a sociologist at Washington State University, conducted a “public goods” experiment with 310 participants.

Each person was given 100 points and had to decide how many to give to the group and how many to keep. Contributions were divided equally regardless of how much people donated.

Decisions were made via computers, and for each participant, the other “group members” actually were simulated, with pre-programmed behavior, the researchers explained.

Each participant was told that he or she would see the amounts of four others and be the fifth giver, with a sixth person ending the sequence. The final giver always was pre-programmed to be stingier or much more generous than the others.

Group members’ donations averaged 50 percent of their points. The stingiest individual gave only 10 percent, while the most generous gave 90 percent.

Each group member also had the opportunity to “pay” via the points system to punish those who contributed the most. The “punisher” would have to give up one point for every three points he or she deducted from the most generous member, according to the researchers.

Finally, each person was asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 9 how much they wanted each of the others to remain in the group.

Irwin likened the punishments to shunning or poking fun at someone who had done the bulk of work in a group project for a class — or even kicking that person out of the group.

“There could be a number of reasons why the others punish a generous member,” he said. “It may be that the generous giver made them look or feel bad. Or they may feel jealous or like they’re not doing enough.”

He added that at some point, if the contributions became very large, the desire of the group members to benefit from the most generous person’s largesse may override their desire to punish that person.

Source: Baylor University

Hands with various amounts of money photo by shutterstock.

Why Do We Punish the Most Generous in a Group?

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Why Do We Punish the Most Generous in a Group?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Jun 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.