Surprisingly, however, adding punishment as an option did not improve the level of cooperation (37%). The final financial payoffs in this trial group were also, on average, significantly less than those gained by players in the static group. Interestingly, less defection was seen in the punishment group when compared to the static group; some players replaced defection with punishment.
“While the implied message when punishing someone is ‘I want you to be cooperative,’ the immediate effect is more consistent with the message ‘I want to hurt you,’” write the researchers in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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Why, then, is punishment so pervasive in human societies? “It could be that human brains are hardwired to derive pleasure from punishing competitors,” says Jusup. “However, it is more likely that, in real life, a dominant side has the ability to punish without provoking retaliation,” adds Wang.
I’m going with the “hardwired” thing. It’s unpleasant but fits my own observations of humans.