The Golden Rule as Society’s Glue

In a big city, maybe nobody knows who is naught and who is nice. But in a small town, people know. And what they know could have an effect on how a small society operates.

Freeloaders are often denied help as a form of punishment, according to new research. This passive withdrawal of support seems to be one way people maintain a working social order.

"If the help and support of a community significantly affects the well-being of its members, then the threat of withdrawing that support can keep people in line and maintain social order," said Karthik Panchanathan, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Our study offers an explanation of why people tend to contribute to the public good, like keeping the streets clean. Those who play by the rules and contribute to the public good will be included and out compete freeloaders."

The research is based on evolutionary game theory, which in this case applied the mathematical theory of games to cultural anthropology. Although the theory is used in a variety of disciplines, many scientists, including Panchanathan, agree it is difficult to translate the results into real world scenarios.

He believes the study is important, however, in the context of cultural development. How people behave in idealized situations can give an insight into their tendencies in more complicated settings, according to Panchanathan.

The study showed that in communities that are small enough for people to keep track of who does what -- of who works towards the common good and who is a freeloader -- individuals tend to be assigned a status.

Generally that status creates three categories of people: cooperators, who contribute and never punish, freeloaders, and shunners, who contribute and do punish.

"The cooperators were too nice; they died out," Panchanathan said. "In order to survive, they had to be discriminate about the help they gave."

Enter the shunners. These are the contributors in society who keep track of what others are doing and withdraw support from freeloaders.

The simplified relationships of the study, detailed in the Nov. 24 issue of the journal Nature, found these interactions were especially important among small groups.

"In small groups where social support mattered a lot reputations are important," Panchanathan told LiveScience. "On a larger scale, like New York City, no one knows if I pay my taxes or if I am a good citizen."