The cost of cowardice: Punitive sentiments towards free riders in turkana raids

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50 Scopus citations


Models indicate that large-scale cooperation can be sustained by indirect reciprocity or direct punishment, but the relative importance of these mechanisms is unresolved. Unlike direct punishment, indirect sanctions can be meted out without cost to the sanctioner, but direct punishment is advantageous when the scale of cooperation exceeds the network size of individuals. It is of great interest to assess the importance of these mechanisms in small-scale acephalous groups in which people have lived for most of our evolutionary history. Here we evaluate sentiments towards free riders in combat among the Turkana, an acephalous nomadic pastoral society in East Africa who periodically mobilize for cattle-raids against neighboring ethnic groups. Using vignette studies, we probed participants' motivation to sanction fictitious warriors who were cowards or deserters in a raid and compared it respectively to their reactions to an unskilled warrior or a warrior who turns back due to illness. Our results indicate that the Turkana are motivated to impose both indirect and direct sanctions on cowards consistent with indirect reciprocity and punishment models of cooperation. Our findings imply that both these mechanisms have shaped human cooperative psychology, and sheds light on how prestate societies solve the collective action problem in warfare.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-64
Number of pages7
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • Cooperation
  • Indirect reciprocity
  • Pastoralists
  • Public goods
  • Punishment
  • Warfare

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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