Ostracism

With S. Nageeb Ali

Abstract: Many communities rely upon ostracism to improve cooperation in bilateral relationships: if an individual deviates in one relationship, other innocent players come to learn about this deviation, and proceed to shun the guilty player while continuing to cooperate with each other. Typically, it is assumed that information spreads through word-of-mouth communication and that victims and third-parties have no incentive to lie about their experience with guilty players. We show, perhaps surprisingly, that innocent players may not have the incentive to communicate truthfully. Communication incentives are particularly severe in equilibria in which guilty players are permanently ostracized: such equilibria cannot support cooperation significantly beyond what each pair of players could obtain without community enforcement altogether. The challenge is that a victim of cheating prefers to cheat herself rather than to report her victimization to others. However, ostracism equilibria that feature forgiveness can foster truthful communication and thereby improve upon permanent ostracism. Our results suggest a new perspective on forgiveness and redemption in social norms.

Working paper 6/14/2013