The road to civilization goes through threat and punishment

Do you frown at people who sneeze in their hand instead of in a tissue? Would you be prepared to punish that person by frowning at him or her, showing you dislike the behaviour? In that case you are are contributing to the civilization process.

Norms about violence and hygiene have become increasingly strict, a development that has been going on for hundreds of years. Until now explanations have been sought in societal changes as increased welfare or new technologies, but new research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour shows that we might actually find the answer in human psychology, namely, in our tendency to punish behaviors that we perceive as threatening.

Pontus Strimling from the Institute for Futures Studies in Stockholm, together with Mícheál de Barra and Kimmo Eriksson from Stockholm University, show that people who have a strict view of hygiene and violence tend to feel more threatened by behaviors that signal a looser attitude toward such norms, than the other way around. People who fell threatened are more likely to penalize those who exhibit the looser kind of behavior. People being punished tend to change their behavior to avoid punishment, no matter how common the stricter norm is in the general population. Thus, a norm that prevails in a small part of the population, can change the behavior of a majority of the population over time.

This new hypothesis, tried using surveys, opens up for more exciting research. Might this explanation work for other kinds of norms? How can this help us understand future development?

Read more in the press release

Read the article Asymmetries in punishment propensity may drive the civilization process at

Are you more interested in how norms change? Listen to Pontus Ted-talk at TEDx Uppsala