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(THE CONVERSATION) Many people participate in small groups such as book clubs, community service associations, or running groups. These groups can be wonderful outlets for making friends. However, to make sure they work well, even informal and fun groups need to set expectations.

For example, members of a book club may become frustrated if one of them consistently shows up late. They may seek to penalize the latecomer by openly sharing their frustration or taking away certain privileges, such as their ability to choose the next book. This penalty is intended to encourage the latecomer to be punctual and to become a more engaged group member.

Yet penalizing those who break the rules can be a double-edged sword. People might become more engaged and cooperative, but they might also withdraw from the group. How can groups effectively punish those who break the rules? The answer, as we find in our new study, has to do with timing.

More cooperation or less?

Group members may react differently when penalized. Some studies suggest that people who are penalized for breaking common rules become more prosocial towards the group: they correct their behavior and cooperate more.

However, other research suggests that penalization may have a darker side. People often experience anger when they are punished by their peers, which can cause them to withdraw from group activities and become less cooperative. They might even act to disrupt the functioning of the group.

We wanted to know if the reaction to punishment depended on when the punishment occurred.

Learning from micro-savings groups in Colombia

To examine this question, we used proprietary data from a government-run micro-savings program in Colombia between 2016 and 2018. Micro-savings groups are voluntary associations that help low-income citizens save money. money by encouraging them to save small amounts at group meetings and temporarily restricting access to these funds. Micro-savings groups were perfect for our study for two reasons.

First, members who joined the program met in groups every two weeks for about a year. At the first meeting, the members established a set of rules and fines for breaking the rules. Breaking the rules included behaviors such as showing up late or answering a phone call during a meeting. There were no changes in the rules and fines over time, which allowed us to examine how people reacted to the same penalties at different times.

Second, at each meeting, members could make one or two types of financial contributions. As they saw fit, they could allocate some money to their own private savings fund and some money to the group’s emergency fund. The private fund was dedicated to the member’s personal financial goals. The emergency fund, on the other hand, could be accessed by any member facing job loss, illness or other personal calamity.

As one participant told us, “When people are struggling, we give them a hand. … So when someone gets sick or says “Help me with that!”, well, we help them. At the end of the program, the emergency fund balance was divided equally among all members.

However, there may be no funds left if members used the fund for emergencies. So when members contributed to the fund, they supported the group without knowing if they would ever personally benefit from their contributions.

At each meeting, we tracked how much members contributed to their own savings fund, which we perceived to be more self-directed, versus the group’s emergency fund, which we perceived to be more prosocial. On average, members donated 6,399 pesos ($1.90) to their private fund and 458 pesos ($0.14) to the emergency fund at each meeting.

It’s all about timing

We found that responses to punishment depend on when it occurs in the life of the group. While members were fined for breaking the rules soon after the group was formed, they reacted less prosocially, allocating less to the emergency fund and more to their own savings. Compared to members who were not fined, their allowances were more self-focused. For example, a member who was fined two weeks after group formation had to allocate only 1% of their financial contribution to the emergency fund, while a member who was not fined had to allocate 15%.

Yet over time, members responded to the same punishment by allocating more to the group fund and less to their own accounts. Compared to members who were not penalized, their contributions became more “other-oriented”. After approximately seven months of group meetings, penalized members were required to allocate 25% of their financial contribution to the emergency fund, while non-penalized members allocated 19%.

Why is timing important? We argue that when groups are newly formed, members do not yet have strong relationships with other members, nor do they appreciate the value of the group. At this point, they may feel that the punishment is simply retribution for their “bad behavior”.

But over time, the members appreciate being part of the group. They recognize the benefits of membership, some of which they probably did not anticipate before joining. After a few meetings, they may see the same punishment as a helpful reminder of why the rules help the group thrive and may, in turn, respond to the punishment by contributing to a fund that supports the collective.

Allocating more to the emergency fund can also be a way to reintegrate into the group, showing other members that they remain committed despite their transgression.

Apply information to small groups

As people begin to socialize again, there is an opportunity to rethink the conditions under which groups can work best, including situations where members break the rules.

It is generally not possible or advisable to avoid applying rules early in the life of a group. However, groups could accelerate the transition to prosocial responses to sanctions by working to build strong relationships.

By doing so, individuals are more likely to view the group as valuable and view the punishment as necessary to sustain a collective effort.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/imposing-penalties-can-deter-rule-breakers-but-the-timing-needs-to-be-right-182408.

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