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Human cooperation may partly depend on the presence of individuals willing to incur personal costs to punish noncooperators. The psychological factors that motivate such 'altruistic punishment' are not fully understood; some have argued that altruistic punishment is a deliberate act of norm enforcement that requires self-control, while others claim that it is an impulsive act driven primarily by emotion. In the current study, we addressed this question by examining the relationship between impulsive choice and altruistic punishment in the ultimatum game. As the neurotransmitter serotonin has been implicated in both impulsive choice and altruistic punishment, we investigated the effects of manipulating serotonin on both measures. Across individuals, impulsive choice and altruistic punishment were correlated and increased following serotonin depletion. These findings imply that altruistic punishment reflects the absence rather than the presence of self control, and suggest that impulsive choice and altruistic punishment share common neural mechanisms.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





855 - 862


Adult, Altruism, Amino Acids, Choice Behavior, Double-Blind Method, Female, Games, Experimental, Humans, Impulsive Behavior, Male, Punishment, Serotonin, Tryptophan