In human societies, social behaviour is strongly influenced by threats of punishment, even though the threats themselves rarely need to be exercised. Recent experimental evidence suggests that similar hidden threats can promote cooperation and limit within-group selfishness in some animal systems. In other animals, however, threats appear to be ineffective. Here I review theoretical and empirical studies that help to understand the evolutionary causes of these contrasting patterns, and identify three factors-impact, accuracy and perception-that together determine the effectiveness of threats to induce cooperation.
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