Paying it forward: generalized reciprocity and the limits of generosity

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Feb;143(1):247-54. doi: 10.1037/a0031047. Epub 2012 Dec 17.


When people are the victims of greed or recipients of generosity, their first impulse is often to pay back that behavior in kind. What happens when people cannot reciprocate, but instead have the chance to be cruel or kind to someone entirely different--to pay it forward? In 5 experiments, participants received greedy, equal, or generous divisions of money or labor from an anonymous person and then divided additional resources with a new anonymous person. While equal treatment was paid forward in kind, greed was paid forward more than generosity. This asymmetry was driven by negative affect, such that a positive affect intervention disrupted the tendency to pay greed forward. Implications for models of generalized reciprocity are discussed.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Altruism*
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Female
  • Game Theory
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Morals
  • Young Adult