Paying it forward: The development and underlying mechanisms of upstream reciprocity

J Exp Child Psychol. 2020 Apr:192:104785. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2019.104785. Epub 2020 Jan 14.


Two studies investigated the development and motivations underlying children's upstream reciprocity. In Study 1, 3- and 4-year-olds (n = 40 per age group) received or did not receive help while playing a game. Subsequently, children could share stickers with a new child. The 4-year-olds, but not the 3-year-olds, showed evidence of upstream reciprocity: Those who had received help were more generous toward the new child. Study 2 (N = 46) replicated the results with 4-year-olds and found evidence for a gratitude-like motivation underlying the upstream reciprocity: Children who received help evaluated the benefactor more positively, and positive evaluations of the benefactor correlated with children's upstream reciprocity. Thus, upstream reciprocity emerges by 4 years of age and may already be motivated by a gratitude-like mechanism.

Keywords: Altruism; Gratitude; Pay it forward; Prosocial behavior; Sharing; Upstream reciprocity.

MeSH terms

  • Child Behavior / physiology*
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cooperative Behavior*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Social Interaction*