ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2018, Vol. 50 ›› Issue (9): 1018-1028.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2018.01018

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Pay-forward effect of resource allocation in preschoolers: Role of theory of mind and empathy

Dongjie XIE,Hao LU,Yanjie SU()   

  1. School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences and Beijing Key Laboratory of Behavior and Mental Health, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
  • Received:2017-11-22 Published:2018-09-15 Online:2018-07-27
  • Supported by:


Previous studies found that children would reciprocate those having benefited them previously, a behavior termed direct reciprocity. When there was no opportunity to reciprocate, the recipient would pay it forward to a third one. The current study aimed to find whether preschoolers would pay it forward if their absolute gains would be dependent on their allocations and its potential socio-cognitive mechanisms. We hypothesized that preschoolers would pay forward others’ selfish, fair or generous allocations, but this tendency would be stronger in the selfish and fair conditions; theory of mind (ToM) as well as empathy would play a role in it.
Children aged 4 to 6 (N = 118, 63 females; Mage = 64.25 months, SD = 6.76) were randomly assigned into 3 experimental groups and 1 control group. In the experimental groups, each child was firstly asked to help an anonymous partner complete a jigsaw game (the child and the partner were to make equal contributions in the game), and then was allocated a reward of 1 token (selfish), 3 tokens (fair) or 5 tokens (generous) as the partner proposed (allocating a total of 6 tokens); subsequently, each participant completed another jigsaw game with another anonymous recipient, to whom the participant then acted as an allocator. In contrast, participants in the control group only completed the resource allocation task once as an allocator after cooperating with an anonymous partner in the jigsaw game. Participants’ abilities of ToM were measured with first-order and second-order ToM tasks. Their abilities of empathy were assessed with the Griffith Empathy Measurement (GEM), filled by their teacher-in-charge.
We found that preschoolers would pay the selfish allocations forward, and even generous ones in spite that their absolute self-interests were dependent on their decisions. Specifically, compared with children in the control group, children in the selfish or generous groups were more likely to propose a similar pattern of allocation for the anonymous recipient, which indicated that others’ patterns of allocation exerted influence on children’s decisions. In contrast, there was no significant difference between the proportion of fair allocations in the control group (80%) and the fair group (80%). Moreover, children in the generous-allocation group who paid it forward had higher levels of second-order ToM and (cognitive) empathy than those who did not do so. However, there were no such differences between these two types of participants in the selfish-allocation and fair-allocation groups.
It was suggested that preschoolers were sensitive to the patterns of allocations made by others, and they would pay it forward whether the allocations were advantageous or disadvantageous to themselves. Socio-cognitive abilities (e.g., ToM, empathy) could be important explanatory factors for this pay-forward effect. Besides, preschoolers in a collaborative context were more likely to comply with the norm of equity. Future studies might test other moderators, such as group membership of the partner, the way children acquire the resources, and explore other explanatory factors like executive functions.

Key words: resource allocation, pay-forward effect, theory of mind, empathy, generalized reciprocity.

CLC Number: