ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 55 ›› Issue (8): 1255-1269.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2023.01255

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

The effect of social value orientation on third-party altruistic behaviors in children aged 10-12 years: The role of emotion

CHEN Peiqi1, ZHANG Yinling1, HU Xinmu1, WANG Jing1,4, MAI Xiaoqin1,2,3()   

  1. 1Department of Psychology, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China
    2Laboratory of Department of Psychology, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China
    3Interdisciplinary Platform of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China
    4The South Campus of Xin Cheng Primary School of the High School Affiliated to Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210019, China
  • Received:2022-09-27 Published:2023-08-25 Online:2023-05-16
  • Contact: MAI Xiaoqin
  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China(31970986);National Social Science Foundation of China(19ZDA363)


Fairness plays a critical role in maintaining the social order. To understand fairness development, numerous studies have examined children's upholding fairness behaviors, such as resource allocation. In particular, the emergence of third-party altruism in Chinese children at the age of 8-10 is an important turning point in fairness development. Third-party altruism refers to the behavior of individuals voluntarily paying costs to punish violators, which is a form of prosocial behavior. Most previous studies have confirmed that social value orientation (SVO) affects prosocial behaviors, and some cognitive neuroscience studies have found that SVO and emotion together affect prosocial behaviors. However, we do not know the specific mechanisms by which children's SVO and emotions affect their third-party altruistic behaviors. Additionally, because third-party altruism can adopt punishment and compensation, the mechanisms may be different. Therefore, through two experiments, this study aimed to investigate the mechanisms of children's SVO and emotion on third-party altruism and the difference between children's third-party punishment and compensation behaviors in three offer conditions (i.e., high inequality, moderate inequality, and equality).

Experiment 1 was based on the third-party punishment task and aimed to investigate the effect of children’s SVO on their emotions and punitive behaviors and to verify the mediating role of emotion. We recruited 233 children aged 10-12 years. After completing the demographic information, they were instructed to complete three third-party punishment tasks revised from the dictator game. The proposer in the dictator game offered one, three, and five coins from 10 coins to the recipient successively. As the third party, children reported the level of pleasure and decided whether to spend any integer of their endowed five coins to punish the proposer in each task. For every coin spent, two coins were deducted from the proposer’s endowment. The results revealed that prosocial children (vs. the pro-self) were more unpleased and spent more coins to punish the proposer, and emotion played a mediating role in the relationship between SVO and third-party punitive behaviors in the high inequality condition but not in the moderate inequality or equality conditions.

To deeply understand children’s third-party altruistic behaviors and compare the two kinds of behaviors, we conducted Experiment 2 based on the third-party compensation task. We recruited 238 children aged 10-12 years. The experimental procedure was similar to that of Experiment 1, except that children in Experiment 2 spent coins to compensate the recipient rather than punish the proposer. The results revealed that prosocial children (vs. the pro-self) spent more coins to compensate the recipient in the high and moderate inequality conditions; emotion mediated the relationship between SVO and third-party compensation behaviors only in the high inequality condition. As for the difference between the two kinds of third-party altruistic behaviors, children in the third-party compensation (vs. punishment) task had less emotional fluctuation when confronted with three offers and spent more coins to maintain a fair order in the moderate unequal condition.

These findings suggest that SVO had a stable effect on third-party punishment and compensation in 10- to 12-year-old children under all three offer conditions, and that emotion mediated the relationship between SVO and each kind of third-party altruistic behavior when children were confronted with an extremely unfair offer. Additionally, the children showed different levels of pleasure and behavior in the two third-party altruistic tasks. Our study contributes to revealing the mechanisms of SVO and emotion on two kinds of third-party altruistic behaviors and suggests that prosocial orientation is a critical factor in fostering children’s third-party altruism.

Key words: social value orientation, third-party punishment, third-party compensation, inequality aversion, emotion valence, children