Stressed People Don’t Pay It Forward: The Detrimental Effect of Stress on Generalized Reciprocity


Generalized reciprocity, where individuals help others who can pay forward the generosity they receive to a third party, is common in a variety of settings, including workplaces. Stress is omnipresent in these contexts and is becoming more prevalent. Past research has examined the effects of stress on several other key forms of prosocial behavior. What remains unclear is how stress intersects with starting a chain of generalized reciprocity and “paying it forward” – helping others when one has been helped. In an experiment, I find that in line with past work, acute stress reduces the likelihood that people will be generous in a baseline giving decision. Further, I find that stress moderates people’s responses to being treated generously versus selfishly. Individuals are more likely to give when they have received generosity (been given to), and are more likely to keep their resources when they have received selfishness (not been given to). These conclusions, which replicate prior studies, hold true under conditions of relatively low stress. However, when individuals experience high levels of stress, beneficiaries give to third parties at similar rates, regardless of whether they received generosity or selfishness. Thus, stress levels are critical for understanding whether people will pay it forward. The results may be explained by cognitive load: individuals experiencing more stress, and thus higher cognitive load, are unable to deliberate, nor use information to behave strategically. These findings show that stress can be detrimental, as it harms the ability for 1) generalized reciprocity to be perpetuated even when others have behaved generously, and 2) makes it harder for individuals to protect themselves and their resources when they have been treated unfairly.





Greenleaf, Anna S. (2023). Stressed People Don’t Pay It Forward: The Detrimental Effect of Stress on Generalized Reciprocity. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.