The specificity of reciprocity: Young children reciprocate more generously to those who intentionally benefit them

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© 2017 Elsevier Inc. Young children engage in direct reciprocity, but the mechanisms underlying such reciprocity remain unclear. In particular, prior work leaves unclear whether children's reciprocity is simply a response to receiving benefits (regardless of whether the benefits were intended) or driven by a mechanism of rewarding or preferring all benefactors (regardless of whom they benefited). Alternatively, perhaps children engage in genuine reciprocity such that they are particularly prosocial toward benefactors who intentionally provided them with benefits. Our findings support this third, richer possibility; the 3-year-olds who received benefits through the good intentions of a benefactor were subsequently more generous toward the benefactor than children who either (a) received the same benefits from the benefactor unintentionally or (b) observed the benefactor bestow the same benefits on another individual. Thus, young children are especially motivated to benefit those who have demonstrated goodwill toward them, suggesting, as one possible mechanism, an early sense of gratitude.






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Vaish, Amrisha, Robert Hepach and Michael Tomasello (2018). The specificity of reciprocity: Young children reciprocate more generously to those who intentionally benefit them. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 167. pp. 336–353. 10.1016/j.jecp.2017.11.005 Retrieved from

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Michael Tomasello

James F. Bonk Distinguished Professor

Major research interests in processes of social cognition, social learning, cooperation, and communication from developmental, comparative, and cultural perspectives. Current theoretical focus on processes of shared intentionality. Empirical research mainly with human children from 1 to 4 years of age and great apes.

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