Police Officers and Cheerleaders: The Emergence of Strong Reciprocity in Children

    Project: Research project

    Project Details


    Strong reciprocity, the strategy to either compensate cooperators (strong positive reciprocity) or punish violators (strong negative reciprocity) at own cost, is developed through cultural group selection during evolution and works best in large, market driven societies to stabilize cooperative behavior at the group level. The emergence of strong reciprocity at the individual level has immense implication for children’s prosocial behavioral development, comprehension of fairness and social justice, and civic education. It is proposed that simple aversion to inequity is not sufficient for the expression of strong reciprocity; instead, children need to take an ethical stance to exercise costly punishment or compensation/reward. In other words, children as third party strong reciprocators are not simply peacemakers to even out inequality, they are rather police officers or cheerleaders who act on ethical principles to reward cooperators, compensate victims of defectors, and punish defectors for the greater good. The proposed study is a pioneering attempt to test the ethical stance hypothesis on the emergence of strong reciprocity, and examine the individual differences in strong reciprocity related to gender, theory of mind, empathy, as well as impulse control, indicated by delayed gratification. Another contribution of this study is to consider the developmental roots of both the positive (reward and compensation) and the negative strong reciprocity (punishment) simultaneously, as the current studies focusing on costly punishment overlooked the bright side of prosocial rule enforcement, which is defending the vulnerable and rewarding the honorable. Building on the research team’s current project on children’s prosocial development, the proposed study is aimed to demonstrate developmental change in children’s strong reciprocity, test the ethical stance hypothesis on the emergence of strong reciprocity, and examine the individual differences in strong reciprocity related to age, gender, theory of mind, empathy, and impulse control in the context of costly punishment, compensation and reward. Four- and 6-year-old Hong Kong children will be recruited to participate in the study. Children’s false belief understanding, empathy, delayed gratification will be measured on the individual level. In 5 experiments, children will play the ultimatum game and the third party punishment, compensation or reward games with puppets, and answer questions regarding to their moral evaluation and emotion of the players. The results of the study will shed light on the ontology of emergence of strong reciprocity in young children, and the cognitive and affective mechanisms of strong reciprocity at the individual level.

    Funding Source: RGC - General Research Fund (GRF)
    Effective start/end date01/01/1631/12/18


    • positive strong reciprocity
    • negative strong reciprocity
    • empathy
    • theory of mind
    • moral reasoning


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