Humans often forward kindness received from others to strangers, a phenomenon called the upstream or pay-it-forward indirect reciprocity. Some field observations and laboratory experiments found evidence of pay-it-forward reciprocity in which chains of cooperative acts persist in social dilemma situations. Theoretically, however, cooperation based on pay-it-forward reciprocity is not sustainable. We carried out laboratory experiments of a pay-it-forward indirect reciprocity game (i.e., chained gift-giving game) on a large scale in terms of group size and time. We found that cooperation consistent with pay-it-forward reciprocity occurred only in a first few decisions per participant and that cooperation originated from inherent pro-sociality of individuals. In contrast, the same groups of participants showed persisting chains of cooperation in a different indirect reciprocity game in which participants earned reputation by cooperating. Our experimental results suggest that pay-it-forward reciprocity is transient and disappears when a person makes decisions repeatedly, whereas the reputation-based reciprocity is stable in the same situation.
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