It’s the thought that counts over time: The interplay of intent, outcome, stewardship, and legacy motivations in intergenerational reciprocity

People give greater weight to a preceding generation’s intention than the outcomes.

People model their inter-generational allocation decisions based on the intention.

Awareness of the past generosity leads to feelings of stewardship for future others.

Legacy motive can break a harmful cycle of negative intergenerational reciprocity.


Sometimes the well-intended actions of prior generations result in undesirable outcomes to subsequent generations. Our research highlights the role of making the intention of past generations transparent in inter-generational resource allocations.

We demonstrate that even in the presence of undesirable outcomes, people use previous generations’ intentions to guide their own decisions for allocating resources to future generations.

Furthermore, we show that making the good intention of past generations transparent in inter-generational resource allocations enacts feelings of stewardship, which in turn promotes generosity to future others.

Finally, we identify an intervention – the induction of legacy motivations – that can prevent a pattern of selfish intentions from being reciprocated forward in time to future generations.

Connie’s comments: My father told me to be generous to my younger siblings. I obeyed my father.