Perceived corruption causes distrust and selfish behavior

Protestors with white masks hold signs of truthProtestors with white masks hold signs of truth

Dishonesty and corrupt behavior by institutional representatives undermines trust and cooperation among people who have witnessed this kind of violation of norms. This is the conclusion of social psychologists Giuliana Spadaro and Paul van Lange (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) in collaboration with the University of Turin. For the first time, they show that perceived corruption can cause distrust and selfish behavior and how destructive it can be.

Lead author Giuliana Spadaro believes the results help solve a puzzle. "Punishing norm violators is one of the most effective ways to maintain trust and cooperation. However, our studies suggest that when people see an institutional representative as dishonest and corrupt, their effectiveness is compromised."

Trust and cooperation
For the study, 1,800 participants from the United States played new versions of economic games. In five studies, participants are asked to make risky decisions to trust and cooperate with a stranger. They are watched by a third party who can punish norm-violators. In some studies, participants were informed in advance whether the third party had previously behaved honestly or lied for their own gain at the expense of the community. The studies showed that participants who had experienced incidents of corruption were less likely to trust strangers or want to cooperate with them.

"Trust and cooperation among strangers is the key to a well-functioning society," adds VU professor social psychology Van Lange. "People and groups should treat each other well and give others the benefit of the doubt in order to maintain cooperation. The findings provide a good illustration of that one example of unethical behavior by a leader or government representative can undermine people’s trust in a society, and thus ultimately the functioning of a society."

Read more about the research.