The Role of Institutional Trust in Moral Judgements




Associate Professor of Psychology

Project Summary

The goal of my project was to investigate the relationship between an individual’s levels of trust attitudes and her willingness to attribute moral blame to another person. In my first study, I investigated how an individual’s level of social, or interpersonal, trust (beliefs regarding the general trustworthiness of other human beings) and her level of institutional trust (confidence in societal institutions in the face of vulnerability to the actions of those institutions) related to her evaluation of the morally ambiguous actions of four different hypothetical actors, given that law enforcement officials, e.g., prosecutors, had brought a case against them.

I hypothesized that a higher level of social trust would be associated with a greater willingness to “side” with the defendant – that is, a general belief that others are trustworthy would relate to assigning less blame to the defendant – while a higher level of institutional trust would be associated with a greater willingness to “side” with law enforcement – that is, a general belief that institutions are trustworthy would relate to assigning more credence to the prosecutors, manifesting as increased blaming of the defendant. Though this hypothesis was not robustly supported by the data, I discovered an interesting pattern in which individuals who identified as political conservatives evaluated a police officer (who had shot an unarmed victim mistaken to be a wanted criminal) as significantly less blameworthy than did self-identified political liberals. Political conservatives also expressed greater trust in law enforcement institutions than did political liberals.

Given these preliminary results, I conducted two additional studies that investigated the role of institutional trust and one’s political orientation in (1) whether the nature of the specific institution with which an actor was affiliated would affect evaluators’ willingness to discount the blame, given that the actor committed wrongdoing in the context of discharging his institutional role, and (2) whether an actor simply possessing an occupational identity and the institutional setting of his actions would be sufficient to elicit differences in assigning blame to that actor. In these latter two studies, I observed that individuals who expressed trust in an institution were, on average, more willing to discount the blame assigned to an actor who was affiliated with that institution. Moreover, I found that conservative individuals tended to express greater confidence in those institutions that were generally perceived as being aligned with stereotypically conservative values, and vice versa.

In addition to developing a more nuanced understanding of the existing theories of moral decision making, I gained a sincere appreciation for the painstaking love and labor that is invested in the empirical research process. I feel strongly that my academic experience at Penn was enriched by this opportunity to independently shape a project from the amorphous beginnings of generating research questions to the granularity of building Bayesian prediction models from data that I had collected myself, while receiving valuable insight and guidance directly from my faculty advisor, Dr. Geoff Goodwin. I greatly appreciate the funding provided through CURF for enabling this endeavor.