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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Corrupt third parties undermine trust and prosocial behaviour between people.

Spadaro, G., Molho, C., Van Prooijen, JW. et al.
Nat Hum Behav (2022).


Corruption is a pervasive phenomenon that affects the quality of institutions, undermines economic growth and exacerbates inequalities around the globe. Here we tested whether perceiving representatives of institutions as corrupt undermines trust and subsequent prosocial behaviour among strangers. We developed an experimental game paradigm modelling representatives as third-party punishers to manipulate or assess corruption and examine its relationship with trust and prosociality (trust behaviour, cooperation and generosity). In a sequential dyadic die-rolling task, the participants observed the dishonest behaviour of a target who would subsequently serve as a third-party punisher in a trust game (Study 1a, N = 540), in a prisoner’s dilemma (Study 1b, N = 503) and in dictator games (Studies 2–4, N = 765, pre-registered). Across these five studies, perceiving a third party as corrupt undermined interpersonal trust and, in turn, prosocial behaviour. These findings contribute to our understanding of the critical role that representatives of institutions play in shaping cooperative relationships in modern societies.


Considerable research in various scientific disciplines has addressed the intricate associations between the degree to which institutions are corrupt and the extent to which people trust one another and build cooperative relations. One perspective suggests that the success of institutions is rooted in interpersonal processes such as trust. Another perspective assumes a top-down process, suggesting that the functioning of institutions serves as a basis to promote and sustain interpersonal trust. However, as far as we know, this latter claim has not been tested in experimental settings.

In the present research, we provided an initial test of a top-down perspective, examining the role of a corrupt versus honest institutional representative, here operationalized as a third-party observer with the power to regulate interaction through punishment. To do so, we revisited the sequential dyadic die-rolling paradigm where the participants could learn whether the third party was corrupt or not via second-hand
learning or via first-hand experience. Across five studies (N = 1,808), we found support for the central hypothesis guiding this research: perceiving third parties as corrupt is associated with a decline in interpersonal trust, and subsequent prosocial behaviour, towards strangers. This result was robust across a broad set of economic games and designs.