Political Corruption and Social Trust: An Experimental Approach
The main question addressed in this paper is how the great variation in the level of social trust between different countries can be explained? Most empirical research on this question has been based on survey data which has limits when it comes to capturing the causal mechanisms. Building on theories that point at the importance of trustworthy governmental institutions for creating social trust, two parallel experiments were conducted in two countries were the levels of corruption and social trust are very different. One group of 64 Swedish and one group of 82 Romanian undergraduate students responded to a number of scenarios in which another person’s efforts to try to receive immediate assistance from an authority were described. These encounters varied within groups in terms of (1) whether or not a bribe was used in order to receive immediate assistance, (2) whether the other person or the official took the initiative to request/offer immediate assistance in exchange for the bribe, and (3) outcome in terms of whether immediate assistance was approved or declined as a result of the offer or demand for a bribe. Type of authority (police vs. doctor) was a between-groups factor. Subsequent to each scenario, participants’ levels of various aspects of vertical and horizontal trust were measured. As hypothesized, the Romanian sample had reliably lower initial levels of horizontal trust than the Swedish sample. For both samples, however, the results showed the expected effects of bribe, initiator, and outcome on all dependent trust measures. The main results showed that bribe, initiator, and approved assistance decreased both vertical and horizontal trust. As such, the results supported the idea that trust in authorities influences the perceptions of the trustworthiness of others in general. Even though some of the effects were stronger for one sample than for the other, the influence of vertical trust on social trust was true for both the high- and the low-trusting sample.
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