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date: 23 March 2019

Trust and Social Dilemmas

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Please check back later for the full article.

A social dilemma is a situation of interdependence between people in which there is conflict between doing what is best for oneself, and doing what is best for the group: Trying to produce the best personal outcome (selfishness) hurts the group effort, and contributing to the group effort (cooperation) leads to a less-than-optimal personal outcome. The best personal outcome is realized by acting for oneself when everyone else acts for the group. Because of this, if each group member does what is best for him/herself, the group will fail, and each person will end up a poor outcome. Solution of a social dilemma thus requires that at least some people forgo selfish interest in favor of the collective. Research into social dilemmas is primarily oriented around identifying the influences on a person’s willingness to cooperate, and designing interventions that will encourage more frequent cooperation. There are many real examples of social dilemmas: clean air, charities, public broadcasting, and groundwater, to name just a few.

Behavior in a social dilemma is influenced by both individual and situational variables. One of the most heavily studied of the individual variables is trust. It was first investigated in the 1940s and continues to be a focus of study today. While one would think that there is a straightforward relationship between trust and cooperation—higher levels of trust lead to greater cooperation—in fact, the nature of the influence of trust on cooperation continues to be debated. A major factor in this debate is that there is no single, uniformly accepted definition of “trust.” Some researchers define it in terms of conscientiousness (others are expected to do the “right thing”), some in terms of predictability (others are expected to act in a consistent manner across situations), and some in terms of reasoning (others are expected to analyze the situation in the same way as the Actor and reach the same conclusion about appropriate behavior as the Actor has reached). Each of these operational definitions has been empirically connected to cooperation, though not always in the same way, and sometimes in conflicting ways. While it is clear that “trust,” if defined very generally as an expectation about others, often has an impact on cooperation, researchers are still trying to understand which components of that expectation are critical, and whether there are situations in which trust does not affect cooperation.