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The Politics of Interpersonal Trust and Reciprocity: An Experimental Approach

Abstract

Trust and reciprocity are theoretically essential to strong democracies and efficient markets. Working from the theoretical frameworks of social identity and cognitive heuristics, this study draws on dual-process models of decision making to expect (1) the trustor to infer trustworthiness from partisan stereotypes and thus to discriminate trust in favor of co-partisans and against rival partisans, but (2) the trustee to base reciprocity decisions on real information about the trustor’s deservingness rather than a partisan stereotype. So whereas partisanship is likely to trigger trust biases, the trust decision itself provides enough information to override partisan biases in reciprocity. The analysis derives from a modified trust game experiment. Overall, the results suggest partisanship biases trust decisions among partisans, and the degree of partisan trust bias is consistent with expectations from both social identity theory and cognitive heuristics. When it comes to reciprocity, however, information about the other subject’s level of trust nullifies partisan bias.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    That Player 1 knows Player 2 received the same amount is crucial to head off inequality-avoiding behavior.

  2. 2.

    Individualistic preferences produce the Nash equilibrium of no trust/reciprocity. However, formal and informal institutions in nearly all societies have facilitated the evolution of pro-social preferences (such as trust, altruism, etc.) even in the absence of binding enforcement mechanisms (cf. Henrich et al. 2004; Seabright 2010).

  3. 3.

    See Morton and Williams (2008) for a thorough discussion.

  4. 4.

    Indeed, it is uncorrelated with Player 1 trust in the trust game but correlated with Player 2 reciprocity.

  5. 5.

    A pilot study suggested game order had no observable behavioral effects.

  6. 6.

    Using lotteries in place of cash may make subjects more risk-neutral (Roth & Rothblum 1982), which should reduce the effects of risk tastes on trust decisions.

  7. 7.

    The expected value/utility of each lottery ticket is $300/total number of tickets. Since 138 subjects participated, and if the final lottery ticket distribution is uniform, each player's expected utility for participating is $2.17 ($300/138). While these stakes are modest, Camerer and Hogarth (1999) conclude that stake size has no consistent behavioral effects in strategic games. While Johansson-Stenman et al. (2005) provide evidence to the contrary, most Player 1s and Player 2s still send large fractions of their endowment even when the stakes were very high. The fraction subjects in this study sent is near the median amount in the 28 anonymous trust games reviewed by Cárdenas and Carpenter (2008).

  8. 8.

    For Player 1: 26 Democrats, and 38 Republicans, and 3 Independents; for Player 2: 25 Democrats, 38 Republicans, and 4 independents.

  9. 9.

    For the purpose of matching Player 1 and Player 2 for the game with Independents, the amounts sent by those who leaned to one party or the other as Independents (weak partisans) were used. For the analyses below, they are treated as weak partisans, not independents. The results are consistent if these subjects are treated as Independents. In the debriefing message, subjects received information that they may have played against a weak partisan or Independent for that particular game (see online supplemental materials).

  10. 10.

    Our argument that discrimination in the trust game is not driven by altruistic preferences is also supported by a study we conducted in Spring 2011. As part of a larger experiment we asked subjects to play modified dictator games based on Cox’s (2004) dictator game. Unlike the version used by Fowler and Kam, there is no inequality in the endowment given to Players 1 and 2; however, any tickets given by Player 1 were tripled. We found no difference in the number of tickets sent to co- and rival partisans. While tickets were sent, indicating a possible role of altruism in the trust game, such motivations did not affect discriminatory decisions.

  11. 11.

    Tobit estimation is appropriate since 8% of the dependent variables in the sub-sample of partisans are right-censored, i.e., the subjects gave ten tickets to their co-partisan and zero tickets to the other party; they would have liked to increase the difference in tickets given but were restricted by the pool of tickets the game supplied. Such situations are ideal for tobit models (Gabarino and Slonim 2009; Cox 2004; Burns 2006; Haile et al. 2008).

  12. 12.

    Survey questions and response sets are taken verbatim from the 2008 ANES and reported in the online supplement. For partisanship strength, the out-group is weak identifiers. Political knowledge is measured on a 7-point scale created by summing correct answers (worth 1 point each) to seven political knowledge questions. This scale is empirically reliable (α = .73). It is re-scaled 0–1 to make its coefficient comparable to the strong and moderate partisan dummies. Among partisans, knowledge had a median of 5.0 and a mean of 4.7.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Fernanda Boidi, James Fowler, Cindy Kam, Peter Loewen, Brian Paciotti, Jason Reifler, Sean Richey, Elizabeth Zechmeister, and the three anonymous reviewers for their assistance and insightful comments.

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Correspondence to Ryan E. Carlin.

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Carlin, R.E., Love, G.J. The Politics of Interpersonal Trust and Reciprocity: An Experimental Approach. Polit Behav 35, 43–63 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-011-9181-x

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Keywords

  • Interpersonal trust
  • Partisanship
  • Behavioral economics
  • Political psychology
  • Experiments