Moral dilemmas and trust in leaders during a global health crisis

Jim A.C. Everett, Clara Colombatto, Edmond Awad, Paulo Boggio, Björn Bos, William J. Brady, Megha Chawla, Vladimir Chituc, Dongil Chung, Moritz A. Drupp, Srishti Goel, Brit Grosskopf, Frederik Hjorth, Alissa Ji, Caleb Kealoha, Judy S. Kim, Yangfei Lin, Yina Ma, Michel André Maréchal, Federico MancinelliChristoph Mathys, Asmus L. Olsen, Graeme Pearce, Annayah M.B. Prosser, Niv Reggev, Nicholas Sabin, Julien Senn, Yeon Soon Shin, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Hallgeir Sjåstad, Madelijn Strick, Sunhae Sul, Lars Tummers, Monique Turner, Hongbo Yu, Yoonseo Zoh, Molly J. Crockett

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Abstract: Trust in leaders is central to citizen compliance with public policies. One potential determinant of trust is how leaders resolve conflicts between utilitarian and non-utilitarian ethical principles in moral dilemmas. Past research suggests that utilitarian responses to dilemmas can both erode and enhance trust in leaders: sacrificing some people to save many others (‘instrumental harm’) reduces trust, while maximizing the welfare of everyone equally (‘impartial beneficence’) may increase trust. In a multi-site experiment spanning 22 countries on six continents, participants (N = 23,929) completed self-report (N = 17,591) and behavioural (N = 12,638) measures of trust in leaders who endorsed utilitarian or non-utilitarian principles in dilemmas concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. Across both the self-report and behavioural measures, endorsement of instrumental harm decreased trust, while endorsement of impartial beneficence increased trust. These results show how support for different ethical principles can impact trust in leaders, and inform effective public communication during times of global crisis. Protocol Registration Statement: The Stage 1 protocol for this Registered Report was accepted in principle on 13 November 2020. The protocol, as accepted by the journal, can be found at

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1074-1088
Number of pages15
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Early online date1 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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