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

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Pilot data collection was supported by Prolific Academic. Data collection for the main study was supported by grants from the Yale Tobin Center for Economic Policy (M.C.); the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (SRG19\190050; J.A.C.E.); the Institutions for Open Science at Utrecht University (L.T. and M.S.), central internationalization funds of the Universität Hamburg and the Graduate School of its Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences (B.B. and M.A.D.); and CAPES PRINT (88887.310255/2018 – 00; P.B.) and CAPES PROEX (1133/2019; P.B.). L.T. furthermore acknowledges funding from NWO grant (016.VIDI.185.017) and the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant, funded by the Korean Government (NRF-2017S1A3A2067636). H.S. was partly supported by the Research Council of Norway through its Centres of Excellence Scheme, FAIR project (262675). D.C. was partly supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2018R1D1A1B0704358). E.A., B.G., Y.L. and G.P. thank the University of Exeter Business School for funding their contribution to this research. N.S. gratefully acknowledges funding support provided by the Department of Management, Faculty of Management and Economics, Universidad de Santiago de Chile, and ANID FONDECYT de Iniciación en Investigación 2020 (Folio 11200781). A.L.O. and F.H. gratefully acknowledge support from the Independent Research Fund Denmark (0213-00052B and 8046-00034A) and the Faculty of the Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. N.R. was partly supported by the Israel Science Foundation (540/20). A.M.B.P. was supported by the ESRC. W.J.B. was supported by a postdoc fellowship from the National Science Foundation (#1808868). V.C. was supported by the National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship under grant no. DGE1752134. S.S. was partly supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2018R1C1B6007059). P.B. gratefully acknowledges support from CNPq (researcher fellowship 309905/2019-2). Y.M. gratefully acknowledges support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. 31771204) and Major Project of National Social Science Foundation (19ZDA363). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. The authors thank members of the Crockett laboratory for feedback on previous drafts of this manuscript; J. Monrad for advice on scenario design; R. Gomila for statistical advice; J. Okoroafor, D. Shao and X. Wang for assistance; and J. Apel, A. Bidani, N. Breedveld, R. Calcott, R. Carlson, L. Alfaro Cui cui, A. A. Gálvez, N. Kim, F. Michelsen, M. Meinert Pedersen, A. Mokady, A. Oline Ervik, J. Yang, X. Zeng and M. Zoccali for assistance with survey translations.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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