Leaders’ pandemic policies engendered varying levels of trust

Yale researchers and co-authors found people had nuanced views of leaders’ approach to utilitarianism, favoring impartial beneficence over instrumental harm.
Groups of people on a scale

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As the COVID-19 pandemic exploded across the globe in early 2020, the world’s leaders were faced with a flurry of moral dilemmas. Who should receive scarce resources, such as ventilators, when there wouldn’t be enough for everyone? Should people be required to practice contact tracing to control the spread of infection? Should life-saving medicine be held for a country’s own citizens or shared with those in greater need?

Some global leaders advocated for a utilitarian approach to these dilemmas: impartially maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even if that would come at the cost of harming a minority of the population. Utilitarianism, however, is a controversial way of making moral decisions and those who use this approach might not be viewed as trustworthy.

In a new study, Molly Crockett, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, examined whether people trust leaders who make utilitarian decisions during a pandemic. To find out, she and her co-first authors — Yale’s Clara Colombatto and the University of Kent’s Jim Everett — assembled a multidisciplinary team of 37 international researchers to study people’s trust in leaders around the globe. In a series of online experiments conducted as COVID-19 cases surged late in 2020, the team asked nearly 24,000 people in 22 countries whether the endorsement or rejection of utilitarian policies impacted their trust in leaders.

The results, published July 1 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, show people had a nuanced view when judging the policy decisions of leaders. People tended to trust utilitarian leaders who sought to save the most lives around the globe, rather than favoring their own citizens. But they were far less willing to trust those whose policy decisions would sacrifice the well-being of some for the benefit of others. 

For instance, a shortage of ventilators led some leaders to propose reserving them for younger people more likely to survive a severe case of COVID-19. People tended to distrust leaders who accepted this form of utilitarianism, known as instrumental harm. However, they bestowed more trust in those who would share scarce medicine in regions globally where it is most needed, an aspect of utilitarianism called impartial beneficence.

The results were consistent across the countries studied, which included Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

These patterns held regardless of whether or not people personally agreed with the leader’s policy decision. “People do prefer leaders who agree with them on policies, but even after we control for individual policy preferences, people generally trust leaders who endorse impartial beneficence and distrust leaders who accept instrumental harm,” said Colombatto, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology.

Everett concluded, “When communicating during a crisis, leaders should be aware that utilitarian approaches to moral dilemmas can both erode and enhance trust — even when the leaders themselves doesn’t have the power to resolve them.” 

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,