Stanford, California - People in low-power situations are significantly more trusting of more powerful people than vice versa, new Stanford research shows.

The reason appears to be that low-power people are more hopeful about their exchange partners and want them to be more benevolent.

"Trust is important to the functioning of society," wrote Karen S. Cook, a Stanford professor of sociology, and her co-authors in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Cook has written books on the topic of trust and is collaborating with Paolo Parigi, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford, on researching the role of trust in the sharing (or online) economy.

Power and trust

Cook and her colleagues tested competing predictions in four different studies about how having low vs. high power may affect people's tendency to place trust in others. The experiments were designed as "exchange settings," reflecting how dependence plays a role in the use of power and the development of trust in relationships. 

"Using a variety of experimental paradigms and measures, we find that more powerful actors place less trust in others than less powerful actors do," said Cook, the Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology and the director of the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences. "That is, trust is greater among those low in power than among those with high power."

In a study of negotiations, for example, low-power negotiators perceived their partners to be more trustworthy than did high-power negotiators. In a second study involving an investment game, low-power players entrusted their partners with more money than did high-power players, the research showed.

These results contradict predictions derived from "rational actor" models, Cook said. Those predictions revolve around the assumption that low-power individuals are able to anticipate that a more powerful exchange partner will place less value on the specific relationship with them in part because they have alternatives.

Rational actor models predict that those low in power expect those with power to behave opportunistically – and consequently conclude that they cannot be trusted.

The study's findings, however, suggest that "power-disadvantaged actors effectively protect themselves by perceiving power holders in a positive light, even if little or no relevant information would support such perceptions." Their hope that their powerful partners will be trustworthy dominates their cognition and decision-making, in support of motivated cognition theory, said the researchers.

In their research, they consistently found that participants in the high-power condition were significantly less trusting. 

Political power dynamics

The research speaks to the public's institutional trust in powerful entities such as governments, the researchers noted in an interview. They point out that in line with the familiar maxim that "power corrupts," studies found that the American public's trust in the federal government fell to just 24 percent in 2014.

While Cook and her colleagues acknowledge that such low levels of trust seem to contradict the view that low-power actors have high trust in power holders, they are reflective of more recent findings showing that many power holders are actually admired and even seen in a very positive light.

One possible explanation relates to "social distance," the authors suggest. In other words, "while self-reported trust in anonymous political decision-makers in faraway Washington may be at all-time lows, trust in local politicians with whom people have interpersonal interactions is often high."

Social distance may function as a moderator of the effect of power on trust, they wrote. "The closer a high-power exchange partner is believed to be (socially or even physically), the more likely it is that a low-power actor will place trust in that partner, a proposition that could be tested in future studies," Cook and her co-authors noted.

In general, the research may help illuminate why societies with stark hierarchical differences can function and endure over the long run, Cook said.

"In a counterfactual world where people low in power would refuse to place trust in power holders, many of the advantages of hierarchies (such as improved coordination, reduced conflict and stability) might not be attainable. These considerations underline the centrality of 'irrational' acts of trust for the existence of a relatively stable society," they wrote.

Her co-authors on the article included Oliver Schilke, an assistant professor of management at the University of Arizona, and Martin Reimann, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona.