Trust as a Mechanism of System Justification

PLoS One. 2018 Oct 12;13(10):e0205566. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0205566. eCollection 2018.


People are motivated to hold favorable attitudes about the systems on which they depend, so they justify (i.e., rationalize, defend and bolster) forms of social and economic inequality, even if the inequality is disadvantageous to them. This paper examines how this system-justifying motivation is reflected in behaviors involving interpersonal trust. In a series of three experiments using the trust game I manipulate income inequality by providing participants with higher (advantaged position) or lower (disadvantaged position) initial endowments and measure their trust toward individuals on the same or on different positions. Results show that higher income individuals trust other higher income individuals more than lower income individuals (ingroup favoritism), while lower income individuals trust higher income individuals more than lower income individuals (outgroup favoritism). It is also shown that the strength of these biases is dependent on the level of endorsement of system justifying ideology and the legitimacy of the system. More trust toward those in advantaged positions within a social system, expressed both by equally advantaged as well as by disadvantaged others, not only secures the advantaged in their positions but also reinforces the underlying inequality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Games, Experimental
  • Group Processes
  • Humans
  • Income*
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Social Behavior*
  • Trust / psychology*
  • Young Adult

Grant support

Preparation of this manuscript was funded by a Polish National Science Centre ( grant FUGA 2015/16/S/HS6/00253 awarded to KS. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.