Who Do You Trust?

by Sarah Abrams

For the past several years, in studies conducted in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and most recently in Jordan, behavioral economist Iris Bohnethas been looking at the various factors that motivate individuals to trust.

Can you describe the focus of your most recent work?

One of the questions Mohamad Al-Issis, PhD candidate in public policy, and I examined in Jordan this past summer was whether individuals are more willing to trust if we (partially) insure them against losses in case things go badly. In many ways, that’s the way the West is fostering trust. Our contract law makes it cheaper for people to trust others as it offers damages for the betrayed party in case of breach.

And what did you find?

Insurance does not increase trust in Jordan. In fact, the more vulnerable people made themselves when trusting, the more their trust was returned. In Jordan this also meant individuals were more likely to reward the trust of women and Palestinians who are part of more disadvantaged groups and thus more vulnerable.

What is the significance of this finding?

What we’re seeing is that instruments, such as insurance, that decrease the costs of betrayal also affect the likelihood of trustworthiness.

This leaves people with a difficult optimization problem: it is cheaper to trust when insured but insurance also makes betrayal occur. It also suggests that we have to be careful when exporting Western institutions to other parts of the world. They may work quite differently there.

As the new faculty director of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP), can you talk about your plans for the program?

My goal is for WAPPP to be a knowledge center on gender and public policy and leadership. We’ve created a new structure consisting of four areas: gender and decision making and negotiation, gender and policy, gender and politics, and gender and security. Some of our research is focusing currently on how to overcome stereotypes and on whether “counter-factual positive experiences” might change people’s beliefs about what they and people like them can accomplish even in areas stereotyped to “not be for them.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2009 Harvard Kennedy School Bulletin.

Iris Bohnet

Iris Bohnet, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.


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