Can warm behavior mitigate the negative effect of unfavorable outcomes on citizens’ trust?

Frederik Godt Hansen

Every day, government institutions and bureaucrats handle citizens’ applications for services such as welfare benefits or healthcare. When bureaucrats reject or approve applications, it has significant implications for individual citizens’ welfare. Even though a rejection is legitimate and correct, citizens may not accept and trust a negative decision because their interests are not fulfilled. However, when the outcome is favorable to them and their application is approved, citizens may respond much more positively.

It constitutes a fundamental democratic problem if citizens are less inclined to accept and trust government decisions simply because they are unfavorable to them. In my recently published article in Journal of Experimental Political Science, I examine whether warm and friendly behavior by bureaucrats in the decision-making process can make citizens less inclined to lower their trust in unfavorable decisions. The study builds on (1) the argument that citizens base their trust on decisions that fit policy preferences and on (2) a large psychological literature on how spontaneous impressions of other people’s warmth affect evaluative judgments. However, existing work has paid limited attention to how decisions made by bureaucrats influence citizens’ trust.

The study centers on a large-scale survey experiment conducted among a representative sample of Danish citizens. The case was access to public elderly care, which in Denmark is provided by the municipalities. Based on a meeting with elderly citizen applying for care, a bureaucrat from the municipality decides whether to approve the application and offer the elderly citizen care at a public nursing home. In the experiment, all participants were instructed to read a brief vignette. They were asked to imagine that they were helping a close relative with an application for a place in a public nursing home and interacting with a bureaucrat from the municipality who has to clarify the need for care. Respondents were presented with one of four versions of the vignette that varied in terms of the bureaucrat’s warmth and favorable/unfavorable decision. (1) The bureaucrat was warm and friendly and approved the application; (2) the bureaucrat was warm and friendly but rejected the application; (3) the bureaucrat was rather cold and unfriendly but approved the application; (4) the bureaucrat was cold and unfriendly and rejected the application. After reading the randomly assigned treatment, respondents were asked to evaluate how much they trusted the bureaucrat and the municipality to make the right decision.

The experiment produced four key results. First, citizens respond with substantially more trust in government when they receive favorable decisions (i.e., approval of applications for public services) than when they receive unfavorable decisions (i.e., rejection of applications for public services). Second, citizens respond with higher levels of trust when bureaucrats are perceived as acting in a warm manner. Third, both decision outcome and the warmth of bureaucrats have substantial effects on trust in the municipality more generally. This finding suggests that decisions made by bureaucrats can have wider-ranging implications for more general trust evaluations of government. Finally, I find no evidence that warm bureaucratic behavior and decision outcome mutually strengthen or weaken their effects on trust evaluations. This suggests that warm behavior by bureaucrats affects trust judgments regardless of the outcome. Thus, the overall practical implication of my research is that bureaucrats and public leaders should care highly about acting in a warm and friendly manner when interacting with citizens if they want to build greater trust in their organization.

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