Trust tends to flourish when we share bonds.  And one particularly potent bond, it turns out, is our sense of shared victimhood.

Katie Rotella, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, provides a convincing demonstration of this effect in a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  In a series of experiments, she and her colleagues brought participants into a psychology lab, where they were provided with information that emphasized their shared group victimhood.

For instance, the Jewish participants in one study read materials emphasizing the centrality of the holocaust and pogroms in shaping the Jewish identity.  In another study, conservative students were given information suggesting conservatism was in decline and public hostility to conservatives was rising.

Afterwards, they compared how participants played a trust game with ingroup versus outgroup members.  For Jewish players, the game involved a fellow Jewish player or a gentile; for conservative players, their partner was either a fellow conservative or a liberal.  (The Trust Game, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, is a way of measuring trusting behaviour:  It gives players money, which they can pass or keep.  Passed money gets multiplied, which means there’s a potential to gain — but it also means having to count on your partner to do the right thing and share the proceeds.  The more you trust, the more you’ll pass.)

Here’s what they found:  When group victimhood was stressed, participants trusted outgroup members no less.  But they trusted their fellow ingroup members significantly more.  Jewish players passed more to jewish players; conservatives to conservatives.   It’s a bit of a narrow, parochial form of trust, but it’s trust nonetheless.  Whether the victimization is great (genocide) or small (political hostility), it serves to bond members of an ingroup together and bolster their trust in one another.

But the trust built isn’t just narrow – it seems to be blind.  In another experiment, they looked at how group victimhood shaped responses to trust breach.  After playing five successful rounds of the trust game, their partner keeps the whole pot and passes nothing back.  People whose attention had been drawn to group victimhood amended their trust in outgroup members after a breach, but kept on trusting ingroup members despite the breach.

So, shared victimhood forges trust, but that trust may be a little more resilient than it ought to be.   One can imagine that groups who have a shared group experience with victimhood, for instance, might be more vulnerable to affinity fraud, not only trusting co-ethnic fraudsters, but downplaying their early signals of untrustworthiness.

But on the other hand, sometimes it is helpful not to overreact to a transgression.  Some previous research (mine included) suggests that being forgiven can motivate those who break trust to change their ways.

So, here’s the big question for me:  Is the robustness of ingroup trust created by group victimization a problem?  

Are the participants in Rotella and colleagues’ studies noble forgivers, willing to offer their ingroup members a second chance?  Or are they gullible doormats, ignoring important signals of untrustworthiness and failing to learn from their errors?

I would love to see how group victimization shapes responses to one-off trust breaches (a single lapse of judgment) versus ongoing or repeated breaches (an obvious signal of untrustworthiness).

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