Trust Promotes Compliance and Is Catalyst for Fairness

What is fairness? Why do people cooperate with authorities? Why do they obey the law? Why is public trust in our courts so important?

To his already impressive body of research addressing these questions, Tom R. Tyler, Professor of Psychology at New York University, continues to add to our understanding of the interplay of fairness and trust and how both effect cooperation with authorities. Writing in the May issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 3, 639 – 649), Tyler and his colleague David De Cremer, who is in the Department of Economic and Social Psychology, Tilburg University, Netherlands, report the results of two experimental studies and two field studies of the effects of procedural fairness and trust on people’s willingness to cooperate with authorities.

What Tyler found should be of interest to court leaders and managers: procedural fairness leads to cooperation and compliance only when trust in authority is high. It seems you can’t have one without the other.

We already knew from past research in social psychology and organizational behavior (much of it done by Tyler and his colleagues) that procedural fairness increases people’s cooperation and collaboration, and that trust promotes good working relationships. What Tyler and De Cremer found in their most recent work is that the two are related – the effects of fairness are nil in the absence of trust.

In other words, procedural fairness will not have the desired effect of compliance, cooperation, and coordination absent the trustworthiness of those in charge. Across all four studies conducted by Tyler and De Cremer, the effect of procedural fairness emerged only when trust was high. Fairness produced cooperation only when the authority was trustworthy but not when the authority was untrustworthy.

These results are important to the way we run courts, both the policies and the practices. They corroborate the argument made in the Trial Court Performance Standards – which is convential wisdom today but was radical thought twenty years ago – that public trust and confidence are just as important for courts as the other key performance areas including efficiency and timeliness, fairness, equality and integrity, independence and accountability.

Tyler’s most recent research suggests that without public trust and confidence, courts may have difficulty performing in their other areas of responsibility.

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