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Power Versus Inequality: Which is the Proximate Predictor of Interpersonal Trust?
Trust is the glue that holds people together and various disciplines have examined what makes people trust others. One important predictor of trust is power. However, the power-trust relationship remains inconclusive: While psychologists finds that power reduces trust, sociologists argue the powerless are more distrustful. We suggest that both may be true. Based on social exchange theories suggesting that self-interest is activated when resources are distributed asymmetrically, we propose that trust is lower in unequal-power (vs. equal-power) relationships and that this due to lower perceived goal similarity. Five experiments (three pre-registered; N=3,654) demonstrate that high- and low-power individuals trust each other less than individuals in equal-power relationships, mediated by perceived goal similarity. This effect occurred for relational but not psychological power. We also provide an intervention (intergroup competition) that facilitates trust in hierarchical environments. In sum, power (in)equality may be a better predictor of trust than one’s level of power.