Betrayal aversion: When agents of protection become agents of harm

Jonathan J. Koehler*, Andrew D. Gershoff

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    97 Scopus citations


    A form of betrayal occurs when agents of protection cause the very harm that they are entrusted to guard against. Examples include the military leader who commits treason and the exploding automobile air bag. We conducted five studies that examined how people respond to criminal betrayals, safety product betrayals, and the risk of future betrayal by safety products. We found that people reacted more strongly (in terms of punishment assigned and negative emotions felt) to acts of betrayal than to identical bad acts that do not violate a duty or promise to protect. We also found that, when faced with a choice among pairs of safety devices (air bags, smoke alarms, and vaccines), most people preferred inferior options (in terms of risk exposure) to options that included a slim (0.01%) risk of betrayal. However, when the betrayal risk was replaced by an equivalent non-betrayal risk, the choice pattern was reversed. Apparently, people are willing to incur greater risks of the very harm they seek protection from to avoid the mere possibility of betrayal.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)244-261
    Number of pages18
    JournalOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Mar 2003


    • Air bags
    • Betrayal
    • Promise
    • Risk
    • Trust

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Applied Psychology
    • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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