Dominic Cummings, Justice & Trust in Boris Johnson

A few weeks ago, I explored whether the UK Government actions would lead to high reliability. Now, it seems like the big question for Boris Johnson is, “Is it fair that Dominic Cummings was allowed to leave his home while millions of others have stayed inside?” While I’m not going to get into the politics of this (I’ve done my ranting offline), organisational psychology can tell us a lot about fairness, justice and trust in our leaders and our institutions. So, what can it tell us in this situation?

What is Organisational Justice?

Justice is a perception of fairness. A good summary of this work, by Colquitt and colleagues, can be found here. But in brief, there are four types of justice and none of them are based on whether you get what you want.

Procedural justice is whether the procedures are fair or not. You might not get a promotion but as long as you know the process was merit-based, you had an opportunity to ask questions and put forward your perspective, and you’re given a good explanation then you won’t think that it was unfair.

Distributive justice is whether the resources and rewards are shared around fairly. You might get less money than your colleague, but as long as you can see that they are doing more work, either in quantity or quality, you’ve had similar opportunities (going back to good old procedural justice), and you’re given a good explanation then you won’t think that it’s unfair.

Interactional justice is whether you are communicated with fairly – your boss might reprimand you but if it’s done with respect, is at a level appropriate to your actions (mountains and mole-hills comes to mind), and you’re given a good explanation, then you won’t think that it’s unfair.

Informational justice cuts across the other three and no prizes for guessing what it is… being given a good explanation for why something happened (or didn’t).

Were the Actions of Dominic Cummings & Boris Johnson Just?

Let’s take each of these justice types in turn. First, procedural justice. It appears that Dominic Cummings technically stayed within the law for the trip to his sister’s house. In that sense, the lack of any procedures to remonstrate is just. However, the difference in language between adherence to lockdown laws through “technicality” and adherence to lockdown guidelines by “common-sense” is striking. It’s easy to see why the different language used by Boris Johnson leads to a sense that there is one rule for Dominic Cummings and one rule for everybody else. A YouGov poll showed that 71% of people think that he broke the rules. So yes, there is a strong feeling of procedural injustice.

What about the other three? Are the rewards distributed unfairly in this instance? This is an interesting one because it’s not so much the rewards as the punishments. Many have commented that driving to test your eyesight is illegal and that the drive to Barnard Castle did actually break even the technicalities of the lockdown. Many people have been fined for driving during the lockdown yet Dominic Cummings will not be; this is a violation of distributive justice.

How about interactional justice? And informational justice? This one is probably more dependent on your political identification with Boris Johnson and the Conservative Government. If you identify with them then you will have schemas that search for evidence to demonstrate that the explanations are “good” and respectful to the UK public. If you do not identify with them then you will have schemas that search for the opposite. This search for evidence to fit our schemas isn’t deliberate, it’s natural – we like consistency – but it does mean that subjective judgements split along party lines. The way I see it, its too close to call on this last two “justices”, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Effects of Injustice

Does it matter if it wasn’t fair? Two separate meta-analyses, one comprising 190 studies and the other comprising 183 studies, showed that procedural and distributive justice were not just related to whether you were satisfied with the outcome or not, but also to job satisfaction, organisational commitment, evaluation of authority, trust, citizenship behaviours, performance, and withdrawal.

In the context of Covid-19, this means that we will be: 1) less likely to be satisfied with the government; 2) less committed to doing what it wants us to do; 3) less likely to trust Boris Johnson and other government authority figures; 4) less likely to help out or go the extra mile (or use “common sense”); and 5) more likely to become apathetic about engaging in the fight against coronavirus (and about engaging in political life). And this is being borne out in the polls. YouGov have reported a nine-point fall in satisfaction with Boris Johnson’s government in only one week.

What is even more scary is that “injustice” appears to have stronger effects on certain outcomes than “justice”. When somebody adheres to the rules, we aspire to be like them and we work hard to be as good as we can be. But when somebody violates the rules, we feel less safe, and we are more likely to engage in counterproductive behaviours.

This means that the effect will not just be a blip in satisfaction ratings. The perceived injustice could have serious effects on the public’s continuation of lockdown behaviours – something that was already going to be tricky to manage as the easing starts. People are already using Dominic Cummings as a reason to go to the beach. A Police Commissioner has recognised that it will make policing the guidelines more difficult. And YouGov have shown that 70% of people think it will be harder for the Government to provide convincing lockdown messages in the future. It might not matter to the government, given how far we are away from an election, but it definitely matters to the rest of us. So yes, it matters.

Repairing the Damage

Violations of organisational justice, psychological contracts and trust are notably difficult to repair. In fact, populist movements (such as Boris Johnson himself) have used this lack of trust in the “establishment” to get into power. But assuming that he, and his government, now would like the UK public to trust them and engage properly with Covid-19 guidelines, what can they do to recover it?

Trust is a dynamic process based on some characteristics of the truster (in this case, the public, you and I) and some characteristics of the trustee (in this case, Boris Johnson and the government). The truster characteristics revolve around their own usual tendency to trust other people – so I’ll leave that for you to think about.

The trustee characteristics though revolve around what you think about their motives and competence. Do I think they want to do the right thing: that is, do they have benevolent intentions towards me and others like me; and do I agree with them about what the “right thing” to do is? If the answers to both of these is yes, then motives are in line. Next question. Do I think they have the resources and capabilities to do the right thing? If this is yes, then competencies are in line.

But if there’s distributive and procedural injustice then it’s likely that we will answer “no” to at least one of these questions. Emily Maitlis’ opening on Newsnight captured this through linking the public perception of low benevolence and integrity with trust in Boris Johnson and the government. So what can Boris Johnson do to be trusted again? A review on trust repair identified 5 strategies.


I mentioned earlier that good explanations can give a sense of informational justice. And when the violation is not expected then explanations can work well. But if there are low expectations for rule adherence to begin with (and even the less cynical amongst us are not likely to hold particularly high expectations for politicians to adhere to rules) then explanations can actually decrease motivation. So that’s not going to help.


Apologies can work to repair trust, but first the government would have to take responsibility and acknowledge the violation. I can’t see that happening any time soon.

Reparations & Penance?

Offers of reparations have been shown to be very useful, particularly as adjuncts to explanations or apologies. And small acts of penance or reparation are just as good as large ones. But once again, it would require acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and that seems unlikely.


What about us? If we want to move forward as a society then surely we need to take on some responsibility for repair as well. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge the violation has been shown to be useful for mental health; however, most of the time it is predicated on the actor recognising their mistake, being regretful, and committing to not repeating the violation. Given that this is unlikely (see above), I’m not sure that forgiveness will work either.

Rules and Regulations?

The final option is to change the structure that surrounds the actor to ensure that they CAN’T violate trust and HAVE TO follow the rules like everybody else. But… this requires power to institute such changes and it therefore lies in the hands of the Government and No 10. Who can’t see a problem and therefore won’t make any changes. Okay, next.

One last throw of the dice. A structural impediment to justice could be the perceived lack of consequences. People like Dominic Cummings can continue with procedurally unjust behaviours because there is an immunity to any repercussion. Maybe we can increase the consequences for unjust behaviours in an effort to restore trust in the government? But there have been repercussions this time. Journalists have not let it go; Douglas Ross quit his junior ministerial role; Keir Starmer has used it to highlight discrepancies between “them” and “us”. But we’re a long way off an election so maybe they’re not repercussions that Boris Johnson cares about. Rules and regulations might work if we can make the repercussions count, but I’m not convinced that anything other than an election will do it.

Where Have We Ended Up?

Like all my blogs, when I started with this idea, I didn’t know where I would end up after I’d analysed the situation properly. When I started thinking about guilt, I didn’t know it would end with a call to action. When I started thinking about how my husband and I were reacting to the lockdown differently, I didn’t think it would lead to different recommendations based on personality. This week, I honestly thought when I started writing that, like the others, I would come up with something relatively positive and useful. And I’ve really tried to turn some of these trust repair mechanisms into potential solutions. But the solutions just don’t fit the current government situation. So I’m left feeling deflated and cynical and I’m sorry if I’ve done the same to you as well.

This specific instance of injustice is obviously small in comparison to institutionalised racism, as well as gender, age and class-based biases. Yet even this small, trivial instance of injustice, which is leading to people risking their lives, is not being treated in a way that will repair trust and perceived justice.

If there is no acknowledgement of wrongdoing for even this small act of injustice, what hope have we got for the big ones?