Katharina Gangl, Daniela Pfabigan, Claus Lamm, Erich Kirchler and Eva Hofmann

Coercive and legitimate authority impact tax honesty: Evidence from behavioral and ERP experiments

Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

Cooperation in social systems such as tax honesty is of central importance in our modern societies. However, we know little about cognitive and neural processes driving decisions to evade or pay taxes. This study focuses on the impact of perceived tax authority and examines the mental chronometry mirrored in ERP data allowing a deeper understanding about why humans cooperate in tax systems. We experimentally manipulated coercive and legitimate authority and studied its impact on cooperation and underlying cognitive (experiment 1, 2) and neuronal (experiment 2) processes. Experiment 1 showed that in a condition of coercive authority, tax payments are lower, decisions are faster and participants report more rational reasoning and enforced compliance, however, less voluntary cooperation than in a condition of legitimate authority. Experiment 2 confirmed most results, but did not find a difference in payments or self-reported rational reasoning. Moreover, legitimate authority led to heightened cognitive control (expressed by increased MFN amplitudes) and disrupted attention processing (expressed by decreased P300 amplitudes) compared to coercive authority. To conclude, the neuronal data surprisingly revealed that legitimate authority may led to higher decision conflict and thus to higher cognitive demands in tax decisions than coercive authority.