The Situationist

The Situation of Trust

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 8, 2008

Drake Benefit recently had a great Boston Globe piece, titled “The Confidence Game,” examining the situation of trust. In it, he examines some of the techniques employed by Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter (aka Clark Rockefeller) in his constructed life as Clark Rockefeller.

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Human beings are social animals, and our first instinct is to trust others. Con men, of course, have long known this – their craft consists largely of playing on this predilection, and turning it to their advantage.

But recently, behavioral scientists have also begun to unravel the inner workings of trust. Their aim is to decode the subtle signals that we send out and pick up, the cues that, often without our knowledge, shape our sense of someone’s reliability. Researchers have discovered that surprisingly small factors — where we meet someone, whether their posture mimics ours, even the slope of their eyebrows or the thickness of their chin — can matter as much or more than what they say about themselves. We size up someone’s trustworthiness within milliseconds of meeting them, and while we can revise our first impression, there are powerful psychological tendencies that often prevent us from doing so — tendencies that apply even more strongly if we’ve grown close.

“Trust is the baseline,” says [Situationist contributor] Susan Fiske, a social psychologist at Princeton University. “Trustworthiness is the very first thing that we decide about a person, and once we’ve decided, we do all kinds of elaborate gymnastics to believe in people.”

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Why trust exists in the first place has been something of a puzzle for scholars of human behavior. . . .

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Reconciling trust with selfishness has been a challenge for at least a generation of social scientists. One of the most influential formulations was laid out in a short paper by a Harvard biology graduate student named Robert L. Trivers in 1971. Trivers hypothesized that the sort of advanced cooperation that allowed people to build pyramids, fight in phalanxes, and hold quadrennial elections had emerged out of what he called “reciprocal altruism,” a basic “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” instinct. The evident benefits of cooperation had ensured that a package of human emotions evolved to encourage it. Trust was one of them, but so was guilt, which discouraged us from cheating in collaborative situations, and moral outrage, which galvanized the community to punish anyone who did cheat.

In recent decades, a whole body of research has grown out of work such as Trivers’s. Much of the literature looks at trust games, stripped-down situations like the Prisoner’s Dilemma in which participants are given a choice of cooperating or acting selfishly, with stark rewards and punishments set to encourage them to do one or the other. Over repeated iterations of such games, one of the most common strategies among participants — and one of the most effective — is a basic tit-for-tat: start out assuming a partner will cooperate, but if they don’t, punish them by refusing to cooperate as well.

“The default is trust until there’s a reason not to,” says Robyn Dawes, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University.

* * *

Trust games don’t really explain how this congenital gullibility works. To do that, researchers need to observe the actual social world – a place where there is often too little time and too little information coming from too many different places to form a reasoned judgment.

When deciding who to trust, the research suggests, people use shortcuts. For example, they look at faces. According to recent work by Nikolaas Oosterhof and Alexander Todorov of Princeton’s psychology department, we form our first opinions of someone’s trustworthiness through a quick physiognomic snapshot. . . .

In a paper published in June, they suggested that our unconscious bias is a byproduct of more adaptive instincts: the features that make a face strike us as trustworthy, if exaggerated, make a face look happy – with arching inner eyebrows and upturned mouths – and an exaggerated “untrustworthy” face looks angry – with a furrowed brow and frown. In this argument, people with “trustworthy” faces simply have, by the luck of the genetic draw, faces that look a little more cheerful to us.

Just as in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously — and as a result, Oosterhof and Todorov point out, we can severely and immediately misjudge people. In reality, of course, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc have no relationship with honesty.

Another set of cues, and a particularly powerful one, is body language. Mimicry, in particular, seems to put us at our ease. Recent work by Tanya Chartrand, a psychology professor at Duke, and work by Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee, media scholars at Stanford, have shown that if a person, or even a computer-animated figure, mimics our movements while talking to us, we will find our interlocutor significantly more persuasive and honest.

* * *

To earn someone’s trust, . . . even rather blatant aping can do the trick. One of the landmark studies on influence was done in 1965 by the Ohio State psychologist Timothy Brock. In it, shoppers at a paint store were approached by a research assistant who offered them advice on what type of paint to choose. He told half of the shoppers he approached that he had recently bought the same amount of paint that they were looking to buy, he told the other half he had bought a different amount.

By and large, the first group took his advice, and the second did not. Something as trivial as buying the same-sized bucket of paint, Brock argued, can forge a bond with a total stranger.

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To read the entire article, click here. To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Lying,” “The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking,” “The Facial Obviousness of Lying,” “Denial,” “Voting for a Face,” The Situation of Staring,” and “Cheating Doesn’t Pay . . . So Why So Much of it?

To listen to very interesting NPR, Talk of the Nation segment, “Stories Of Swindle: Dissecting The Art Of Con,” (approximately 30 minutes), click here.

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3 Responses to “The Situation of Trust”

  1. [...] piece at The Situationist about how adaptive instincts bias our decisions to trust based on first impressions. Most of the [...]

  2. [...] Read More at The Situationist [...]

  3. [...] a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” “The Situation of Trust,” “The Situation of Body Image,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The [...]

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