Trust is a tricky business. On the one hand, it’s a prerequisite for many worthwhile things: child care, professional relationships, friendships—even just eating at a restaurant. On the other hand, putting your faith in the wrong place often carries a high price.
Then why do we trust at all? Well, because it feels good. When people place their trust in an individual or an institution, their brains release oxytocin, a hormone that produces pleasurable feelings and triggers the herding instinct that leads sheep to flock together for safety and prompts humans to connect with one another. Swiss scientists have found that exposure to this hormone puts us in a trusting mood: In a study, researchers sprayed oxytocin into the noses of half the subjects; those subjects were willing to lend significantly higher amounts of money to strangers in a game than were their counterparts who inhaled a placebo.
Lucky for us, we also have a sixth sense for dishonesty that may protect us. A study by researchers from the psychology department at Concordia University in Montreal found that children as young as 14 months can differentiate between a credible person and a disingenuous one. Sixty toddlers were each introduced to an adult tester holding a plastic container. The tester would ask, “What’s in here?” before looking into the container, smiling, and exclaiming, “Wow!” Each subject was then invited to peek inside. Half of them found a toy; the other half discovered the container was empty—and realized the tester had fooled them.
Among the children who had not been tricked, the majority were willing to cooperate with the tester in learning a new skill, demonstrating that they trusted his leadership. In contrast, only five of the 30 children paired with the “unreliable” tester participated in a follow-up activity.