Forget Facial Expressions and Reputation: 3 Surprising Rules to Sharpen Your Trust Instincts

Here are the real factors to focus on to determine the trustworthy people in your life.

october 2015 trust instinctsMichael Cogliantry/Getty ImagesResidents of Gulfport, Mississippi, will never forget August 29, 2005. Hurricane Katrina battered their city with 16 hours of winds and ocean surges that exceeded 28 feet.

After the storm calmed, residents set their sights on rebuilding. But with electricity unlikely to be restored soon, access to money was frozen. Whether you had $100 or $100,000 in the bank didn’t matter; you couldn’t get to it.

The CEOs of Hancock Bank, a local financial institution, made a surprising decision. They would jump-start commerce using a basic strategy: trust. Hancock’s leaders decided to trust that people whom they allowed to withdraw money would pay it back. Bank employees set up folding tables around the community and gave up to $200 to anyone who wrote his or her name, address, and Social Security number on a scrap of paper. Hancock released more than $40 million, and all but $200,000—about one half of 1 percent of the amount distributed—was returned. Hancock gained thousands of customers and increased its assets by more than 20 percent.

From contracts with banks and marital vows to daily interactions with our family, friends, and colleagues, trust pervades almost every aspect of our lives. We think we know what trust means (keeping your word) and looks like (beware shifty eyes), but after conducting and reading hundreds of studies, I’ve observed that it’s much more nuanced than you think, and many of our longtime assumptions can be way off. Consider these principles to avoid being vulnerable and make smarter decisions.

Trust is important. So we conducted a survey to find out which brands American’s trust the most. Meet the heroes of the Trusted League, these are the most trusted brands in America.

1. Watch Out for Power Plays

We like to think we can predict trustworthiness on the basis of reputation, but decades of research show it’s not the case. People are shocked by this. They’ll note that their uncle Ben has always been honest or, on the other hand, is someone you wouldn’t trust with your money. If this is true, it’s because our lives usually don’t change much from day to day. But if monetary rewards are tempting enough or if a change in status makes you more powerful, your trustworthiness is susceptible—no matter who you are.

Dana Carney of the Haas School of Business in Berkeley, California, has demonstrated that increases in power make people better liars. Participants played roles in a fake business. “Bosses” had bigger offices than “workers,” got to assign workers salaries, and so forth. Half of participants (both “bosses” and “workers”) were instructed to steal a $100 bill. Those told to steal could keep the money if they could convince the experiment runner that they didn’t take it. (That person didn’t know who was assigned to steal and who wasn’t.)

Thieves with little power—the “workers”—were more often pegged as deceitful than the high-powered “boss” thieves. A slight change in status empowered the “bosses” to be self-serving liars.

Consider the impact of larger, longer-lasting changes in money or power. If your spouse lands a big client or a childhood pal comes into family money, it could affect how each person treats you. With increasing money and power comes the belief that you don’t depend as much on others; as a result, it becomes easier to treat people unfairly.

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But before you judge the rich too quickly, realize that you don’t have to land a big raise to be corrupted a little. Simply being in close proximity to money—say, at a casino—can increase dishonesty, research shows. Being physically close to cash makes you feel as if you have plenty of resources, which can make you favor short-term, self-centered behaviors (making big bets at the craps table) while ignoring repercussions (risking savings for your kitchen renovation).

To demonstrate this, Harvard economist Francesca Gino had study participants self-grade a work sheet, then take earnings from a pile of cash on a nearby table. (They were told to take $3 for each correct answer—the study ran on the honor system.) For one group, a few hundred dollars sat on the table; for the other, more than $7,000. Guess who cheated more. As Gino predicted, the presence of the extra cash increased cheating in the latter group.

 

2. Listen to Your Intuition

There’s a long history in psychology of believing that specific expressions or gestures provide unambiguous cues about a person’s motivations or feelings. A smile means someone likes you. A furrowed brow means a person is angry. But we now know that isolated gestures and expressions aren’t reliable indicators. What’s more, overanalyzing such nonverbal behavior can get in the way of our innate trust detectors.

With a team of scientists from Cornell and MIT, I videotaped pairs of people playing a gambling game to study all the possible combinations of behaviors that might influence decisions to trust or not trust. Over several months, a small army of trained coders translated participants’ actions into entries in a database.

After much investigation, we identified a set of four individual cues that—when taken together—strongly predicted how trustworthy a person would be: crossing arms, leaning away, face touching, and hand touching. The more frequently anyone engaged in all these behaviors, the less trustworthy he or she was in the gambling game.

Here’s where intuition comes in: The more often partners showed these cues, the less trust others placed in them. Even more interesting: No one could pinpoint which specific behaviors a partner exhibited that led him or her to guess the partner would be untrustworthy—participants just “sensed” it. In other words, we’re born with an instinct to subconsciously assess these traits and determine whom to trust.

The takeaway? If we listen to our gut, we can adjust on the basis of other information if needed (e.g., a change in someone’s power status).

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