It’s (Mostly) Smart to Trust Your Fellow Humans

Photo: Warner Bros.

Is it smarter to be more skeptical or more trusting of the people we meet? David DeSteno, a Northeastern University psychologist who studies the nature of trust, suggested the latter in response to a question during a recent Reddit AMA:

Our default is to trust people, but it’s a weak default. The reason why is that if you have no info to go on – if it’s really a 50/50 chance to figure out whether someone is trustworthy – then the gains/losses tend to be asymmetric. If a partner was going to be untrustworthy and you decided to trust him/her, you’d lose out in that instance. But, if he/she were going to be trustworthy and you decided not to trust him/her, you’re potentially losing a relationship that would have provided many, many benefits over time. So, the aggregated gains tend to outweigh the one-time loss.

In other words, over time, the gains you get from choosing more often to trust your fellow humans tend to outweigh the rarer losses. “But tend is the operative word here,” DeSteno continued. “If this instance isn’t whether you can trust someone to feed your dog while you’re out tonight but is about investing your life savings, that one loss can be quite big. So, I tell people, trusting is better than not, but trusting wisely is best.”

But how do we learn to trust wisely? DeSteno’s research has identified some subtle movements untrustworthy people make: Look out for people who touch their face or your hands, cross their arms, or lean away. In one study, DeSteno found that people who made these slight movements were more likely to attempt to cheat their partner out of money in a game. What’s more, their partners correctly judged the shifty cheats as less trustworthy, even though they didn’t associate that assessment with their fidgety behavior. All of this suggests that these nonverbal cues may give rise to our gut feelings, which sort of brings us back to DeSteno’s point on Reddit: It’s usually best to trust other people. Unless it isn’t.