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Rethinking Trust

DBR | 1호 (2008년 1월)
Despite deceit, greed, and incompetence on a previously unimaginable scale, people are still trusting too much.
For the past two decades, trust has been touted as the all-powerful lubricant that keeps the economic wheels turning and greases the right connections—all to our collective benefit. Popular business books proclaim the power and virtue of trust. Academics have enthusiastically piled up study after study showing the varied benefits of trust, especially when it is based on a clear track record, credible expertise, and prominence in the right networks.
Then along came Bernie. There was “something about this person, pedigree, and reputation that inspired trust,” mused one broker taken in by Bernard Madoff, who confessed to a $65 billion Ponzi scheme—one of the largest and most successful in history. On the surface, Madoff possessed all the bona fides—the record, the résumé, the expertise, and the social connections. But the fact that so many people, including some sophisticated financial experts and business leaders, were lulled into a false sense of security when dealing with Madoff should give us pause. Why are we so prone to trusting?
Madoff is hardly the first to pull the wool over so many eyes. What about Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and all the other corporate scandals of the past decade? Is there perhaps a problem with how we trust?
Highlights—and lowlights—in the public’s trust of business (Located at the end of this article)
I have been grappling with this question for most of my 30 years as a social psychologist, exploring both the strengths and the weaknesses of trust. In the wake of the recent massive and pervasive abuses—and with evidence of more scandals surfacing each day—I think it’s worth taking another look at why we trust so readily, why we sometimes trust poorly, and what we can do about it. In the following pages, I present the thesis that human beings are naturally predisposed to trust—it’s in our genes and our childhood learning—and by and large it’s a survival mechanism that has served our species well. That said, our willingness to trust often gets us into trouble. Moreover, we sometimes have difficulty distinguishing trustworthy people from untrustworthy ones. At a species level, that doesn’t matter very much so long as more people are trustworthy than not. At the individual level, though, it can be a real problem. To survive as individuals, we’ll have to learn to trust wisely and well. That kind of trust—I call it tempered trust—doesn’t come easily, but if you diligently ask yourself the right questions, you can develop it.
Let’s begin by looking at why we’re so prone to trust.
To Trust Is Human
It all starts with the brain. Thanks to our large brains, humans are born physically premature and highly dependent on caretakers. Because of this need, we enter the world “hardwired” to make social connections. The evidence is impressive: Within one hour of birth, a human infant will draw her head back to look into the eyes and face of the person gazing at her. Within a few more hours, the infant will orient her head in the direction of her mother’s voice. And, unbelievable as it may seem, it’s only a matter of hours before the infant can actually mimic a caretaker’s expressions. A baby’s mother, in turn, responds and mimics her child’s expression and emotions within seconds.
In short, we’re social beings from the get-go: We’re born to be engaged and to engage others, which is what trust is largely about. That has been an advantage in our struggle for survival. As social psychologist Shelley Taylor noted in her summary of the scientific evidence, “Scientists now consider the nurturant qualities of life—the parent-child bond, cooperation, and other benign social ties—to be critical attributes that drove brain development...accounting for our success as a species.” The tendency to trust made sense in our evolutionary history.
Research has shown that the brain chemistry governing our emotions also plays a role in trust. Paul Zak, a researcher on the cutting edge of the new field of neuroeconomics, has demonstrated, for instance, that oxytocin, a powerful natural chemical found in our bodies (which plays a role in a mother’s labor and milk production) can boost both trust and trustworthiness between people playing experimental trust games. (Even a squirt of oxytocin-laden nasal spray is enough to do it.) Other research has also shown how intimately oxytocin is connected with positive emotional states and the creation of social connections. It’s well documented that animals become calmer, more sedate, and less anxious when injected with oxytocin.
Trust kicks in on remarkably simple cues. We’re far more likely, for example, to trust people who are similar to us in some dimension. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this comes from a study by researcher Lisa DeBruine. She developed a clever technique for creating an image of another person that could be morphed to look more and more (or less and less) like a study participant’s face. The greater the similarity, DeBruine found, the more the participant trusted the person in the image. This tendency to trust people who resemble us may be rooted in the possibility that such people might be related to us. Other studies have shown that we like and trust people who are members of our own social group more than we like outsiders or strangers. This in-group effect is so powerful that even random assignment into small groups is sufficient to create a sense of solidarity.
As psychologist Dacher Keltner and others have shown, physical touch also has a strong connection to the experience of trust. In one experiment involving a game widely used to study decisions to trust, an experimenter made it a point, while describing the task, to ever so lightly touch the backs of individuals as they were about to play the game. People who received a quick and unobtrusive touch were more likely to cooperate with, rather than compete against, their partner. It’s no coincidence, Keltner noted, that greeting rituals throughout the world involve touching—witness the firm, all-American handshake.
So what does all this research add up to? It shows that it often doesn’t take much to tip us toward trust. People may say they don’t have a lot of trust in others, but their behavior tells a very different story. In fact, in many ways, trust is our default position; we trust routinely, reflexively, and somewhat mindlessly across a broad range of social situations. As clinical psychologist Doris Brothers succinctly put it, “Trust rarely occupies the foreground of conscious awareness. We are no more likely to ask ourselves how trusting we are at any given moment than to inquire if gravity is still keeping the planets in orbit.” I call this tendency presumptive trust to capture the idea that we approach many situations without any suspicion. Much of the time this predisposition serves us well. Unless we’ve been unfortunate enough to be victims of a major violation of trust, most of us have had years of experiences that affirm the basic trustworthiness of the people and institutions around us by the time we become adults. Things seldom go catastrophically wrong when we trust, so it’s not entirely irrational that we have a bias toward trust.
But Our Judgment Is Sometimes Poor
If it’s human to trust, perhaps it’s just as human to err. Indeed, a lot of research confirms it. Our exquisitely adapted, cue-driven brains may help us forge trust connections in the first place, but they also make us vulnerable to exploitation. In particular, our tendency to judge trustworthiness on the basis of physical similarities and other surface cues can prove disastrous when combined with the way we process information.
One tendency that skews our judgment is our proclivity to see what we want to see. Psychologists call this the confirmation bias. Because of it we pay more attention to, and overweight in importance, evidence supporting our hypotheses about the world, while downplaying or discounting discrepancies or evidence to the contrary. In one laboratory game I conducted, individuals who were primed to expect a possible abuse of trust looked more carefully for signs of untrustworthy behavior from prospective partners. In contrast, those primed with more positive social expectations paid more attention to evidence of others’ trustworthiness. Most important, individuals’ subsequent decisions about how much to trust the prospective partners were swayed by those expectations.

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