Illustrations by Anastasiya Grinenko
Your parents probably warned you not to trust strangers. And yet, when you’re investing money, leaving your car at the auto repair shop or ordering food at a restaurant, you’re relying on people you don’t know. Despite the classic childhood admonition, we all trust strangers. And we want them to trust us, too.
Trust has long posed a problem for academia. How do you observe it in a lab? In 1992, researchers created an experiment called the “investment game,” which revolutionized the field by replicating trust-based interactions. In the game, the first participant, or the sender, receives a small amount of money. The sender can choose to give some to an anonymous second person, the responder. If they do, the value of the donated currency triples (if the sender gives $10, the responder will receive $30). The responder then can-but is not obligated to-repay the sender or add a return on the investment.
What choices do senders make? It depends how trusting they are. What do responders do next? It depends on their trustworthiness. Studies confirm that, although we trust strangers, we don’t trust them equally. There are steps you can take, however, to convince others to put their faith in you.
Be empathetic. In a paper published last year, researchers from the Harvard Business School and University of Pennsylvania described sending a man to a train station in the northeastern United States. On two rainy days, he asked 65 strangers if he could borrow their cellphones. In instances where the man posed the question directly, only nine per cent of people said yes; when he prefaced his question with an apology for the weather, that number jumped to 47. Saying sorry increases people’s trust. Does that mean you should go through life taking blame for messes you didn’t make? Probably not. But University of Pennsylvania business professor Maurice Schweitzer says an unnecessary mea culpa is a good way to demonstrate empathy. “When we apologize superfluously, we’re saying, ‘I care about you. I know you’ve been through something difficult, and I’m thinking about that.’Gestures like these enhance trust, even among people you don’t know,” he says.
Take a stand. We instinctively trust judgmental people, and we’re probably right to do so. In a 2013 investment game study from the University of South Carolina, prospective receivers filled out surveys in which they were given the chance to make moral judgments. Senders could read the surveys and pick their receivers accordingly. Seventy-five per cent chose a receiver who expressed strong opinions, even in cases where the sender disagreed with the receiver’s viewpoint. And judgmental receivers returned roughly 21 per cent more of their senders’ money. People who voice definitive moral principles are more trusted and trustworthy, probably because when you criticize others, you also create and internalize standards for yourself. Brent Simpson, a University of South Carolina sociologist, says it’s best to tread lightly when judging others. Don’t be sanctimonious, but don’t shy away from ethical conversations. Most importantly, stay consistent. “There are massive social costs for those who are hypocritical with respect to the moral domain,” he says.
Don’t fake it, live it. “To cultivate impressions of trustworthiness,” says Simpson, “you have to act trustworthy when people are least likely to find out.” Researchers refer to two archetypes: egoists (who act morally only when there are material or reputational gains to be had) and altruists (who commit moral acts even when nobody is watching). We trust altruists more than egoists-only an altruist will pick up a stranger’s wallet on the street and mail it to the owner’s home.
Play a long game. When deciding whom to rely on, we look for superficial cues: symmetrical smiles, eyebrows upturned near the inside edge and racial characteristics that match our own. We’re more likely to trust people we see as attractive, a phenomenon known as the “beauty premium.” But first impressions don’t always last. University of Waterloo psychologists John G. Holmes and John K. Rempel argue that, as we get to know people, we judge them on the predictability of their actions; if all goes well, we come to understand their values, allowing for the strongest kind of trust. We all have to convince strangers to believe in us, but the highest levels of trust go to those who invest in relationships, turning strangers into friends. Familiarity and reciprocity offer a larger payoff than a beguiling smile.