Whether to trust or not trust someone is a recurring dilemma in our lives. One of the fundamental lessons of The Truth About Trust, a new book from psychologist and researcher David DeSteno, is that there are no easy answers. One might think that the integrity of another person might be a deciding factor, but what about competence? We are obviously only going to trust a doctor if we feel he or she has both. And how do we judge such factors? Research shows, DeSteno writes, that we are not necessarily very good at judging the integrity of others.
The Unexpected Factor
One of the earliest of the many academic experiments that pack this book reveals the surprising complexity of why we might trust people. The experiment was designed to show whether someone trusts a person they are partnered with. The results showed, not surprisingly, that when the partner had previously helped the other person — by recovering lost documents on a computer, for example — the other person was more likely to trust the partner. This result falls into the easy assumptions one might make about trust: The Good Samaritan partner, after all, demonstrated his integrity. However, the results also showed that grateful participants also trust their partners more even if the partners were not the ones who helped them. In other words, simply being in a state of gratefulness — that someone had come to your rescue — will make you more ready to trust people … anyone.
The Truth About Trust reveals the full complexity of trust, which encompasses biological instincts, societal guidelines, unconscious emotions, conscious calculations of self-interest and more. DeSteno’s crystal-clear writing in explaining the research and its implications makes this a fascinating read, helped along by the short lists at the end of each chapter that summarize the learnings of the chapter. For example, he brings his first chapter into focus with these insights:
1. The competing elements in trustworthiness are not good and evil, but short and long term. Being untrustworthy can bring short-term benefits but long-term pain, and the choice is not easy.
2. Reputation is overrated: Everyone cheats.
3. Trusting others is always better on average, which doesn’t mean a whole lot if you lose your life savings to a con man.
4. Competence is as important as integrity.
5. If you think you can trust yourself, think again.
Rules for The Trust Machinery
Every chapter is rich in detailed research and revealing insights that, in the end, help us understand what DeSteno calls our “trust machinery.” To effectively operate this trust machinery requires following some important rules. First, he writes, “trust is risky, but necessary, useful and even powerful.” Our minds are constantly weighing the risks and benefits of trustworthiness, although DeSteno emphasizes that our ethical principles may sometimes require us to override our instincts.
The second rule is that we must remember that trust permeates every area of our life from the moment we are born. It’s not just about the big contract or the wedding vow. A third rule is that reputation is situational, meaning that past behavior is not a good measure of trustworthiness. Rule number four is to pay attention to your intuitions. Don’t follow them blindly, DeSteno writes, but don’t ignore them in favor of simplistic and misleading signals (e.g., the averted gaze).
A fifth rule is to allow some “bumps in the road” — to keep a trusting relationship alive even though there might have been a slip, perhaps unintentional, in trustworthiness. Finally, DeSteno warns that helicopter parents who try to shield children from all feelings of shame or guilt may in fact be hurting their ability to trust in the long run. There are inevitably, after all, success and failures in the journey.
With every chapter offering new revelations about trust — from the complexity in children’s calculations of trustworthiness to the rigorously tested and confirmed conclusion that upper-class people are to be trusted less — this brilliant addition to the trust literature is almost an anomaly: a deeply researched, learned treatise that reads like the best of novels, keeping us wondering what is going to happen next.