Category Archives: princeton

Interesting series of articles on trust

(photo by A Stump)

(photo by A Stump)

In the current issue of “Greater Good” magazine, Pamela Paxton (sociology, Ohio State) and Jeremy Adam Smith have a cover story “America’s Trust Fall” about the declines over the last generation in social trust and trust in American institutions.  It’s a good overview of this topic.

But the issue also addresses other related issues of trust.

1.In Faces We Trust describes research of Alexander Todorov (psychology, Princeton) and colleagues showing how important gut instincts our to our trust judgments and to political decisions.

In one 2006 experiment, they gave participants small amounts of time—100 milliseconds, 500 milliseconds, and 1 second—to judge if a face was trustworthy. The researchers discovered that decisions made after 100 milliseconds were highly consistent with decisions made with longer time constraints, suggesting that …beyond those first 100 milliseconds, additional time for reflection doesn’t appear to change first impressions….

Follow-up research in 2007 tested whether these gut reactions had implications for politics.  They showed experimental participants pictures of the winner and runner-up of various Senate and gubernatorial races that participants were unfamiliar with and asked, “Who is more competent?”

After only 100 milliseconds of exposure to the faces, participants chose the winning candidate for about 72 percent of the Senate races and 69 percent of the gubernatorial races. In other words, gut instincts were highly consistent with actual votes cast after many months of supposedly rational deliberation.

Similarly, a 2006 experiment by economists Daniel Benjamin and Jesse Shapiro revealed that people were remarkably able to determine the election outcome from watching silent 10-second clips of political debates.   Ironically, experimental subjects were less likely to be able to predict the election outcome if they listened to the sound since it seemed to interfere with their gut instincts.

Researchers posit that these gut reactions and “thin slices” of information have deep evolutionary roots. “Neuroimaging studies reveal that trust evaluations involve the amygdala, a brain region responsible for tracking potential harm—something that probably came in handy on the prehistoric African savanna, where judging trustworthiness in a split second could well mean the difference between life and death.”

While these snap judgments appear to anchor our initial decision, experiments have shown that we engage in a series of internal subconscious arguments between rational thought and these gut feelings and that subsequent data can overcome our initial biases.

2. Brain Trust discusses what researchers know about the trust process from monitoring our brains.  They discuss experiments that show that we often do not behave in self-maximizing ways out of a sense of trust or fairness.

“Familiarity breeds trust—players tend to trust each other more with each new game. So does introducing punishments for untrustworthy behavior, or even just reminding players of their obligations to each other.”

“These studies have demonstrated the strength of human trust, and that humans are truly worthy of this trust from one another. They have also improved our understanding of the social factors that determine trust. But two important questions remain: Is trust truly a biologically based part of human nature, and if so, what is it in the brain that makes humans trust each other?”

The article discusses evidence that oxyocin “greases the wheels of trust” but only when humans are facing other humans, not when they are playing against computers.

3. In Can I Trust You? psychologist Paul Ekman (a pioneer in determining who is lying from facial cues) converses with his daughter Eve. He discusses how an expert on lying, deception, and truthfulness tries to foster trust and trustworthiness in his daughter, why it is important, and what it takes.

He notes that he tried to avoid putting her in a position where she would lie, but instead asked leading questions encouraging her to disclose (e.g., “”Is there something on your mind? Is there something you want to talk about?” or “What happened the other night? I heard you come in late.”)

He notes the difficult role of a parent:

[Y]ou have to keep moving backwards. When parents start out, they are completely responsible for their child, who is totally helpless. As that child grows, you have to roll back, you have to grant control; otherwise, your child can’t grow. You have to be able to live with the fact that as you grant the child more autonomy, they will get into all sorts of trouble. But you ultimately have to leave it up to them.

He notes the importance of not simply trying to rely on the authority inherent in the parental role, but explaining the basis for actions and appealing to higher moral principles.  And he urges parents to avoid “destructive compassion”: when you are so worried about your child that you over–control them and damage them.  He tried to set an example by never lying in his own life, and tried to make clear that disclosure about trouble that the kids got into was part of their responsibility.  Making obligations clear was important.  His wisdom is summarized in Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness.

4. Psychologist Joshua Coleman describes how to reinstill trust in romantic relationships of couples who have had a falling out in Surviving Betrayal.


Would I lie to you? (Engineering trust with your face)

Spurred by the ever-more-bizarre case of impostor Clark Rockefeller, the Boston Globe featured a very interesting story on Aug. 17 on how con-men engineer trust.

The article talks about how mimicking the speaker’s movements creates trust (even when the speaker is unaware of this mimicking), how minutely small bonds between individuals (like claiming that you used the same amount of paint in a recent paint job) makes one’s recommendations in a paint store be taken more seriously, and how MIT-researchers have been able to use sociometers (measuring the intonation of one’s voice, distance away, which way one was facing, etc.) to be able to predict which business pitches people would find persuasive or not.

Some of the most interesting research is on facial features (which brings to mind a very interesting story a while back by Malcolm Gladwell called “The Naked Face“).

Author Bennett notes that things as small as the slope of the eyebrow or the thickness of the chin send signals about whether they are to be trusted. “According to recent work by Nikolaas Oosterhof and Alexander Todorov of Princeton’s psychology department, we form our first opinions of someone’s trustworthiness through a quick physiognomic snapshot. By studying people’s reactions to a range of artificially-generated faces, Oosterhof and Todorov were able to identify a set of features that seemed to engender trust. Working from those findings, they were able to create a continuum: faces with high inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones struck people as trustworthy, faces with low inner eyebrows and shallow cheekbones untrustworthy.

“In a paper published in June, they suggested that our unconscious bias is a byproduct of more adaptive instincts: the features that make a face strike us as trustworthy, if exaggerated, make a face look happy – with arching inner eyebrows and upturned mouths – and an exaggerated untrustworthy face looks angry – with a furrowed brow and frown. In this argument, people with trustworthy faces simply have, by the luck of the genetic draw, faces that look a little more cheerful to us.

“Just as in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously – and as a result, Oosterhof and Todorov point out, we can severely and immediately misjudge people. In reality, of course, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc have no relationship with honesty.”

It appears that for evolutionary purposes, it was important to be able to make relatively rapid judgments of whom could be trusted. It seems weird that over millennia, genes wouldn’t have had a hereditary advantage that came up with better heuristics for assessing trust than this one commonly used (if it had no relationship with honesty). Then again, it may be that facial expressions in concert with other signals from the speaker (tone, style, affect, excitement, sweat, etc.) were actually relatively good proxies for truth-telling. For sure those who weren’t very good at judging who was going to stab them in the back, generally didn’t live long enough to be able to pass on their genes.

Read the whole interesting article “Confidence Game” (Boston Globe, 8/17/08 by Drake Bennett)